20 December 2012

Sermon for Advent 3

It's been a hectic time here in Clitheroe. We returned from a visit to the States for the start of Advent, and our feet haven't really touched the ground yet - I suppose that's what the week after Christmas is for.

I got some really positive feedback from my sermon last Sunday, so I thought I'd stick the script up here. For those reading this post a long time from 2012, you need to know the immediate context... Two days before I preached the sermon, this happened in Newtown Conneticut, and it heavily influenced some of what I had to say. The readings for the day were Zephaniah 3.14-20, Philippians 4.4-7 and Luke 3.7-18. They also influenced what I had to say.

As always, apologies for the odd formatting, but this is the way I lay my sermons out to guide my delivery.

I wonder if you can think of a time where you experienced pure joy?
Or where, perhaps, you witnessed another person’s joy overflowing.
Let me tell you about one of my joyful moments...
3 years and two months ago, my wife was admitted to hospital. 

She was a few weeks away from her due date,
and the midwife had decided to send her in for tests, 

because some of the measurements seemed a bit odd.
Lets put it in seasonal language, she was
great with child, a little bit too great!

After a stressful few hours, a scan showed that the baby was fine, 
But to avoid complications,
the doctors wanted to speed things up a little bit. And they tried and tried.
Over a period of five days, they tried every trick in the book,

But that baby was not budging!

Eventually, at around midnight on a Thursday,
the medical staff recommended that a Caesarean Section
was the best option.
And an hour later I held Eleanor in my arms for the first time.

At that moment,
Surrounded by the busyness and messy chaos of an operating theatre, 

I experienced pure joy.
It was one of those moments where there are no words to express how you feel.
Where you can barely take in the significance of what’s just happened,
And where you’re so grateful that everyone is ok.

In a situation like that
The only response most of us can manage is to shed a tear.

So great is the joy of this one moment.
Our joy literally spills out – it cannot be contained!

That kind of experience is an essential part of being a healthy and happy human.
Most of us would struggle through life 

if we never even glimpsed what it is to be joyful.
The people to whom Zephaniah is talking... 
in our Old Testament reading have had their fair share of hardship.
His first two chapters are dedicated to familiar prophetic warnings
About the coming judgement of the whole world, 
And the approaching ‘day of the Lord’,
And the fact that they’ve brought it all on themselves!

Then the end of his final chapter,
which we heard this morning,
Is a glimpse of joy for his weary listeners.
It’s all about joyful restoration,
Where God will ‘take away the judgements’ against his people, 

And renew his people in his love.
Zephaniah commands his audience to
‘rejoice and exult’ at this time.
To be joyful, with God, at their restoration.

And then we have our reading from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
And it’s these words which are the root of the advent tradition 
of ‘Gaudete Sunday’, which falls today.
Gaudete is a latin word which translates as ‘rejoice’
In some churches, Gaudete Sunday is a spectacular event, 

Especially for lovers of vestments and embroidery.
The third Sunday of advent is one of two days in the year 

where the ministers will don their rose coloured vestments!
That’s right, rose – as in pink!

If you’re not into all the silk finery,
Maybe you’ve seen the pink candle in some advent wreaths... 

This marks ‘Gaudete Sunday’ in a somewhat more 'British' fashion.
But the meaning is the same.
Amidst the sombreness of our advent lectionary,
Gaudete Sunday is the day where we look forward with joyful anticipation!

The point of all this pink is to identify the joy 
which exists in this season of penitence and preparation...
That the event which we anticipate at Christmas is so joyful,
it is ok for some of that joy to break into advent.

So today is all about joy then?!
Well not quite.
Amongst all this language of joy,
Our Gospel reading this morning,
Arrests us with some of the challenging prophetic words of John the Baptist.

He challenges the people in a similar kind of way... 
as the Old Testament prophets.
He challenges them,
not only to repent,
and to prepare for judgement,
But to consider their ethical responsibilities in this life,
And the ways in which they exercise the power placed in them.

Like Zephaniah and the other prophets,
John the Baptist is not afraid of upsetting people.
Let’s face it,
it’s hardly good manners to address your audience as a brood of vipers!
But John is telling them bluntly that they are in a mess.
That, first, they need to repent,
But then, they need to live lives of repentant people,
And not rely on their heritage to see them through.

Judgement is coming.
They need to repent,
And they need to be changed by that experience.

They need to be reformed. They need to clothe the naked,
And deal more fairly in their business dealings.

And when asked if he is the Messiah,
John tells them that someone more powerful is coming. 

A Messiah who will come to judge,
To sort the wheat from the chaff,
And to burn that chaff with unquenchable fire!

You don’t get that verse on the inside of your Christmas cards do you?!

But this odd mixture of solemnity and joy, 
Of judgement and excited anticipation,
Is a feature of advent.

Dark and difficult ideas about future judgement 
sit side-by-side with the promise of a messiah 
who takes away the sins of the world.
And I suppose that reflects a reality about our experience of the world.
Dark and light often sit together.

For many families in Conneticut,
This Advent and Christmas will be the darkest time in their lives.

What happened there on Friday morning was so deeply tragic, So horribly dark...
Like the American president,
the only response most of us can manage is to shed a tear,

So great is the darkness of this one moment.
Our sorrow and grief literally spills out – it cannot be contained!

For many people,
Advent and Christmas are difficult times.
Times when they remember loved ones who have died.
Times when the light and joy of Christmas... 
...Sit next to the pain and sorrow of grief.
We need to acknowledge that this is the case, 

And especially for those families in Conneticut.

My prayer for them and for us,
As we struggle with the light and dark parts of life,
With the light and dark parts of advent,
Is that we are able to hold on to those moments of joy in our lives.

Those moments of joy and light are a foretaste for us, 
And we know that, in Christ, the light will prevail!

As we glimpse forward to Christmas Day,
I’m reminded of the prologue of John’s gospel... 

that we will hear on Christmas morning...
John puts it in simple and elegant language:
‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’
This is the joy and hope we anticipate on Gaudete Sunday. 
Jesus is the light of the world.
And though life sometimes seems far from joyful
Joy and light will not be overcome by darkness.

So as we continue our advent journey,
Let’s take a moment to look for those points of light in the darkness.

Let’s lift our heads, and remember the joy of Christmas. 
‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.’ Amen.

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