Many an Advent hymn or carol is in a minor key, leading naturally to a sense of impending doom in some of us. That sense of impending doom can deepen if we hear the part of those hymns that speak to God’s judgment, and not His grace. Once, not so very long ago, in your grandparents’ day, the liturgy of worship, the pastor’s sermon, and the hymns all pointed to the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Even if the truth of our judgment, which, of course, speaks however softly to the reality of our deaths, is softened, and hell is rarely mentioned in any contemporary sermon, Pastors get ambushed in the hallway with complaints about the whole Advent thing being more than a bit of a downer. Worship should be uplifting; we should feel awesome when we leave the church, ready to charge to the grocery store or the deer blind. Oh, oops, Pastor, we’re actually going straight home to take our Sabbath rest. Anyway, why aren’t we singing more Christmas carols?
We all want to go from one good thing to another, like children in a candy shop bedazzled by all the sweets on display. But how shall we know what is sweet if we never ever taste what is sour? A little grapefruit juice will teach us the value of a bit of flavored crystalized sugar. Similarly, how will we know the matchless value of God’s grace or favor, if we do not touch upon, however gingerly, the realities of our deaths, God’s judgment on the content of our characters and the righteousness of our acts, and the possibility of hell?
And, so, Advent, with its songs in minor keys and unwelcome reminder that we are, all of us, inveterate sinners whose lives are sharply bounded by birth and death and subject to the judgement of the King of the universe. Advent comes to us in a culture which is constantly telling us that we deserve this or that, a new Cadillac with a big red bow tied to its roof in our driveways, a pricy drug to enhance our performance or attractiveness or simply relieve us of those pesky biological reminders of our mortality, diamonds for our ears and fingers. For at least some of us our taste for Advent is limited to our liking for blue or purple candles and sentimental candle songs for a reason; those aspects of the season seem to fit in better with our cultural surround.
But that is only because our churchly roots are increasingly at risk in a culture determined to tear them up and compost them. Otherwise we would all know that purple is the color of penitence, of grief over our sins and our less than holy characters. Blue is the color of hope, hope that the sourness we sense in ourselves can be made something sweet by the touch of One who is not only human like ourselves but divine as well.
And, so, on the third week of Advent we begin to turn our attention to the birth of the One whose life, death, and resurrection gave us all hope that we are not doomed by our own sins and death itself to hell, a place truly characterized by darkness and despair. We are to rejoice, as the day’s Scripture lessons insist, rejoice always, for “the Lord Himself is at hand.”
Though the Lord is not present yet, this week, as a newborn child. We do not see the stable and the manger this week, outside of what is sitting over against yonder wall with its odd assortment of stuffed barnyard animals. And, certainly, we do not see the holy Child, His blessed mother, and His watchful foster father. We see, instead, two emissaries from among the followers of John the Baptist, who, awaiting his probable death in Herod’s prison, wants reassurance that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. “Are You the one,” they asked when presented to Jesus, “or are we to wait for another.”
John asks the question all of Israel asks. For generations Israel has been waiting on the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, prophecy that insists a son of the house of King David will come or make his Advent and free Israel from her oppression. From this morning’s reading from the prophet Zephaniah, we hear, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.” Some assumed that the coming king would be king as David had been a king, a warrior whose armies defeated foreign oppressors. But that is not the answer Jesus gave to John’s messengers.
Jesus said in response to their impertinent question, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” That Jesus gave them an answer at all was a gift of grace. John himself acknowledged that he was not worthy to tie Jesus’ sandals. Yet, at the end of his life, worried that his ministry had come to naught, perhaps even on the edge of despair, John sent men across Judea to confront Jesus with this question. They were just a bit less impertinent than the scribes and pharisees, Christ’s adversaries almost from the beginning of His ministry.
They might also have known the answer simply from watching Jesus at His ministry over the days prior to their audience with Him. He spent His days restoring sight to the blind, healing the sick, casting out demons, and even raising from the dead the son of the widow from Nain. And this is likely exactly what John was looking for, a different version of a king, not one like Herod or even an Emperor like Caesar only righteous, but a king like the Suffering Servant of the Prophet Isaiah, who freed His people by the perfect and absolute forgiveness of their sins in His blood. It was sacrifice not military might that won Israel and all humanity who believe freedom from their killing sins and hell itself, not military might.
And, so, Advent, that time of waiting for the return of the Lamb of God, whose willingness to sacrifice His life on the cross is even now bringing about our salvation and the redemption of the whole of creation. Scripture does not tell us how John responded to the answer Jesus gave his followers, or even that he heard it. It is possible that Herod had already had him beheaded at his wife’s instigation before the two sent to question Jesus got back to him. But there is little doubt, I think, that the last of Israel’s prophets, the one to give up a life of luxury and ease to bring sinners to repentance and who exhorted that “brood of vipers” to produce fruits of righteousness, would have had issues with Jesus’ freeing His people from the grip of sin, death, and the very real possibility of hell. Jesus Himself noted in today’s reading that John did not dress himself or comport himself like a pampered aristocrat dressed in soft clothing and overfed on rich foods. Instead of putting John down after the question he asked of Jesus through his two messengers, Jesus lifted him up, calling him a prophet, and greater than all men save the Messiah himself.
So, John the Baptist, fierce in his preaching and his insistence that we honestly and fully acknowledge our sin and amend our lives so that we might produce the fruits of righteousness, making a sacrifice of our own goods and days for the benefit of the poor, the imprisoned, and the sick, would have seen this as the fulfillment of prophecy and insisted that we rejoice. Like Paul from the day’s reading from Philippians, he would proclaim, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
And, so, this third Sunday of Advent, we have lit the third candle on the Advent wreath, the candle of joy, the candle associated not only with the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy but also with Mary’s willingness to give birth to the Messiah and to raise Him at God’s request. In the Magnificat she rejoiced that God would use so humble a young woman as herself for so great a ministry. But soon enough her rejoicing would mix with mourning, as she came to understand the role her holy Child would play in the redemption of the creation and our salvation.
And, so, this third Sunday of Advent we gladly turn our attention to the joyous story of the birth of that holy child, and we do rejoice, though our rejoicing is also mixed with sorrow for it is our that sin made His sacrifice a part of God’s plan for our salvation. But it’s not just our profound regret for our sinful natures and acts that has an impact on our rejoicing. There are other things we need to unload for joy to be a real and serious part of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. St. Paul exhorts us to be reasonable, not to let our anxieties drive us but rather yield them up to God in prayer. For when we do this, hope for our future and the world’s informs us, and we receive also the peace of mind and spirit that God gives to those who know the future is in His hands. Prayer, then, should be a greater part of Advent then all the time we spend on presents, feasts, and Christmas décor. Rejoicing comes ever so much easier when God has not relieved us of our burdens but pushed us in the direction of joy.
And, so, this Advent, rejoice, rejoice now, later this evening, tomorrow, and always for the advent of the Lord is near.