Gaudete Sunday

With apologies for the delay, here is Rev Deborah’s sermon for 12 December, the 3rd Sunday of Advent – Gaudete (Joy) Sunday. The readings that day were:

Many of you will know that I have spent a few days recently at the Hotel Christie due to a little cocktail mix of chemo, flu jab, COVID booster and a drain procedure compounded a low immune system. I am fine now!

Whilst there I was on a ward of four, each  of us at various points along the road of cancer and its treatment. Picture the scene.

  • Charlie, a 33 year old, mum with daughters of 6, 12 and 14. She had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer and 5 days later her bowel burst. She was being fed intravenously. Every time she physically ate something she brought it back up again. She was in a lot of pain.
  • Early seventies had just been diagnosed with a blood cancer rarer than mine.
  • Pam, in because her pain relief wasn’t working. Every time she moved, she was in agony. A whole range of pain relief was tried but to no avail. Nothing could be done for the cancer until the pain was sorted
  • And myself, a veteran of chemo treatment for years being treated for sepsis.

All of us were very different and yet somehow, we just clicked. Over those few days we established friendships that will be long lasting. We heard about each other’s families and friends, discussed the consultants visits – after all, we could hear every word through the curtains and help each other whenever we could. It is amazingly difficult to open a toilet door with a bag and drain in one hand and pushing IV trolley with the other hand.

One evening we sat in our beds drinking hot chocolate and talking about what make us happy, what gives us joy. It was the simple things as none of us could do the bigger things we used to do in the past. Being with family and friends, the little surprises, a person just ‘being there’ when you needed them. Those co-incidental ‘God incidents’ when a small thing makes a massive difference.

A couple of evenings before I left the four of us had a pyjama party – well perhaps that’s an over exaggeration. It was the first time we had all managed to leave our beds and, armed with blankets and pillows, walked a few metres to the day room to watch Strictly. We were supplied with hot chocolate from the nurses. When it had finished, we all trooped off to bed again. Simple pleasures!

We bought each other these characters (hold up penguin and polar bear) and called them ‘our babies.’ They sat on our beds and if we had to go out for scans or tests, the returning question was ‘have the babies been good?’ It was a talking point for the nurses and the consultants as they did their patient visits. They would suddenly stop mid flow as they noticed four sets of babies. Little things that make a difference.

So, why am I sharing this on Advent 3 when our gospel reading is about John the Baptist as he berates the crowds by calling them a ‘brood of vipers.’

Today, is not only the day when we remember John, but it is also Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete simply means rejoice. Rejoicing Sunday,

The prophets looked forward to the day of the Lord’s coming as a time of great joy. Many of them, like Zephaniah, had been through a time of widespread devastation and judgment. But even Zephaniah, who has been called one of the ‘gloomiest’ of the prophets, did not give devastation and judgment the last word. The last word was for joy because the Lord’s presence, joy because of renewal and restoration, joy because of coming home. Historically, these verses foreshadow the end of the Babylonian exile and the return to Israel to their land.

What is it that gives us joy, long lasting joy? During Advent we have cards, Christmas music in the shops, decorating trees etc and yet experience shows us that joy and peace can be elusive, especially at this time of year. Loneliness, family tensions, inflated expectations, unexpected crisis, health issues for ourselves and our loved ones, grief and national events make them seem just out of our grasp (expect in the tinsel of holiday films).

In many ways, like a group of cancer patients on a ward at the Christie, it can cause us to stop and reflect on what we are seeking when we think of joy and peace. Is it an emotional high? A state of perpetual happiness? An absence of conflict? Or do joy and peace represent hopes that have become little more than a seasonal habit?

Our second reading, from Philippians, offers us the opportunity of exploring joy and peace in a framework of faith. Joy and peace are not found so much in the emotions that they evoke, but in the attitudes, behaviour and relationships in which they are grounded.

Paul urges us to ‘rejoice in the Lord always,’ which points to a joy that is not only enduring but that also sustains us, even when we are worn down by life. It is more than a seasonal cheerfulness. It is a joy rooted in an ongoing relationship with God, built on trust, that is able to negotiate the moments of joylessness in ways that ultimately work for good.

