Sermon for THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT Sunday 16 December 2012
This is a rose pink chasuble. It’s very old, designed by Sir Ninian Comper who did much of the later work in this church, and it’s worn only a few times a year, so it will never wear out. Why rose-pink today? We have two really serious seasons in the Church, Advent and Lent, and we’re in Advent. They are what are called penitential seasons, times for amendment of life, changing the way we live. One of the disciplines to achieve this used to be fasting, less food, less drink. This could be quite harsh to the system, particularly in monasteries where there wasn’t a lot to eat anyway, so in each of the two seasons, one Sunday was set aside when these rules could be relaxed, the Advent sunday was called Gaudete Sunday, meaning rejoice or Refreshment Sunday, the Lent Sunday was called Laetare Sunday, rejoice Sunday or refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday. Are you with me so far? Today is Gaudete Sunday, and we mark it by being in the rose-pink. Rose-pink does not indicate frivolity; it indicates a lightness of touch, our human weakness, within a divine process or season of the utmost seriousness, the arrival of God in our lives at last. The trouble is, I don’t know many people who fast in Advent. And that’s the problem. Advent disappears in the Christmas rush. By anticipating Christmas we miss so much in this rich season of purple and pink, and we miss, above all, the call to repentance by John the Baptist. The only way to have a good Advent, I find, is to ignore Christmas until Christmas comes. Our spiritual lives, like the Church’s year, begin with the Advent experience, we learn to live in an Advent way. Advent is more than a season, it’s a way of living, a way of living open to everybody, a way of living expecting the Truth to become clear, looking out for God. The message of Advent is as fresh and radical as it always has been. God is drawing closer to us and drawing us closer to Himself, and to our surprise it’s our weakness, not our strengths, which makes room for Him. So we learn to watch and wait, with patience, hope and confidence. We are Advent people.
With only a week or so to go, what can we salvage from Advent? It’s too late to do much fasting. There’s a hint in St Luke’s Gospel at the end of chapter 2. The young Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and man. He had to learn too. He had to learn to walk in faith, ask questions, have doubts. We sometimes think that Jesus sprang into the world, fully charged, knowing everything, but that can’t be so, because Jesus is a human being like us. So we can be like him. We grow with him, in our self-understanding, as we study our sacred books. That’s the point. It’s personal. I think it’s a question of motive, deciding what you want to do with these ideas about God which come and go. Is God in your story, or not? Advent is a time for being singleminded, a time for austerity of motive. It is as if God, the force of God in this world, is going to make it impossible for us to remain in religious stagnation for a moment longer. We’re being given a push, to awake, to use the imagery of Advent, to be alert, watchful. Faith will grow in you, not by itself, but through a decision, your decision to act even in darkness, the darkness before the dawn, which is Advent. So we can fast, in the sense of cutting away everything that distracts us from our encounter with God in His many liknesses in this world. Then we face the same questions which Jesus had to answer for Himself: is there a God and can I trust him? Jesus answered yes, and remained faithful. We dither, but the question isn’t going to go away, and Advent is a time for intensifying our search for answers, with all the resources of sacred texts, literature, art, music, that we have, so that God becomes the priority interest in our lives. That’s a good Advent.
Today in St Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist is back. The New Testament contains two gospels, the gospel of repentance preached by John the Baptist, and the gospel of love preached by Jesus. Both gospels were radical and subversive, and both men made enemies who killed them. Of course the two gospels are inseparable. But the Christian way is that repentance, a commitment to change, comes first, and then we can hear the gospel of love; just as John the Baptist preceded Jesus. It’s interesting, all those sixties movements of peace and love, latterday hippiedom, and its modern church varieties, and the slogans: all you need is love, love is the answer, these sound great but they are never enough. Why not? Because unless there is conversion, a decision to change, not grovel, change, as the universe changes and adapts, to question ourselves and acknowledge our distance from God and why we are so distant from him, why the Kingdom is divided, what is still holding us back, unless we discover the gospel of a shared life, containing the fate of others as well as ourselves, we can not expect to be capable of the genuine love, the love that God has, which He is willing and determined to give to us. Repentance sounds off-putting, getting stuck on the long list of mistakes all of us have made in life, a life of everlasting regret and remorse, when we discover, too late, that time does not heal. It needn’t be like that. Repentance is our strategy for enlightenment; this is a gospel, good news of our redemption or transformation. As Zephaniah tells us today, “The Lord has repealed your sentence (your self-inflicted sentence); he has driven your enemies away.”The proof of this transformation, says John the Baptist, is in the fruits of a well-lived life, what we do, what we say, the times we’ve done something different, worthy of our transformed selves. We turn in God’s direction. Our waiting and watching in Advent are not passive. We hasten to meet him.
Today is Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday when we rejoice, and the theme is taken from the epistle for today, Philippians 4. Gaudete in domino semper. Rejoice in the Lord always. We can do this. In our four weeks of deep purple, with one rose-pink moment, we have become Advent people. So hear the gospel of repentance and yet rejoice, knowing that the Lord comes, as Zephaniah proclaims, to “renew us by his love”. It’s going to happen, as sure as the dawn. As you will sing today: Arise, O morning Star, Arise, and never set! And maybe, this time, just for once, we’ll be ready for Christmas.
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning