Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete! Rejoice in the Lord always:
and again, I say, rejoice is the Entrance Antiphon for this Third Sunday in Advent.
Hinse Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday, whose theme is Joy. Advent is a time of
reflection and perhaps even penitence in preparation for Christmas and the
Incarnation. Traditionally, the church invites us today, halfway through Advent, to
lighten up a little on our penitential practices. We might even lighten up on our
frenetic Christmas shopping and preparations. The pink candle on the Advent
wreath and the rose-colored or pink vestments seen on this day reminds us of the
hope and joy to come in the Nativity of the Lord.
A mini-Latin lesson. Gaudete - rejoice! Gaudeo is I rejoice. The -ete ending here
indicates the verb’s imperative for a command or exhortation addressed to more
than one person. So, rejoice, everyone, for our celebration of our Savior’s birth is
We are rejoicing and singing praise and worship songs, and then we run smack into
Matthew’s story of John the Baptist and Jesus. John is in Herod Antipas’ prison at
the behest of his wife, Herodias. John had been in jail for probably two months,
and hearing what Jesus was doing in his ministry sent his disciples to ask Jesus if
he was the Messiah he had proclaimed Jesus was or if we were to wait for another.
Note that Jesus doesn’t answer him directly with a Yes or a No. Instead, Jesus tells
them to tell John what they have seen: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good
news brought to them. His message ends with a blessing for anyone who doesn’t
take offense at him.
If you perceive an echo of Isaiah’s prophecy that Jesus read in the synagogue in
Galilee and which he proclaimed, “Today this scripture has will been fulfilled in
your hearing.” Or the beautiful song Mary sang when Elizabeth, her cousin, greeted
her. You would be correct.
It appears that John the Baptist is suffering a loss of faith in Jesus’ Messiahship
while languishing in Harrods prison. After all, last week, we heard of John the
Baptist’s high hopes as he prophesied about the Messiah, for who’s coming he was
to prepare. John explained to the people who went to listen to and be baptized by
him in the wilderness of Judea: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the
one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry
his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork
is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the
granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
In that case, Jesus would sweep away Harrods evil. John was probably expecting
that he would make everything right once Jesus had settled into his role as the
Messiah. He would make quick work of their Roman enemies and rescue him from
John’s doubt or questioning of Jesus should not be considered a lack of faith.
Doubt, indeed, isn’t the opposite of faith. As Paul Tillich wrote, doubt is not the
opposite of faith. It is an element of faith.” When God answers our doubt, our faith
Why is that? Perhaps it is because we each have to recognize the Messiah in and
about us; we are to perceive and take our word for it: I see, and I know you, I know
you are God. As we can recognize God, part of our wholeness involves actually
doing that: recognizing God.
Unfortunately, some seek a Messiah that fits their perceived wants and needs, a
God that guarantees wealth and prosperity, or God that offers power and prestige.
The God that directly rules their nation through them.
To live as people who trace our histories to John and ground our lives in Jesus is to
be deeply concerned with consequences. When John’s disciples come to ask
whether Jesus is the expected wisdom from on high, Jesus responds first not by
citing his teachings but by citing his mighty deeds: “The blind receive their sight,
the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised” (11:5).
As followers of Christ we seek to live out divine wisdom, we are under the
mandate to follow him, not only in what we know but by how we act. It is much
too simple to say that we need to practice what we preach. God’s wisdom is not
first studied and then enacted. God’s wisdom is embodied wisdom. Christ does
what Christ says, and the church’s discipleship always includes action.
Jesus then turns to the crowd to explain who John the Baptist is. The people that
had gone into the wilderness to behold and be baptized by John had not understood
that John’s identity was wrapped up with that of Jesus. So, Jesus asked them what
they expected to find. A reed shaken by the wind, like an emaciated holy man? A
man dressed in fine, soft robes, like a king? Or a prophet? Jesus declares that John
is indeed a prophet (a new Elijah, he will later say), yet even “prophet” does not
adequately describe John. As one preparing the way for Christ, John has surpassed
the great prophets. In the whole history of Israel, he has had no equal. Among
those born of woman, indeed, no one rises above him.
Nevertheless, as one who must still learn to become a disciple, John is the least of
those in the kingdom of heaven (v. 11). John who had preceded Jesus must now
learn to follow him; the one who prepared the way for Jesus must now receive him.
The first will be last, and the last will be first. The point is this: Jesus isn’t just
telling the crowds about John. He’s telling them about himself – but doing so
obliquely. To come out and declare his messiahship would be both dangerous and,
in a strange way, all wrong. He doesn’t want to force himself on people. Because
of the sort of Messiah Jesus is trying to be, they must work it out for themselves.
That is just as true today as ever it was. Suppose Christians tell people that we’re
God’s people and Jesus’ followers and representatives; they may not be very
impressed. We may run into all sorts of difficulties. It is far better that they hear,
like John in prison, ‘the messianic goings-on’ and asks what’s happening. We
should explain ourselves in such a way that forces them to think it out for
themselves. Jesus shakes up the crowd as he tells them to look for God – not
among those who are dressed in fine robes or live in royal palaces – but rather
among the least and vulnerable, among God’s prophets, like John the Baptist,
Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Zechariah. We do not have to wait for the Second
Coming for these things to happen. We do not have to wait for Christmas, just a
few days away, Easter, or Pentecost, for God’s realm is now at hand. We can lift
our hearts and go and tell others what we hear and see. Amen.