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Sermon for 3 Advent, Year A, December 11, 2022: Gaudete in Domino semper (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)


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

at hand.


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

prison.


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

grows.


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.

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