12 December 2021 - Eucharist Sermon

The Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14–end, Philippians 4:4–7, Luke 3:7–18
The Revd Philippa White, Precentor and School Chaplain

Rejoice! says Zephaniah. Rejoice and exult with all your heart.

Rejoice! says Paul. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice.

Rejoice! says the liturgy. Today is Gaudete Sunday, the lightening of Lent, the day of rejoicing.

And I say: why?

What is there to rejoice about? Given, well, everything?

I don’t know what the content of your ‘everything’ is, but I’m pretty sure that most of us can think of reasons why there is little to rejoice about. There are the things we all share, like Omicron. There are the things we share with people around the world – like climate change. There are things which might be worrying us very much, or which we might be insulated from – like the Nationality and Borders Bill currently in the Lords. There are things personal to each one of us: grief, or illness, or anxiety, or concern for people we love.

Whatever it might be, it can be hard to hear these instructions to rejoice as instructions that come from, or are aimed at, the real world. (If you are in a mood to rejoice, just come along for the ride for the moment.) And that might make us dismiss them. Easy for Zephaniah to say rejoice. He wasn’t looking at a second Christmas in a row of uncertainty. Easy for Paul to say rejoice. He wasn’t worrying about his spouse being stripped of British citizenship. Easy for two thousand years of Christian liturgy to say rejoice. Life was simpler then.

But come with me to meet Zephaniah, who lived in Israel when Josiah had just become king. True, he was blessed with good government, something that the generation ahead of him hadn’t been. But the society he lived in was collapsing because of generations of bad government: kings who loved power and property more than they loved God and God’s laws, more than they loved their people. And his instruction to rejoice is based not on what God has done – God hasn’t yet made anything any better – but on what God will do for his battered and weary people. God will bring them home.

So if we are battered and weary – we may rejoice, because God will bring us home.

And God can bring us home – given, well, everything – precisely because we are people who rejoice.

If we are battered and weary, rejoicing is an act of trust. It is a thing we are called to do: not by ignoring everything that batters us, but by noticing it, acknowledging it, and defying it. By turning our back on everything and clinging to God’s promises, deciding to rejoice anyway. And it’s that decision, that trust, that clinging to God’s promises, which puts us in the place from which God reaches down and gathers us in, brings us home.

What does that rejoicing, that trust, look like?

Paul describes it – do not worry; pray; give thanks. And do all this because the Lord is near.

Now, the trouble with what I’ve just said is that it’s basically advice for those of us who are not in a mood to rejoice: those of us who are battered and weary, for whom rejoicing takes a real act of trust. I invited those of you who are in a mood to rejoice to come along for the ride; and if that’s where we are, if what I’ve just said sounds easy, it’s not the whole of what God has for us to hear today.

Because – to coin a phrase – we aren’t all in the same boat.

And if we aren’t asking the question ‘but how can I be a person who rejoices, given everything?’, then we are further, not nearer, from being a person who truly rejoices.

I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with being happy. I mean that rejoicing is fundamentally an act of trust that defies reason. And if trusting God and rejoicing feels like an entirely reasonable response to the good things God has given us, then true rejoicing requires listening to John the Baptist too; and in particular, hearing his instruction to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Not that the good things God has given us are reasons to repent – but they can lead us to complacency. The crowds who go to see John hear him say ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’ and think to themselves ‘but he can’t mean me.’ That’s what he challenges – ‘do not begin to say to yourselves “we have Abraham for our ancestor.”’

That is, the people whom John was talking to were resting on things that had happened a long time ago, on the promises made to their ancestors. They weren’t rejoicing in those promises, they weren’t clinging to them with grim determination and costly trust – they were resting on them, because their lives were fundamentally all right. This is not wrong – when our lives are fundamentally all right we don’t need to cling to God’s promises as the only thing that can keep us upright. But if we don’t need to cling to God’s promises, our hands are free to bear other fruit – John’s fruit worthy of repentance.

John elaborates: if we have more clothes than we need, there’s someone else who doesn’t have enough. We share. If we have more food than we can eat, same deal. If our jobs give us scope for a bit of sharp practice, we resist.

In fact, to bear fruit worthy of repentance is always to resist. It’s a great act of resistance against the voices around us which tell us that what will make us happy – what we need in order to rejoice – is more and more things, more and more money, material security. It’s not true. What we need in order to rejoice is to trust, really trust, with costly faith, in God’s promises. And to get there we might need to bear fruit worthy of repentance, to give it away, and to stand empty-handed before God; so that we, too, can cling to God’s promises.

How can we rejoice, given everything?

By clinging to God’s promises.

We may have learnt this recently: during the pandemic, perhaps even just this week when faced with yet another introduction of restrictions. We may have learnt it 40 years ago when something devastating happened. We may not yet have learnt it at all. But when we do learn it; when we find ourselves battered and weary; we have God’s promises to cling to. ‘The Lord is near.’ ‘At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you… when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.’

Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Cling to God’s promises with grim determination. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.