I had the privilege to preach for the first time at the wonderful St Aidan’s Church, Harehills (my placement church for my theological training this year) today. Below is the text of my sermon.
The readings for Advent 3 this year were:
Sermon Gaudete Sunday – Advent 3 – 16th December 2012
Today is Gaudete Sunday – we often have a pink candle on this day in the advent wreath to represent it. Gaudete is the Latin word for ‘rejoice’ and on this Sunday the readings are all about Joy. Originally, the first word said at mass on this day was gaudete – rejoice – from that beautiful reading in Philippians where Paul tells us to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. But then the gospel reading set for today is a bit strange. Have a think about it again. Is it about joy?
Picture the scene. It’s 2000 years ago. You’re a God- fearing Jew who lives in Galilee. You’ve heard stories of a strange, wild but wise man out in the desert who is bringing some new teaching about God. He is baptising people in water. You decide, along with some friends to make the dangerous journey out into the desert to hear him for yourself, what’s this amazing new message he has? You’ve been walking for a good couple of hours and eventually you find the crowd around this man called John. He’s dressed strangely in rough camel skin and is sitting in silence under the shade of a tree. You wait for something to happen. Looking around the silent, shifting and expectant crowd you notice a few Roman soldiers, their armour glinting in the sun and even some tax collectors. You look down – not a good idea to get spotted by these men. Suddenly, John leaps to his feet, a stern look in his eye and shouts “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape what’s coming to you?” You’re taken aback. How could he be so rude? Strangely though, you want to hear more. You hang on his every word and so does everyone in the crowd. His teaching is so powerful that you wonder if he could be the messiah, God’s anointed one, the one your people have been waiting for. As soon as this thought enters your mind John says: “I baptise you with water, but one with more power than I will baptise you with fire. I’m not worthy even to undo his sandals, he is coming to reap the harvest, to separate the wheat from the chaff!”
Did you spot the joy in the story? Let’s see if we can find it.
Advent is about expectation – in our reading today it says that the crowd were full of expectation. We, in the run up to Christmas are also full of expectation. Where do you expect to find the presence of God?
John the Baptist was sent by God to point to the coming of Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel reading, Luke gives us some hints as to what the good news about the kingdom is, some ideas of what to expect the world will look like when Jesus is around.
There are 3 clues in this story. The first is in the kind of people that gather around John. Some people there are Jews – who are pretty confident that they’re God’s chosen people. Then we have two other groups that you wouldn’t expect to be there – some tax collectors – unpleasant individuals who often took more money than they were supposed to in taxes working for the Roman government. The other group are Roman soldiers from the hated occupying forces. These are the people who are attracted to John, not just religious people but other folk, foreigners and outcasts. So the first clue about the good news is that God’s kingdom is for everyone. Every week when I come to St Aidan’s I’m reminded of this fact – we have people here from many nations and backgrounds – and we’re all united by our love for Jesus.
The second clue is in John’s teaching. He tells the people to give to those who are in need and to live in an honest way in order to please God. He doesn’t, as we might expect, tell the soldiers and tax collectors to stop working for the Romans: he’s more interested in the intentions of their hearts. He uses the imagery of growing fruit. John is telling the people that it’s no good going through the motions with God – our lives are made good by the evidence we produce – by their fruit. God isn’t interested in what the world thinks looks good, He looks deep into our motivations. John’s baptism was one of repentance. The word repentance, in Greek, metanoia, means to change your mind or to turn around – to see the world in a different way. Doesn’t John’s teaching sound a lot like the teaching of Jesus?
The third clue about the good news of the kingdom is that something is coming that is even better than we expected. John says, “you think I’m exciting? Wait until you meet the one that comes after me!”
So in a desert, a dry place, a place of desolation we hear a voice bringing good news.. The wise men whose arrival we celebrate at epiphany in January went looking for a king in a sensible place – the palace in Jerusalem. Is that where they found God? No, they found a small child in a small forgotten area on the edge of Jerusalem. If we went looking for God today, would we expect to find him at Leeds Town Hall or would He surprise us by being found in a small, poor area called Harehills on the edge of the city?
Our God is a God of surprises. Here we have found God in a desert place. We don’t always find God where we expect him to be. But he is here with us, God with us, Emmanuel. This is the joy we find on gaudete Sunday.
Today we can rejoice because God’s kingdom is coming, here in the desert place, a kingdom where everyone is welcome, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female – people who worship a God who can do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine!