Isaiah 35:1-10 Matthew 11:2-11
Rev. Zachary L. Bay
Gaudete Sunday. The Sunday of Joy, and re-joi-cing. The Sunday on which we light the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath and en-joi-n our hearts to the joy of the season with our service of Lessons, Carols, and Candlelight and the start of our annual Live Nativity. There’s a lot going on in here today!
There are some in the world who want to make church services feel just like every other day and every other place in their life. They use words like “casual,” “comfortable,” and “safe” to describe what they are up to. The implication is that robes and stoles and Advent wreaths and litanies and old liturgies like Lessons and Carols are out-of-date and out-of-touch with the modern world. That using an old Latin name for a particular Sunday in Advent is a hindrance to the accessibility of church and faith to modern people.
Perhaps for some, that’s true. It has never been true for me. Even as a young boy, it was the largeness and the otherness of church that invited me in. While I recognize and tell folks that it takes a little time and a little paying attention to get into the rhythms of worship here, it pays off. There is something organic to the ebb and flow of our church calendar. The lull of the lean, green summer months somehow makes the energy of the light and life of Advent and Gaudete Sunday brighter and warmer. I tell folks that at First Baptist Church, we don’t worship in single discrete episodes. At First Baptist Church, we worship in seasons and years, gathered together under the seasons and years of the life of Jesus as we find it in Scripture.
The Third Sunday of Advent—Gaudete Sunday—the Sunday of Rejoicing—both recalls the prophets who cried out in the wilderness in the lean summer months, and anticipates and celebrates the nearness of the birth of a baby in a manger in Bethlehem.
The season of Advent—and all the other seasons of the church year, too—are not merely occasions to talk about Jesus and what happened 2,000 years ago. They are means by which we conform our lives to the life lived by Jesus and relive it here, in the present, in the presence of God, today.
Today, the Lectionary gifts us a story of John the Baptist—one of those prophets crying out in the wilderness. Jesus’ words in this passage are anything but “casual,” “comfortable,” and “safe.”
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Jesus begins. “A reed shaken by the wind? What did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? … “What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way for you.’”
That is a warning. A warning that change is coming. We human beings often want things to be different than they are—but don’t ask us to change! I once saw a newspaper cartoon that pictured a pastor search committee sitting across the table from a pastoral candidate. In the first frame, the search committee says, “We want new families, more money and a bigger budget, and more programs and ministries and staff in this church.” In the second frame, the candidate is shown responding. “Well, what are you willing to change about yourselves individually—your expectations, your entitlements, what you focus on?” In the third frame, the search committee is sitting stoically—one guy may even have a slight downward curl in the corner of his mouth—with a collective bubble above their heads. In that bubble is only an ellipsis. Dot…dot…dot.
If the search committee was a good one—and the cartoon doesn’t tell us either way—they offered the candidate the job on the spot!
Too often, we want change without expecting to change our own hearts and minds and actions. Too often, we want “casual,” “comfortable,” and “safe” so that we don’t have to change ourselves, but can focus all our energy instead on changing what is around us. Changing what is around us can make us feel better, but it often does not make us function better.
Jesus’ words here are not “casual,” “comfortable,” or “safe.” But neither are they belligerent, ranting, or filled with condemnation. Jesus’ words here remind me of that wonderful scene in CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. The children have made it through the back of the wardrobe into the Land of Narnia—a place where it is always winter and never Christmas. A place longing for change. And the children meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who tell them of the impending coming of a Lion—a powerful, strong Lion. Little Lucy swallows hard and asks, “Is he…is he quite safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? Heavens no, he isn’t safe! But he is good.”
That differentiation is what makes Advent and Christmastide “good news of great joy for all people.” John the Baptist—the wild man wearing camel hair with honey matted in his beard and bits of locust stuck in his teeth—is crying out in the wilderness where it is always winter and never Christmas. He is crying out: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his paths!”
That’s on us, friends. Right here [chest].
John the Baptist calls us to new and better ways of living by calling us to change our hearts—to point them toward joy and rejoicing.
This Advent season, I chose to take on a spiritual discipline of prayer. I found a podcast that leads the listener through a simple prayer of Examen. A prayer of Examen is a traditional Jesuit prayer—Pope Francis is a Jesuit—that simply calls you to notice where God shows up in your day, each day. I have prayed the prayer of Examen the early in mornings, reflecting back on the previous day. As is the discipline, I have both celebrated the good in each day this Advent, and have asked forgiveness of God for those things I’ve missed or messed up on. The net cumulative effect so far, for me, has been joy and rejoicing. I have teared up when I remembered Eleanor reaching up and touching my face as I rocked her to sleep. I have said “I’m sorry, God” for the days that I have been so busy that I forgot to look so-and-so in the eyes and listen carefully to their heart. I have smiled as I have thought about the ways in which Kristy gets me and my friends go out of their way to help me. And the new cumulative effect of this Advent discipline has been joy. And celebration.
For me—and perhaps for you, too—joy and celebration don’t just happen with me. I have to cultivate them. Nurture them. My feeble and frail humanity simply isn’t wired that way naturally. I have to work at it. And I’m still working at it.
But you know, the really really good news of the season of Advent is that it’s coming, either way. Whether you and I “prepare the way of the Lord” in our hearts or not, the Lord is coming.
That’s because the Gospel is not about how good we are—it’s about how good God is. No matter what, the baby will be born. No matter what, the Good News of the Gospel—today found in both Matthew’s announcement and in Isaiah’s vision of the very wilderness itself blooming and blossoming abundantly—the Good News is coming because of the good God who proclaims it and calls it forth.
Ten days, friends. Ten days is all that’s left till Christmas morn. The only real questions are: Will you change your heart—will you shift your weight—will you prepare your self—to notice it? To receive it?
Will you left go of your own way so as to prepare the way of the Lion who is coming—who is not “casual,” “comfortable,” or “safe”—but who is so very good? And who will breathe new life upon this old aching world?
When that comes to pass, will you be ready to breathe it in?
You have 10 days left.
God is coming soon.