Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.
On the Last Sunday in Advent, you and I are called to come to know the Word made flesh and to Rejoice. Our recognition of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh and our rejoicing are gifts coming to us from the heart of John the Baptist. Today John the Baptist prepares us for Christ’s coming into his Body, the Church, and especially for His first coming, which we remember on Christmas Day. We are called to discover the character which both knows Jesus Christ as the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh and to rejoice in Him.
But first, in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist teaches us to know ourselves and our need for Jesus Christ. The Jews sent Priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. John the Baptist never pretended to be Christ, and neither should we. He confesses that he is not even Elijah the prophet. Malachi had foretold that Elijah would come before the Second Coming of the Lord. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. (Mal. iv. 5) But the Angel Gabriel insists that it is John who shall go before [Jesus Christ] in the spirit and power of Elias (Lk. i. 17). Both are messengers and forerunners. Neither one of them is the Christ. John prepares for the first coming and Elijah for the second. But John shares with Elijah the vocation of the precursor and preparer. John Baptist says, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah. (St. John i. 23) John has come to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of the Lord. His preparation begins with a confession of who he is truly. He calls us too to know ourselves as those who need always make straight the way of the Lord. (Idem)
John comes and teaches us to know who we are. Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at Hand. (Matt. iii. 2) John teaches us to repent because we are always sinners in need of the Saviour. With John, we are called to confess our sins. John, like Elijah, is a messenger of repentance. Because we are neither righteous nor virtuous, we must make repentance an habitual part of our spiritual lives. But his confession also reveals to us that repentance is only a beginning. Repentance prepares us for the salvation that Jesus Christ alone can bring into our lives. John tells us: I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not: he it is who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (St. John i. 26) From the depths of John’s heart we come to know that repentance empties us of all power and strength. John has a baptism with water for repentance, but Christ shall baptize…with the Holy Ghost. (St. Mark i. 8) John’s baptism will cleanse us; Christ’s baptism will sanctify and save us. The one removes sin and the other infuses righteousness.
With John the Baptist, you and I must move out of the world and into the soul. We are too much at home in this world. John comes to teach us that this is not our home. Christians ought to know that this world is a place of passage and pilgrimage, from wilderness and exile to the true homeland and City of our God. Like John the Baptist, like the Apostles, you and I must become courageous searchers and seekers, “who would not cease from exploration…until at… the end of all exploring they would arrive where…they… started from and know the place for the first time? (Eliot, Little Gidding) With them, we must earnestly prepare for the Lord’s coming? We live in a time when the human heart seems so far removed from any need to seek out and find God. We live in a world whose idolatry conceals the knowledge of God. John the Baptist, bearing the spirit of Elijah, calls us away from our idolatry. Anything which claims our time, attention, and money more than God is an idol. Anything that consumes, owns, and possesses us more than God is an idol. The idol could be a political platform, a romantic notion, or even an arrogant assertion of our own will to power. It could be a large house, an expensive car, an obsession with money and taxes, or an addiction to another person. None of these things must ever claim our hearts more than our love for God. If anyone of these things stands between us and God, we must know to get rid of them. Anything which does not reveal to the world our humble, unmerited, and undeserved receiving of God’s costly and precious mercy is an idol. Anything with which we cannot part is an idol. And that idol may stand in the way of another’s coming to Christ. Not only does our attachment to idols stand between us and God but it might very well turn others away from Him also! Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew vi 24)
John Baptist comes to join him in that spiritual journey that calls us to sever our ties to the false gods and idols of this world. He knows also that repentance and self-denial might be dangerous. We might become proud of our good work of repentance and self-emptying while failing then to undertake the more difficult labor of embracing God’s goodness into our souls. Bear fruits that befit repentance, he cries, for even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (St. Matthew iii. 8, 10) With John’s contemporaries, we might ask, What then shall we do? John the Baptist tells us not only to repent but to purge. He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise. (St. Luke iii 11) He tells us also not to desire more than is our fair share in the earthly city. Collect no more than is appointed you. (Ibid, 12) To the soldiers he says, Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages. Why? Because while John baptizes…with water for repentance, He who is coming after me is mightier than me, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Ibid, 14-16) This is serious business. It might even get confusing. Charles Williams remarks, Let the man who has two coats give one to the man who has none. But what if the man who has none, or for that matter the man who has three, wants to take one from the man who has two- what then? Grace of Heaven! My Sainted Aunt! Why, give him both. If a man has stolen the pearl bracelet, why, point out to him that he has missed the diamond necklace in the corner! Be content…
The outside world and our dependence upon it could land us in Hell. With John, let us know that we have been too attached to the things of this world. Let us repent. The old man must quit splicing hairs and counting the cost! The old man must see that the time has come to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (St. Luke vi 31) John wants us to know that the character of the soul must be prepared to know and welcome the coming mercy of God. We must know also that it is more than we either desire or deserve. God’s Mercy is coming to us and will be made flesh. The coming Christ invites us to know the pattern and movement of perfect love. John tells us to share everything and if we think that we have given too much, we must interrupt our self-congratulations and know that the most that we can give is nothing in comparison to what Christ comes to give us! The Virgin Mother of our Lord has a nice rebuke for us: The rich he hath sent empty away. (St. Luke i. 53) It is all consistent with John Baptist’s insistence that our souls should know Christ’s coming.
