Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.
St. Paul, in the fourth chapter of Philippians, in St. Jerome’s great Vulgate Latin translation of the Bible, and for so many centuries in the great Churches of the West the choral Introit for this Third Advent Sunday. Gaudete. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice!
That’s where this Sunday gets its name, “Gaudete Sunday,” and the pink or, more precisely, “rose colored” candle on the wreath a sign for us of the tender blessing and joy we experience as we turn in our hearts and minds toward Bethlehem and begin to anticipate the birth of our Savior, whose name, the Prophet told us, would be Immanuel, “God with us.” In some churches it’s not only the candle, but also the paraments and hangings and vestments as well, “rose colored.” Which can be quite beautiful. As Dean reminded us last Sunday, we do a lot of “frolicking” in the observance of this season, but in this Advent what we are invited to is something less ephemeral, deeper. Joy.
Third Advent is a Sunday as well where on the stage of our imaginations Mary steps forward. The traditional antiphon for the day is from the Magnificat, and when I was reviewing the music for this morning I was very glad to see that Peter had chosen as our choral introit that lovely 16th century setting of the Angelus, the prayer of the words of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” We would pause as I’m sure many of us do often by the Nativity Window in the Transept and to see in the left panel the beautiful art-nouveaux style representation of the Annunciation by the stained glass artist Clara Miller Burd. One of the artistic and I think spiritual treasures of St. Andrew’s, and this the perfect Sunday of the year to notice and appreciate it again. Gaudete in Domino semper. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice.
In the reading from Isaiah the Prophet reaches back into the deep past and memory of the Biblical tradition to speak of the present and the future. In the Book of Leviticus and the Law and Torah revealed at Sinai there is a description of what was called the Year of Jubiliee. It’s a part of what is sometimes called the “Holiness Code.” The elaboration of ceremonies and practices that are intended to set apart Israel and give evidence of their identity as God’s Chosen People.
Central to the Holiness Code was the observance of the Sabbath. When God’s people would share with God in God’s perfect rest and Shalom. And if the Sabbath day was the seventh day, then the Sabbath year was the seventh year, and the Sabbath of Sabbath, seven times seven, 49 was set apart as a commandment of God as the Year of the Lord’s Favor. A festival year, a long sacred holiday, in which the fields were to lie fallow, in which debts were to be forgiven, indentured servants released from their bondage, prisoners set free, lands and other property given as collateral on loans returned to the original owner. A time of restoration and healing and renewal. Joy and peace, rest and celebration. The Sabbath Vision. And as this was a commandment of God for his people in the ordering of their economic and social lives, their family and political lives, so the Jubilee was a reflection of God’s deepest care for his people, a foretaste and anticipation of his intention and his blessing, at the heart of his Covenant relationship with them.
It’s not known whether a Year of Jubilee was ever in fact practiced among the ancient people of Israel, but its description in scripture was a sign for them of what God’s peace and God’s righteousness was all about. If it was aspirational in terms of how we should live with one another, it was also word of promise about what God will do. A promise Isaiah saw beginning to be fulfilled in his present moment, in the return home, after long years of refugee life in exile, in the reading this morning. A Jubilee moment. And a promise that the people would hold in their thoughts and prayers and imagination. God’s intention and promise, to be brought about in a complete way in the future, in the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed one. The word “rejoice” here too, for Gaudete Sunday:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
This is what is swirling in the background in the reading from John’s gospel this morning. God’s Sabbath, God’s Shalom. As Dean also reminded us in his sermon last Sunday, the Baptist here is at the center of these middle weeks of Advent. Last week we heard the sermon preached on the banks of the Jordan, “Repent.” A great word. I don’t know the nuances in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in Greek a wonderful word. “Metanoeite.” Translated “repent,” which is I guess a correct translation. But to unpack it. It’s not just about saying we’re sorry for something we’ve done. “Meta” means “another.” You have “physics” and then you have another kind of physics, “metaphysics.” And noeia, from the word meaning “thought” or “idea” or even “mind.” We have words like “paranoid,” which would be a thought or idea or state of mind that is disordered or separate from the right way of thinking. John the Baptist tells the people in this great imperative, “Metanoeite! It means a lot more than an expression of regret over some failure or omission or bad act, though it may include some of that. Change your mind, get a different idea, even a different state of being. Repent of the old way of being who you are, and begin to think and be something new.”
A few chapters ahead in John’s gospel Jesus gets at this idea himself when he tells Nicodemus, “you must be born again.” That’s what this word “repentance” means. To say, as we approach the Feast of the Nativity, that for him to be born, so we also must experience a new birth.
And I suppose that John’s ministry of baptism in the Jordan had a lot of associations. A reminder of the ritual washings for purification in Jewish ceremonies of the day, and of the symbolic baths that converts to Judaism would take in preparation for their reception into the community. Wash away the impurities and corruption and prepare to be made presentable, to be admitted to the holy place, where God abides. But in the Jordan also a reminder of how the Chosen People entered the promised land by crossing through that river, to become Israel, God’s people, and even a reminder of their passage through the waters of the Red Sea. To come through the water a symbolic fresh start, an amniotic journey.
What’s going on here? The question the priests and scholars ask John the Baptist this morning. What in the world do you think you are doing? Are you the one God is going to use to bring in his new kingdom, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the Year of His Favor? Are you the one? And here on this Third Advent Sunday, of course, John steps back, and points to another, the one who is about to appear.
What it takes is a new mind, a new heart, a new birth. Metanoia. Repentance. Because what God has done in Christ and what God is about to do in our lives and in our world is a new thing. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy. The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.
The exiles return home. What was taken from them is returned. What was broken is repaired. Better than new. Where there was sickness, strength and well-being. Injustice and oppression are overturned, righteousness and kindness reign over all. Wars cease, and there is a fullness of peace and prosperity.
Third Advent Sunday, and we can see it all unfolding in the days ahead. Shepherds and angels. The Manger and the Cross. The Church School was rehearsing the Children’s Pageant yesterday, getting ready for next Sunday. About the most familiar story in the world. But every year, and every day of our lives, always fresh and new. A child is born in Bethlehem. For us. God with us. Gaudete. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice!
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.