Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent ('Gaudete')
16th Dec 2018
The Third Sunday of Advent 2018
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year C)
In today’s gospel we once again meet John the Baptist. John is invariably defined by what he is not: he is not the light; he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. He is unworthy to tie the sandal of one coming after him. While he baptizes with water, the one he proclaims will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And he knows who this person is, for he is standing right there among the priests and Levites sent to question him; and the priests and Levites do not recognize him. The English court composer Orlando Gibbons composed a breathtakingly beautiful piece entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ which pictures John in a series of questions about his identity, most of them answered in the negative. And the emphasis on the negative identity of John alongside his passionate avowal of ‘The One Who is to Come’ serves to make his prophecy suspenseful and telling.
But John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from his 'being not' what Jesus is, his prophecy is passionate and embodied. The man and the prophecy are one. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am one the voice of one crying in the wilderness’. No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John has.
And in acknowledging that he stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, he links us to the prophecies of our first reading today, that joyous vision of the good news of deliverance. The whole passage overflows with joy at the vision is of a just king who frees the oppressed, comforts those who mourn, repairs ruination, and hates all the sin and wrongdoing which disfigure the world; a God who makes an everlasting covenant with his people, and promises them that they are the people whom the Lord has blessed. This is John's task as a witness, to proclaim, to testify to, this glorious message: the time has come, the time is now, the Messiah is amongst you. And this note of joy or rejoicing is so apt for today, as the wearing of this pink vestment signifies a rejoicing in the midst of the glorious solemnity of the Advent season. The Latin word gaudete is one which signifies rejoicing.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice? We rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness here at Holy Cross Church. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones whom Jesus called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence. The Church’s essential character is bound up in its living tradition, in which the love of God is its meaning.
This tradition is not to be bargained away or undermined by the recourse to the secular mentality or the so-called ‘new atheism’. This is a buying of conveniences and does not address us as free and fallible human beings. It is because everything belongs to the lowest or median human common denominator. It is a joyless, controlling dictat, what Pope Emeritus Benedict has called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ in which everything except God is addressed and there is no message addressed to us in the deepest part of our being.
In this church a cause for rejoicing lies in the many people who come here to visit, and that moment at which they find themselves in awe of what they see. This building has real drawing power and helps us to envisage God and to anticipate, as John did, God’s presence as a close and distinct reality, conveyed in the architecture of pillars, arches, steps and the play of light and shadow, the glint of gold, and then the feeling that this is no ordinary place but filled with prayer and a sense of what is called ‘the numinous’; filled with an indefinable spiritual quality. Remember that John came as a witness to this same light. This then proves to be a place where time spent in prayer here, in often an almost empty building, proves to be one in which God is regularly found and known. But equally John the Baptist sounds in Advent the note of coming judgement, and that it is right for us to call for ‘a church turned inside out’ and onto the community we serve in our mission plan.
John the Baptist gifts us the entire Christian perspective. He is the one who proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but something which is with us in the here and now. It is a life to be lived in all its various shades and shadows, lights and glories.
This is gaudete; this is our joy. That we have found God in the Church and that he was and is and will remain for us, our true life’s meaning and its ultimate worth, our freedom and our hope.