Paul says, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone’, which is about our relationships with each other. Paul also talks about prayer. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’

Paul concludes with the promise of peace. It is a peace that pushes the limits of our imaginations, challenging us to constantly reconsider what it is that makes for peace, for whom, and how. It is also a peace that guards and protects our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. God’s peace protects us by drawing us deeper into relationship with Christ, the source of our joy.

So, how does John the Baptist’s not so sensitive sermon introduction fit into the picture of joy? The message John gives is that repentance is also the way to joy. It draws us into a relationship with God, taking away the sins that keep us captive. Metanoia, meaning to change, brings us joy. Repentance is a dynamic condition. It’s not linear. You don’t go from ‘I’m sick’ straight to ‘I’m better.’ That is one thing that I can vouch for! Holiness and spiritual health is about making good choices every day.

John the Baptist didn’t demand that they wear sackcloth and sit in ashes to express their repentance. He didn’t tell them to offer more sacrifices in the temple. He just told them to share what they have with those in need:

  • Whoever has two cloaks should share one. The same with food.
  • For tax collectors: collecting too much is occupational temptation; don’t do it.
  • Soldiers: do not falsely accuse anyone; don’t fleece people for money, be satisfied with your salary.

Practical, realistic things that people could do which would free them from the things that bound them up and bring real joy – not just for themselves but for their communities so that  justice and hope would flourish with their change of hearts, small actions that would make an enormous difference.

A professor was asked by one of his students, “What is the meaning of life?” The usual laughter followed, but the professor said, “I will answer your question.”

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished around in a leather wallet and brought out a very small round mirror.

‘When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.

I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine — in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light — truth, understanding, knowledge — is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

In the first chapter of John’s gospel we hear,

‘He was not the light but came to testify to the light.’ (John 1:8)

John the Baptist so wanted to reflect the light of Christ that he wanted himself to get out of the way. He said:

I am not ‘the Christ’ nor am I ‘the Prophet.’

He was not interested in putting the word “the” before his qualifications, i.e. “the expert,” “the boss,” “the consultant” or draw on connections, my cousin.

He described himself purely in terms of being a mirror to reflect Christ:

Joy also comes from our contributions reflecting the light of Christ in our service to others.

In the book, “The Happiness Project,”  by Gretchen Rubin, the author presents an insight into the nature of true joy. She writes ‘Generous acts strengthen the bonds of friendship, and what’s more, studies show that your happiness is often boosted more by providing support to other people than from receiving support yourself.’

We certainly get more satisfaction in helping others which is like giving a gift.

Not like the child who said to Santa, ‘Now that you’ve taken my order, can you give me a tracking number?’

A gift can break down boundaries and create a personal connection. It has social, cultural and spiritual meaning. Through gifts we define who we are to others and what our relationship to them means. By gift, I am not talking about expensive things – a gift is having the time to listen, a gift is simply being there for someone, a gift is a phone call, text or E-mail. A gift is praying for someone.

God has given us the most precious of all gifts in our salvation in Christ Jesus. He is our ultimate source of joy which we will be celebrating in a couple of weeks time – God incarnate.

True joy is deep down in the soul and does not fade. St. Teresa of Avila used to say that the presence of spiritual joy is the surest sign of the presence of God.

All of us face challenging and difficult situations, either for ourselves, for those who we love and for the world others. Our joy is not found in temporal things like these little characters, the penguin or the polar bear although as a way of reflecting the light of Christ in our service to others they made a great difference to the four members of the  ‘Whatsapp Penguin Mamas’ group that met at the Christie recently.

Our deep and everlasting joy comes from the birth of Jesus, Jesus our Saviour, God incarnate encapsulated in the song ‘Joy to the World’. As we sing together verses 1 and 3, let’s reflect on the joy that only Jesus can bring and that joy shows the wonders of his love.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
And glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love

And wonders and wonders of his love.

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