Sermon preached at Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, on Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent by Wim Kuiper, a Westcott Ordinand from the diocese of Europe.
Today, the third Sunday of Advent is in the church known as Gaudete Sunday, Sunday of Joy. The name is taken from a Bible verse that says ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’.
It is now slightly more than a week ago, that I attended a service in Michaelhouse, called ‘Blue Christmas’. I don’t know if you have heard of this expression. You may have heard the so called ‘Blue Monday’, a name given to a day in January, that is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. At the Blue Christmas service we sang carols in a jazzy style and we thought of the losses and failures, that we bring into this Christmas season. It is good to remind us in the middle of this supposedly joyous time of the year, of the fact that for most, if not for all of us, Christmas also has in some way a bit of a dark edge. It may be a time when we miss loved ones who are no longer among us. Or we may miss people who are in hospital, or prison, or in a faraway place. And also a time when tensions and animosities within families and between friends can press upon us. Or when loneliness is more intensely felt, even in the company of others.
Nevertheless today we emphasize the joy in the middle of Advent and we say to each other ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’! From blue or purple, to rose or pink, made visible in the bright candle in the Advent wreath, that shines today for the first time. And we are invited to follow the example of the children, as they experience with joy the lights in the Christmas tree, the Christingles, the nativity play and of course the expectation and receiving of presents. We may be inspired to awaken that joyful child hidden within ourselves, which is supposed to be a very healthy thing to do from time to time.
But for adults, there will always be a more mature kind of joy. A joy that is mingled with the hardships of life. The bitter and the sweet, kissing each other. The tears turning into laughter, turning into tears again. Tears that in the end will we wiped away, as we rightly hope and expect.
The Christmas message is all about this turning from the one into the other. In the words of the prophet Isiah we have just heard:
There will be streams of water in the desert, so that it shall rejoice and blossom. The blind shall see, deaf shall hear, the lame shall leap like a deer. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away and everlasting joy will be upon their heads.
And this is also the story of Elisabeth and Zacharias. The pain of not having a child, became at old age the wonder and great joy of the birth of this little baby-boy. And Zacharias who had gone through the agony of losing his speech, is suddenly able to speak again. And the first word he says is the name of the child ‘John’, which means ‘The Lord is gracious’.
It is literally as Isiah has foretold: ‘The tongue of the speechless will sing for joy.’
And so Zacharias, filled with the Holy Spirit, gives us this beautiful poetry:
‘By the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
And this brings us the core message of Christmas. In the midst of darkness and the shadow of death, the light of Christ reaches us from on high. Light of a tender and merciful God, who came to live in our midst, born as a baby, called Jesus, which means ‘the Lord saves’.
Jesus Christ shared our darkness and even our death, to conquer it. He shows us how we can follow him into the way of peace and joy. And he promises to be with us always, in darkness and in light, until the end of times.
And of course we know that all is not well yet, in our world, and in our lives. But we may live with the expectation that, in the end, there will be everlasting joy on our heads as well. And there are glimpses of this world to come, of the kingdom of God, all around us. To be seen in this time of Advent. We may feel the joy as we watch the children with their joyful eyes. As we meet each other at our homes celebrating Christmas. And as we come to church to hear the music, beautiful this afternoon thanks to our choir and organist, as we sing the carols and listen to the words of comfort and joy, and as we meet our Lord in prayer and at his table in bread and wine.
May this time of the year inspire us to walk with joy on that blessed highway through the desert, following Him, who is our Lord and Saviour!