Sermon – 17 December 2017
Gaudete Sunday (‘Sunday of joy’)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thess 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28
I must admit I have started feeling a bit frazzled this week by Christmas preparations. Though I and all of us, I expect, can also think of plenty of things to be grateful for.
But Paul tells us, in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, to ‘Rejoice always.’ He doesn’t just say, give thanks for the good stuff. He says, give thanks in all circumstances. In the midst of poverty, broken-heartedness, captivity, imprisonment. It is hard not to see it in an over-pious, unrealistic, possibly rather glib light. Bad things happen. So how can we possibly, with any authenticity, give thanks in all circumstances?
We might think of people who make the news for responding to terrible adversity with extraordinary grace – or remember people more locally and quietly in our lives who have done that.
The point is that people who are able to give thanks in such circumstances do not do so in their own strength, hauling their way up to thankfulness from the depths of their darkness. They do it in and through God’s strength. And here, Paul gives us a clue.
“Pray without ceasing,” he says. This doesn’t mean that we should spend our lives in silence in darkened rooms or quiet churches. It means that the decision to be rooted and grounded in God, to take our strength from him, is one we must make anew day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Trusting in God gives the freedom to live in the light even when it looks as if we are in the darkness.
It is both incredibly hard and incredibly easy to do this. We will always fail and fall short, but if we make the feeblest half-turn towards this vulnerable, wounded God, whose coming we long for in this season, he meets us with his overwhelming love.
It doesn’t mean we will not suffer. Jesus will later quote some of the rich Isaiah passage we have heard this morning, [The spirit of the Lord is upon me…has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed…] and say that, in him, it has been fulfilled. He comes to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. And these are not just people “out there”.
These are me. And you. And our families. You may or may not have a deep, abiding faith, but you are still vulnerable, pulled this way and that by conflicting demands and desires, or feeling empty inside, or in thrall to addictions, or held captive by circumstance.
You may or may not be at the centre of a great suffering in your own life as you sit in this deceptively comfortable place. But you will be subject to the little, daily broken-heartednesses that go with being human.
How could Jesus bind up, proclaim liberty and release if he were to deny the existence of the suffering? It is always here. Jesus is always here. As John says, with a startling present tense, he stands among us. He is. Whatever happens. It is his presence that makes us free, and if we turn towards him we will not be able to prevent ourselves living in his light.
So, as we keep Gaudete Sunday, this is the meaning of joy: the joy about which Paul speaks is not the same as pleasure or even happiness, but it is rather the deep well of the knowledge of the love of God for which we thirst and from which we are invited to live, our constant yearning constantly quenched by the unquenchable Spirit. It is this joy which shines out of the prophets – “my whole being will exult in my God,” we hear from Isaiah.
And it also shines out of the wilderness, as we hear from John the Baptist, because, just as he shows, when we rejoice always, we testify to the joy and to the light, both by what we do and by how we are.
And that helps us – like the moving and recently returned Paddington Bear looking for the good in people even when it seems entirely absent – to recognise the light in others flowing from this incomparable truth. In our public prayers together this morning Derek is going to use parts of John Betjeman’s poem, Christmas, from 1954, with its wonderful down-to-earth festive English meditation on the incarnation, God with us, and the Eucharist through which we are fed week by week.
I was surprised and rather delighted to read a harder edged poem yesterday by the controversial journalist Rod Liddle, sharp of eye and pen, which reads like a similar reflection in a modern way on that same wonder:
Here it is – it’s called: The real meaning of Christmas
[from The Spectator, Christmas Edition]
Each Boxing Day my mother would take out her pen and pad,
And estimate the cost price of those Christmas gifts we’d had
From relatives and family friends. And when the sum fell short
Of the monetary value for the various gifts she’d bought,
She’d write it in her ledger. Underlined in red.
So, Aunty Bertha, Mrs Bridges – to my mum, they were now dead.
‘A pair of socks for twenty pence! A slinky half as dear!
I’ll tell you this for nothing, son – they’re getting nowt next year.
I bought that cow some Matchmakers, not just mint, but orange too
And all I have is ankle socks – I hope she gets the flu.
This reckoning became, for me, the point of Christmastide,
A view which has not altered in the years since my mum died,
A special time of nastiness, vindictiveness and greed,
And of pigging out on turkey until your insides bleed,
The punch-ups outside Argos in the sales which never end,
those saccharine injunctions from John Lewis that we must spend
On vacuous appurtenances – a bright green reindeer cardie!
And the Channel 4 Christmas address by some deranged jihadi,
The drivel on the telly. Fake bonhomie, fake cheer,
Fake love, fake compassion – and those two words you scarcely hear,
Absent from our winterval lest someone takes offence –
Jesus Christ. Oh, Him! Yes – rings a bell. In some half-forgotten sense.
And yet as I grow older I can now discern a reason,
For this strange, misshapen jamboree we call the ‘festive season’.
For month by month and without fail, we give it our best shot –
Then Christmas-time reveals to us everything we’re not.
Everything we could be – should be – but always fall short,
In our frailties and our failures. That’s the lesson, yearly taught.
And as the snowman slowly deliquesces on the lawn,
The cattle still are lowing, the snail is on the thorn,
We are not yet forsaken: somehow from up above, He watches…
…amused, appalled, distraught – who knows?
Yet still we have his love.
This is the good news proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah and lived out through our gospel stories.
Still we have God’s love. God’s gift in Jesus. And we don’t have to earn it. Can’t earn it. Just recognise it and respond to it. John the Baptist, who we especially celebrate today among those who prepared the way for Jesus, is firm but humble:
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
Whatever our calling, our giving thanks has no need to be born of circumstance: it flows out of us in response to the grace and light of God flowing in to us, in an unstoppable stream, because we have turned towards him with open hands.
They may be the open hands of love, or of supplication, or of desperation, or of agony or pleading or anger or bewilderment. They may be the open hands of falling short. Of knowing our inadequacy. Of doubting. Of not knowing how to pray. All they need to be is open. This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us: that we should let ourselves be loved by him in all circumstances. And so it is that we are enabled to give thanks in all circumstances, and to be free to be ourselves.
So, however this day finds us – in the light of Jesus which we wait and watch for through these darkest days of the year, may we rejoice always, and pray without ceasing. Amen.
James Percival, Team Rector