Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
13th Dec 2020
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year B) Gaudete Sunday
John 1.6-8; 19-28.
He came as a witness to speak for the light. John 1.7
In today’s gospel we again meet John the Baptist. John is for ever 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 sandals’ of the one coming after him. While he baptizes with water, the one he proclaims will baptise with the Holy Spirit. And he knows who this person is, for he (Jesus) is standing right there among the priests and Levites sent to question him; and yet 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 an interrogation about his identity which is 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 more suspenseful and powerful.
John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from the 'being not' of all the things that Jesus is, John is refreshingly certain about what he is and what he has to do. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word ‘testimony’ to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.' No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John did. And his words beckon us now.
John 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 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. John's task as a witness, is to give expression to this glorious message: and, crucially, he reminds his hearers that the time has come, and this time is now, for the Messiah is ‘even now amongst you’. This note of passionate joy is so apt for us today, as the liturgical colour pink signifies a rejoicing in the midst of the glorious solemnity of the Advent season, and for us a joy in the midst of the strain of pandemic.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice on this ‘Rejoice’ or ‘Gaudete’ Sunday? The rejoicing lies in the bigger and the smaller picture from which Advent and Christmas is viewed. The smaller one is the one which involves us all in the preparation for what is to come, the remembering to send cards to those we hold dear, the putting up of decorations and the pleasure we always get in transforming our public and domestic places with shimmering light and with the Christmas tree, and in this church each year, the altar turned inside out to make the stable scene at Bethlehem, to which we begin to focus our hearts and minds.
It’s to this Bethlehem scene that we arrive at the bigger picture - in which the birth of the Christ child happens within the great arc of universal time, and it is within the compass and the trajectory of this great holy time, that we are directed to the God who comes to the world at one singular, revealing moment in time. We are reminded in this way that our lives can only truly be seen through the eyes of God. We live in an obvious sense in our own time, even at this time of Coronavirus. But more importantly, Christians believe that our lives are regarded from the point of view of God’s time and of God’s purpose. In this way, all life may be received with thanksgiving as his gift. And his greatest gift is the gift of his Son Jesus Christ, the gift of a child.
It’s in God’s time that this church of the Holy Cross has been moving and growing. I said this at this time last year:
“In the coming year we will be restating our claim to be a church active in the service of our local community as these new opportunities for service open up. John the Baptist calls this morning for an opening up of the pathways that lead to and from God through an active willingness to make his way plain. John’s voice may be seen as one still ‘crying in the spiritual wilderness’ but it is also resonant and life giving. It is the voice in harmony with God’s voice, a voice for our time and for all time and especially for our church at this God given moment in our history”.
In and with God, the intervening time of Coronavirus does not undermine the steady hope we have in God’s promise.
May this same hope be our present and future gaudete; our joy. My friends, watch and wait, as you must do this Advent, but rejoice now because the promise to come is also being made in the active present.