Delivered Dec. 15, 2013, (Third Week of Advent) at the Hub in Sunland, Calif.
I think that the best way to give any sermon is to tell a story, and this morning I’m going to do something sketchy and tell the story of how I wrote this sermon. I’m going to begin this morning by being honest—which seems the best way to start a sermon—I’ve already confessed my love of Advent, and I’ll share a bit again what it means to me, but I thought that the pink candle was lit last. I don’t know, I just assumed: it’s the special candle, special candle for last. Not so. You may have noticed that we lit the pink one this morning; that was not a mistake. I learned as a prepared for this Sunday that today is Gaudete Sunday.
You see, each week of Advent has a focus, a character that’s part of the experience of the whole. As a whole, Advent marks the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the time where the shortness of daylight and the penetration of the cold drive us simultaneously inward and toward whatever light or heat is available. It’s the time in our calendar as a Church when we recall Israel’s suffering in expectation for the messiah, and we recall our own suffering expectation. It’s a richly soulful time marked off for us to huddle together and to look inward and to mourn and lament and yearn and hope for what’s yet unseen and unanswered. And each week is meant to carry an aspect of this. The first week was hope; last week was love; we’ll conclude next week with peace. This week is joy. Gaudete is the Latin command, ‘Rejoice!’ Gaudete Sunday takes its name because the opening prayer of the Roman Church begins with Paul’s command to the Philippians: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again, rejoice!’ (Phil 4:4). Do you see why it’s a pink candle among the violet?
Where does ‘Rejoice always; I say again, rejoice!’ fit in with a season of quiet introspection? Whose bright idea is it to take a Sunday to rejoice in the middle of a time when we’re confronting our doubts, when we’re confronted by the fact that, yes, it is dark, and I am cold, and I am depressed, and God hasn’t healed yet. ‘Rejoice always!’ is a difficult command at the best of times. When we’re actually rejoicing we sometimes read Philippians and think, ‘Seriously, though, Paul? “Always”?’ How about let’s spend two weeks plumbing the depths of our souls, have a party, and then get back to learning to sit with our fears just in time for Christmas. No kidding, as soon as found out that this week was traditionally about joy, I thought, ‘Man…you’re ruining my Advent…’
Remember, it’s not just about these four weeks out of the year or our ability to navel-gaze and enjoy being maudlin; it’s about what the practice of Advent calls to mind: the gap between the now and the not yet of ‘Emmanuel: God with us.’ It’s about taking seriously the fact that things aren’t the way that God says they should be. It’s about saying, ‘You know what God, this world is really messed up, and it really sucks. You know what, God, I really hurt. You know what, God, nothing is OK with the conditions of the millions of Syrian refugees this winter. God, I just don’t see “God with us.” I don’t know how much longer I can wait for “God with us.”’ I’m zealous to protect your space to say those things in the church, and here, in the middle of that sacred space, I’m supposed to tell you simply to rejoice!?
I hope you see my dilemma. I thought perhaps I could ignore the pink candle, and I turned instead to the lectionary readings for the week, the prescribed First Testament and New Testament readings for this Sunday in traditional churches. Surely Isaiah would give me something earthy and soulful. This is 35:1-10.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
I breathed a little easier. Water in the desert perhaps isn’t as powerful an image as the wolf lying with the lamb, but I could work with it. I wasn’t sure where to take it, though. Often times the lectionary readings for a given week help illumine each other, so I turned to the New Testament reading paired with it, Jas 5:7-10.
Be patient, then, until the Lord’s coming. See how a farmer waits for the land to yield its precious crop and how patient he is for it to receive autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because of the Lord’s coming near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! As an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Again, I really struggled over this. I don’t want to collapse or cut short or silence someone’s suffering by telling them just to be patient: ‘Just suffer patiently.’ ‘Oh, are you suffering right now? Well, be patient.’ How’s that for good counsel? But then I started to think that maybe I got James’ meaning wrong—or at least I hoped so. See, as it turns out, this word ‘patience’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘waiting it out.’ That’s suggested by another word entirely, which James doesn’t use here. This word for ‘patience’ instead suggests, rather than passivity, a certain way of responding to difficult people—in fact, more than just difficult people.
James warns them here about grumbling against one another, but that’s not James’ entire message even in this chapter. This passage starts in verse 7. In 5:1–6, James is ripping into the wealthy. Whether these are people in the Christian community doesn’t seem to be important, but James writes,
Come on, rich people! Weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent people, who were not opposing you.
What prophet does that sound like? Two observations here: (1) James at least in part seems to be counseling the churches about the way in which they should respond to these kinds of injustices that are being played out among and against them, not as a waiting it out, not enduring injustice as if it were nothing but enduring injustice for the sake of maintaining a community characterized by justice, being patient as a dogged refusal to lose oneself in stooping to the level of the oppressor. Being patient here is at least in part equivalent to continuing to live justly, even when it doesn’t pay. (2) James doesn’t encourage the churches to be patient merely because they’re just going to go to Heaven anyway. When he looks at the wealth of the oppressors in chapter 5, he sees their story as already told to its conclusion. He is able to counsel such patience not because he sees the church’s story as written but—and bear with me here—he sees the oppressor’s story as written. James is essentially eulogizing this unjust wealthy population, and once he pronounces them dead, if on borrowed time, he turns back to his own community and says, ‘So hold on, then, because everything you’re building right now—not their skyscrapers or empires or bank accounts—is going to last. Because your time is coming, it counts even now.’
The picture of patience James offers is key. V. 7: ‘Picture this,’ he says; ‘A farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth.’ So picture it. This helped me. I want us to sit with this. (If you’re a gardener you’re ahead of the game, and if you plant from seedlings you’re a cheater.) A farmer would be committing her seeds to the earth, buried, unseen. Hopefully the soil is fertile enough; hopefully you’ll get enough rain; hopefully the temperature holds. If you’re a 1st century Palestinian farmer, you’re up to your eyes in debt and possibly, if slowly, starving. How precious is that fruit, that unseen fruit hidden inside of a seed husk in the belly of the land? That farmer doesn’t wait indifferently, knowing come whatever there’s a bumper crop on the way; that farmer is both patient and expectant, hopeful and perhaps desperate at the same time, because everything hangs on the eventuality of a precious crop to emerge, itself having endured drought and frost and trampling armies. The farmer is a partner with time and the earth and God’s care of the earth.
Again, for James, I think the seeds being planted are justice, the ones we’re tempted to pull out of the ground or abandon when we see how well people prosper from injustice. These James urges us to tend to expectantly for the fruit they’ll bear. I think his vision is essentially that of Isaiah’s. Isn’t that why, Isa 35:1, ‘The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom’? Where does all of that life come from except that it was sewn into the lifeless earth? James writes the end of the rich oppressors’ story, but he doesn’t continue the church’s story; he suggests it with this profound metaphor of the farmer, perhaps because he respects how weighty and real the present sufferings are, and he leaves passages like Isaiah 35 to envision it. Finally, rain hits the desert, and it bursts forth life. People forget about the famous giant cedars of Lebanon because the desert of exile is covered with so much beauty. This is what Isaiah envisions at the same time that people are led in droves out of the desert and into Yhwh’s presence. And here’s that word again: ‘rejoice,’ ‘rejoice,’ ‘They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads’ (35:1, 2, 10).
So I’m taken back to the pink candle at last—yet, clever lectionary, I can see why it belongs among these more sober-looking candles, what place a bit of ostentatious joy might have in the soulful, reflective month of Advent. It is precisely a seed. It is not yet the full-borne fruit that awaits time, the light and warmth for which we’re longing; it is a blind-faith deposit; it is rejoicing paid in advance of the reasons we don’t yet have to rejoice! We may not have every answered prayer, every healed wound, every resolved doubt, but we have this little pink seed enveloped in the fallow earth worked over by hope, love and peace. If that’s too Christian-bookstore for you, try this: We’re pushing up some of the mud that is the hurt and loss and weariness we’re mired in, and planting our conviction that God is sewing through us our reasons for our rejoicing. It is to do a very strange thing and sing of the victory of justice, even while injustice enjoys its last moments of in power.
Understand, our rejoicing in Christ’s kingdom and our acting out Christ’s kingdom must be one in the same. When we serve the poor and love our neighbor, we are rejoicing that this is the better way than self-interest. And if we are truly rejoicing over Christ’s coming, it can only intelligibly be because he’s bringing the fruit of what we’re currently sewing. Joy and justice in our present context are both acts of faith, like a farmer shoving lifeless little organisms into the dirt and counting on something to happen. Whatever good and faithful work you do, however useless it seems to be, however senseless within the greater economy of the word’s trampling along, it is not lifeless. It is perhaps the only life in the world, and it may simply lie dormant until God brings the earth to age and the rain is sent and all that we see will be joy and justice. The dry desert will be a memory, and all will be rejoicing and justice.
So rejoice in the Lord always. I say again, Rejoice! —The land needs to be sewn.