John also exhorts us to mourning. When we acknowledge our sins, we ought to mourn over what we have done to ourselves and others. We mourn our own lost opportunities to die to ourselves and prepare more seriously for Christ’s coming. We must pray for the gift of tears. Our physical tears begin to heal those who grieve. Our spiritual tears begin to cleanse us from sin, as St. J. Chrysostom says. Our repentance and mourning promise to play the greatest part in our coming to know God and rejoice in His coming. Our bodies will begin to heal and our souls will be altered for the better. The water that John pours over the heads of penitents symbolizes the tears that purify the soul that awaits the coming of Christ.
The tears that unceasing prayer offers…are resurrectional. (Philokalia) Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. (St. Matthew v 4) Rejoicing and Joy constitute our end. Our preparation for the coming of Christ heralded by St. John the Baptist intends to make us new and ripe for rejoicing in Christ’s Holy Incarnation. He longs for us to rejoice in Jesus Christ’s coming to the soul. John’s cry for confession, contrition, and compunction prepares us to run the race that empties us of ourselves and longs to be filled with the salvation that Christ’s birth brings. Only then will our souls receive Christ’s coming with rejoicing. If this power becomes operative in our lives, we shall instinctively perfect confidence and hope in God’s future glory. Today, Christ promises to infuse us with His presence to generate to deepen and perfect our belief and hope that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. So let us close by praying with St. Ignatius of Loyola:
Fill us, we pray, with Your light and life,
that we may show forth Your wondrous glory.
Grant that Your love may so fill our lives
that we may count nothing too small to do for You,
nothing too much to give,
and nothing too hard to bear.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve You as You deserve:
To give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Your will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and
stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards,
that a man be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by my self; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. (I Cor. IV. 1-4)
The Third Sunday in Advent from the time of the Ancient Church has been known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for Rejoice or Be Joyful. And on this Sunday, if you priest is, dare I say, rather Catholically-minded, he will be decked in rose-colored vestments, in contra-distinction to the deep purple of Advent’s other Sundays, when he sports the deep purple of fasting and abstinence. Thus, in another age, when Christians took Advent seriously, embraced the penitential nature of preparing for Christmas with fear and trembling, the Church chose this Sunday to relieve the Flock of Christ from the rigors of her spiritual discipline. On this Sunday, the Ancient Church exhorted the Flock to rejoice with exceeding great joy because Christ the Coming Light was near and close at hand, about to reveal Himself as the One whose Birth alone would bring the True Life that could overcome the Law of Sin and Death. Today, we are called to rejoice and hope in Christ the Coming Light over and against our suffering and sadness.
We began today’s sermon with words from St. Paul who is reminding the Church at Corinth that the ministers and stewards of the Gospel must lead by example. For St. Paul, the example or pattern is a character of soul that must be the norm for those who will lead Christ’s Flock as little-Christs. St. Paul knows only too well that his example must be one of servanthood -a servanthood that can serve Christ’s Flock because it is serviceable and accountable to Christ’s Judgment alone. The imperfect minister, presbyter, or priest of the Church must be judged habitually by Jesus Christ alone. Only then can he minister and pastor the Flock with any spiritual success. And the trial and error by which the minister is judged by Christ must not be swayed and distracted by the judgment of men, the Law of Man, or the customs and traditions of any age. St. Paul tells us:
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. (Ibid, 5)
Christ the Coming Light can alone reveal and disclose the intentions and motivations of all men’s hearts. St. Paul prays that his Flock will understand that he and all faithful ministers must be measured according to their first love, that true devotion to Jesus Christ, by which Christ the Coming Light has had his way with them. First, St. Paul prays that Christ the Coming Light will reveal to his flock that he is consumed with the Cross of Christ. He prays that his flock will begin to understand that the Omnipotent Power of the Crucified Christ has moved his heart and measured his ways so fully that this is his chief desire for them.
It has always and ever been the case that the Flock of Christ has tended to judge her ministers and priests by earthly standards, with worldly expectations, and for human ends. Time and again throughout the history of the Church, the Flock of Christ has been frustrated with the likes of St. Paul and his followers. What frustrates the Church’s members most is the supposed silent and prayerful inactivity of clerics who don’t jump to meet the demands of men who want instant gratification, simple solutions to complex problems, and Transfiguration miraculous moments that prove Christ’s power and presence. I remember the words of old Father Crouse, when as a green and sinful young man, I wanted him to jump into a problem and solve it, to call down thunder from Heaven, and to stop the designs of heretics who were attacking one of our friends with malice. He looked at me quietly, smacked his chops, and said, Don’t just do something, stand there. What he meant, of course, was Do as I do. Pray. Be Silent. Have faith. Take it to the Lord in prayer. Needless to say, my exasperation was quenched, I was ashamed, and I knew that like St. Paul, Father Crouse was exhorting me to spend time with Christ the Coming Light.
To be sure, none of this is easy. St. Paul himself, like all good priests, struggled throughout his life to surrender to the Lord. He knew that he was a sinner, sold under sin and forever tempted by its Law. He writes:
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. (Romans vii. 14-20)
The tension always exists between the old man ruled by the Law of Sin and Death and the new man striving to be remolded and refashioned by Faith in God’s Grace. Christ the Coming Light is our hope and our deepest desire. But with St. Paul, we struggle to be made better and newer by God’s Grace on this side of Heaven.
Father Crouse, again, reminds us that The Christian soul is a faithful steward of the revealed mysteries. (Advent Meditations) What St. Paul, as a faithful steward, reveals to us in his own life is one who struggles against sin and with hope for Christ the Coming Light. What he rejoices in and draws joy from is Christ’s promise made to His followers and ministered to them by His stewards and priests. Canon Blunt remind us that
[Christ’s stewards] act by His authority, are endowed with His power, and do His work. As His ministers they have in past generations opened the eyes of the spiritually blind, healed spiritual infirmities by the ministration of their Master's grace, and made life-giving streams of Sacramental power to spring up in the wildernesses and deserts of the world. (J.H. Blunt: The Annotated Book of Common Prayer)
St. Paul is a steward of the mysteries of Christ the Coming Light. His chief role is to steward the Flock of Christ that through Word and Sacrament they might feel Christ’s liberating and saving power inwardly so that they might rejoice with exceeding great joy.
Again, none of this exceeding glad joy comes easily to God’s stewards and Saints. They all have felt, more than not, that Christ is not present but absent, not near but far removed from man’s earthly sufferings and fleshly expectations. The discomfort felt later by St. Paul, is experienced in today’s Gospel by another great steward, John the Baptist. Today, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus Art thou He that should come or do we look for another. (St. Matthew xi. 2) John is suffering in prison awaiting Herod’s sentence of execution. Perhaps he is confused or hopeful, but with confusion. St. Hilary writes:
[In John the Baptist] the Law became silent. For the Law had foretold Christ, and the forgiveness of sin, and had promised men the kingdom of heaven. John had continued and brought to a close this purpose of the Law. The Law was now silenced, imprisoned by the wickedness of men, and as it were held in bonds, lest Christ become known, because John has been fettered and imprisoned.
(St. Hilary: On the Gospel)
John the Baptist had preached repentance for the coming forgiveness of sins in Christ the Coming Light. John, the herald and forerunner of Christ, is now silenced and has reason to fear that his disciples might lose all hope because of his impending demise. John will experience neither earthly deliverance nor Transfiguration rapture. Jesus tells John’s disciples:
Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Ibid, 4-6)
Christ the Coming Light asks John the Baptist to rejoice and have hope in the miracles which point to the salvation that is coming. Like St. Paul, John will begin to believe that Christ will overcome the Law of Sin and Death. John has prepared all men for spiritual transformation. Christ asks John to hope in His Coming, in the light of the wonders that He performs…and to be set free by an understanding of ‘the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free.’ (Hilary, Idem).
John hopes and rejoices in Christ the Coming Light who will consecrate and crown his repentance and suffering into the service of freedom and lasting liberation. In his end, with St. Paul, John sees his suffering stewardship in relation to Christ the Coming Light.
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.
Today, you and I must soldier on believing in the faith of Christ the Coming Light. Christ is with us through our suffering, our sadness, our loneliness, and our pain. We must believe that Christ the Coming Light is the Forgiveness of Sins. We must never despair. Remember, in His own body on the Tree, we shall find fellowship with His sufferings. With John the Baptist we must repent, believe, hope, and hear Jesus saying Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. (St. Matthew xxvii. 20) Now, we must rejoice with exceeding great joy.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: