The third Sunday in Advent has often in the history of the Church been known as Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” is the Latin for “rejoice.” The second reading for this Sunday focuses us on rejoicing.
“Rejoice at all times,” Paul urges the Christians at Thessalonica. That urging is directed to us as well. But how dare we rejoice in such difficult times? The Covid case numbers and death toll continue to mount. Not only are medical facilities in some places simply overwhelmed with bodies, but care centers lose track of the dying. And funeral homes require additional storage to manage the new clients. Rejoicing in the midst of this seems tone-deaf at best and callous to the core at worst.
“Rejoice at all times.” Food insecurity grows by the minute. Unemployment payments will cease momentarily. Businesses board up, some never to re-open. Racist, xenophobic, and psychopathic policies still unfold. Climate havoc and disaster continue apace, hardly noticed amid the churn of all the other troubles. Rejoicing in the midst of this seems frivolous at best and criminally cruel at worst.
“Rejoice at all times.” We have not yet touched the personal pains and specific suffering below the horizon of public peril. The anxieties of the moment reduce our defenses and denials, and the troubles of the moment surge to the surface of our thoughts. Rejoicing in the midst of this seems impossible at best and at worst.
Of course, I may think that no one has ever had it worse than me, but that is self-serving nonsense. A fine preacher in northeastern Iowa recently reminded me, for example, of the story of Pastor Martin Rinker – faithfully serving in the midst of the Thirty Years’ war, plague, famine, and the loss of spouse, children, and other family and friends. Rinker is reported to have officiated at as many as fifty funerals a day at the height of the cataclysm. It has been this bad and worse many times.
Of course, I didn’t live in those times. The Christians at Thessalonica grappled with their grief and fear, and I grapple with mine. Martin Rinker was pastor in his time, and I am pastor in mine. It is in the midst of the disruption, dislocation, and disaster here and now that the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is proclaimed. It is in the midst of the sin and sorrow, the “thorns that infest the ground” that we sing “Joy to the world!” We can do that, not because of some great courage or conviction on our part but rather because “The one who calls you is faithful…”
“With the sound of the trumpet ringing in their ears,” writes Lucy Lind Hogan in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “and the vision of Christ returning to lead their loved ones home, Paul turns to words of exhortation and encouragement. If we are confident in the news that there will be a second coming, the question remains,” she notes, “how are we who are alive to live our lives in the light of that knowledge and certainty?”
We are, according to Paul, to live in the disciplines of Advent. This season of the church year is hardly an exercise in delaying Christmas because our foolish commercial culture can’t wait a second longer than necessary to enter the season of year-end survival (although it is that). Advent is a season for re-learning and practicing the disciplines necessary for living and loving, striving and serving, between the first and second comings of our Lord.
Whenever he returns, we have time between now and then. So, we are called to in positive terms rejoice, to pray, to give thanks. This is what is best for us in Christ Jesus. And we are called to resist the forces that would threaten us – to not turn down the living presence of Divine Holiness in our hearts, to not disdain new words from the Lord (when subject to appropriate testing), to not be dragged into the multifarious evils on offer from the world.
We can trust that God will keep us sound, without blemish, and at peace in the midst of this good work. If the good news were simply up to us, something we worked to put together, rejoicing would be foolish and cruel. But the good news comes to us from God as a gift in the midst of the grieving, as light in the midst of the darkness. That gift will keep us whole in the end.
I expect that many congregations will sing Isaac Watts’ great hymn, “Joy to the World,” this Sunday. I always find it surprising to remember that Watts did not intend this to be a Christmas hymn, or even a hymn at all. The lyrics are a poetic rendition of Psalm 98 with a New Testament twist. The focus is not on the first advent of Christ but rather on the final advent, the Second Coming.
The fact that it has become a prototypical Christmas (well, Advent) hymn reminds us of the intimate connection between the Advents. And it reminds us to live in joy in that between time. Verse three is especially poignant and pointed in our historic moment.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make his blessings flow Far as the curse is found…
Resources and References
Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (p. 14). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.