The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudate Sunday, meaning Rejoice Sunday. The sobreness of Lent is interrupted a little as the mood lifts. The candle we light on the Advent wreath is pink, not the darker purple. The readings for the day are upbeat, good news kind of readings. Rejoicing is to be done at all times, in all circumstances, not because we are trying to fool ourselves about our circumstances but because we can rely on God and his promises.
The readings were Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18 and the Canticle was taken from Isaiah 12:2-6. My reflection is given below:
We’ve been receiving more mail than usual for the last couple of weeks. I imagine that comes as no surprise to you. Even with the increased use of e-cards, there are still many Christmas cards sent by post. Christmas cards don’t account for all the increase in the amount of mail, though. Also around this time I receive more letters from charities asking me to make a donation. Obviously charitable organisations have to keep going whatever the season. With people concentrating on buying gifts for family and friends, there is a risk they will not remember to give to good causes or that they will have little money left over to do so, hence the reminders.
I suppose, like many people, I put the majority of these requests in the recycling pile. I already give regularly to several charities and can’t hope to give to them all, no matter how pressing the need. Amid the requests to feed the homeless, care for neglected donkeys and give children a good Christmas, one request really made an impact on me. It was looking for support for a poor community in Africa. It featured one family as an example which comprised a grandmother and her four grandchildren. The lady’s daughter had died giving birth to her fourth child, leaving the grandmother to bring up the children. Money had always been tight but there had been enough to save a little over six months in order to have special food at Christmas. Now that the grandmother has four children to feed, she is lucky if she can provide them with one meal a day. There is nothing left to save. What really struck me was that she said even if they all went to bed having eaten nothing that day, she gave thanks to God at the end of the day in her prayers because that is what we should do in all circumstances.
That really impressed me and led me to ask myself the question: Could I do that if my children and I had nothing to eat and we didn’t know where the next meal would come from? It’s a real challenge. That grandmother may not have much in the way of material goods but she has a strong faith to pass on to her grandchildren.
The grandmother is an example of the kind of living Paul advocates in his letter to the Philippians. ‘Do not worry about anything.’ As Jesus himself said, no one can add an hour to their life by worrying. So even if it’s a matter of food, drink or clothing – essential things – worrying is a futile occupation. Worrying robs us of our peace and reduces our capacity for action. It suggests that the God we believe in is really not the majestic and powerful creator and ruler of the universe that we claim him to be.
If we are in the midst of challenges in our life and someone says to us: ‘Don’t worry’, we are far more likely to be angry or to tell the person that they can’t possibly understand what we are going through than we are to accept their advice. However, this advice not to worry comes from Paul who was writing from prison in Rome around AD 61. He knew he could be executed at any time. If anyone had cause to worry, Paul had, but his letter is upbeat and positive. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!’ How is it possible to rejoice in the midst of troubles? Paul says because the Lord is near. He is available to listen when we bring our needs to him in prayer with thanksgiving, just as that African grandmother does.
For Paul this is not just theory but the result of lived experience. God had brought him through so many experiences safely, though not without suffering. He trusted God to act no matter how hopeless his situation looked. We can’t always be sure how God will act but we can be sure that he will act. He may completely resolve the problem we are facing; he may walk with us through it and teach us something on the way. Paul knew that in that in the midst of life’s challenges, God would give his children peace ‘which surpasses understanding’. As Francis de Sales said: ‘Do not worry what may happen tomorrow. The same loving Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield your soul from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.’
Paul didn’t just have to rely on his own experience to know how God worked. He relied on the God who was revealed through his past actions. He dared to trust God’s promises more than he feared his circumstances. The people of God had known for many years how he worked. God was known to the people as one who saved them from circumstances – from slavery in Egypt, from other nations who attacked them, even from exile once they had had time to turn again to God. Isaiah, in his psalm of thanksgiving, also looks forward to further salvation in the future. He points his people to the time when the Messiah would come to save his people. At that time with joy they would ‘draw water from the wells of salvation.’
The people held on to that hope for many years. They were watching for the arrival of the Messiah. Is there any wonder that when someone finally appeared who seemed remarkably like a prophet, people flocked to hear what he had to say and to be baptized. For many, the joyful anticipation heard in Isaiah’s writing was most definitely not present in John the Baptist’s preaching. Just look at how he addressed the crowds who came to see him: ‘You brood of vipers!’ Hardly a pleasant welcome!
John warned his listeners about what was waiting for those who didn’t take his message seriously. No longer could anyone rely on their heritage. Each person had to show by his life that he was one of God’s people. Anyone who wanted to carry on as they were would find themselves consumed by the fire of God’s judgement which would sweep through the people as a result of the coming of the Messiah, the long Promised One. The time of change was coming and it had uncomfortable implications for those who were not prepared to embrace it.
Despite this, Luke says that John’s preaching about the fire of God was a proclamation of the ‘good news’. You might think that it was just as well he didn’t bring bad news if that’s what the good news was like! However, at heart this really is good news. The God who judges is the God of mercy, love and righteousness and the God of salvation. This is no corrupt judge who can be bribed to do other than what is right. God, through the Messiah, is offering a way forward for those who choose to take it. He’s even promising the power of his own Spirit to help those who want to change. He will not only save them from their circumstances but he will save them from themselves and their behaviour. It is only those who wish to remain the same who are at risk of encountering the divine wrath.
The Christian faith is essentially practical. It’s not just a lot of pious thoughts and hot air. To those who asked, John told them to share what they had, to deal honestly in business, to be content with their lot, to avoid resorting to threatening behaviour. To his readers Paul wrote, ‘Don’t be consumed by worry and anxiety. Rejoice, rejoice! Act with gentleness towards others. Bring your needs to God with thanksgiving. Expect and accept his peace.’ This is practical, down to earth advice.
Whatever our circumstances let us ‘shout and sing for joy for great in our midst is the Holy One of Israel.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor