Sermon for High Mass – Advent 3 Sunday 11 December 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Isaiah 35.1 [Authorised Version]
The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.
The Old Testament describes the human heart as “a parched desert”. Much modern life can be like walking through a desert. No map, no direction; self-sufficient, yet not satisfied by the lives we lead. Jesus says, What do you go into the wilderness to find? At this season we hope for some prophet figure, a messenger from God; we look for signs, direction. The messenger in today’s Gospel was John the Baptist. We are restless because it’s the way God made us. This desert life, this wilderness wandering is good, even when it gets painful, because it sends us in the right direction, it motivates us to seek knowledge and beauty, and absolute love. This is how we are. Our aspirations have no limits; we want nothing less than God. God alone is worthy of our soul’s aspiration.
Here is both danger and opportunity, and in Advent we prepare ourselves for this. The danger is that we shall turn away from the desert, towards a superficial life in which nothing is explored. The seeking just stops. The opportunity is that we have, in our Christian tradition, the method – or the way – the way of holiness – to make the necessary journey within, to a solitude which is no longer loneliness because God becomes our life itself. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as a rose …. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water; in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes.” Except you didn’t hear that today, because all the modern translators replace the habitation of dragons by a haunt of jackals, and the rose is replaced by the crocus. Today I’m sticking with the dragons and the rose.
The rose-pinkness of today cannot have escaped your attention. There are four Sundays of Advent, and the colour for Advent is a deep purple, a solemn, imperial and penitential colour. But on the Third Sunday of Advent, today, we go for rose pink, pink vestments, pink candle, pink altar frontal. It is Gaudete Sunday, rejoice Sunday, which takes its name from the first words of the introit to the service, Rejoice in the Lord always. And we’ve always seen this Sunday as a break in the penitential season. What penitential season? Do we deserve a break? We haven’t exactly got our shoulder to the wheel here. We’re listening to Haydn and looking forward to lunch. But this break in the colour spectrum, from purple to pink and back again, reminds us of two things. First, that we should, or could, take Advent into our lives with much more seriousness, there should be time for a deep rethink about the direction of our lives as we prepare to welcome Jesus again into our consciousness, into the way we live. Secondly the rose pink touch reminds us that solemn doesn’t mean dull, and seriousness does not exclude joy, indeed a fierce joy is at the centre of Isaiah’s insight. The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy [Is. 35.10].
Gaudete Sunday is about the way God comes to us in our restlessness. Beneath the solemn appearance of Advent, beneath the surface soil of the wilderness, that place of threat in the Bible, that place of dragons, there is the rose – that desert rose, which indeed is a crocus-like flower spreading over the landscape – pushing up through the surface, joy breaking through, the new life which will not be denied – God’s life in you – God’s birth in you – however unpromising your landscape, your desert, God’s purpose will be fulfilled in you, his promise of eternal life will be kept. Joy – to be joy – is always surprising. Our restlessness is not rootlessness; our lives can have purpose, direction and meaning. How vital it is then for us not to slip back into old superficial ways of existence, but to join with God in the cultivation of the desert, in the flourishing of Christ’s kingdom there, not just letting things happen, but watching what we do, acting reflectively. The eyes of the blind shall be opened. Be patient … until the coming of the Lord, says St James in today’s epistle. We are the cultivators who wait for the precious fruit of the earth, watching through the early and late rains.
So what happens to us in Advent? We discover the direction in which our life is to go. A highway shall be there, and a way and it shall be called the way of holiness. In many ways, of course, nothing changes. We’re just the same. Loneliness comes and goes. Sometimes we are governed by compulsion, sometimes we have a taste of divine freedom. Life is never simple, never straightforward. But one thing has changed, or will change, for us. On this rose pink Sunday we can say to those of a fearful heart, fear not. What will change is the way we see our life and the lives of others. It is no longer about us and how we are doing. It’s about the one who calls, the one who promises to come among us, and our joy at his appearing. What we are to be given is his life, the life of the one who died for us. This is a life we share with all others. So our restlessness is dissipated, and our world is changed. Thy kingdom come. As Isaiah told us all those years ago: The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.