[Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.
Preached with the Church of the Redeemer.
Texts: I Thessalonians 5:12–18; Psalm 126; Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11
As with all good sermons, you do well to read these passages first.]
The book The Way of a Pilgrim tells the story of a 19th century Russian man
who falls in love with an exaggeration.
At church one Sunday he hears the same text we heard this morning:
“pray without ceasing.”
Instead of chalking it up St. Paul’s rhetorical flourish,
the man flames up with desire,
and actually tries to pray without ceasing.
More than tries:
he leaves job and home to become a vagrant,
a mendicant pilgrim who combs the country for prayer gurus,
eventually learning to embed prayer in his minute-to-minute breathing:
in: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God
out: have mercy on me, a sinner
Sometimes he wakes to find his lips already —or still — moving.
Throughout the book you watch this simple man
become a candle for others.
And all because he took an exaggeration literally,
made his life hyperbole.
But “pray without ceasing” is only one of three exaggerations
at the end of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.
I wonder what you thought when you heard “rejoice always.”
I thought, How?
A couple days back I happened to be on the phone
with a friend who lives in Wisconsin, so I asked him.
He said, “Around here I think you just listen to K-LOVE.
If you don’t know, K-LOVE is the quintessential American Christian radio station,
best known for its round-the-clock never-a-cloud-in-the-sky sunny programming.
Praise song after praise song;
high-fructose corn syrup spirituality;
a half-baptized version of our broader bent toward the power positive thinking,
which always seems to have the corners of your mouth
— if not your heart—
in a nervous strain to stay turned upward at all times.
Those of us somewhere on the realist–pessimist spectrum
probably hear “rejoice always”
and are overcome with complete disinterest
in anything like a perennially rosy outlook.
I mean, have you read the news?
Checked the numbers today?
Unplugged from the noise long enough
to feel the weight of uncertainty bearing down on your own life?
Wouldn’t lament always,
or be angry,
or be anxious better fit the facts?
What good is Gaudete Sunday with its pink candle in a world this blue?
And surely we’d be right.
Except that old St. Paul didn’t write those words
from a plush new build,
or from a cozy spot in his family’s lakefront.
He didn’t live during a gilded age.
He’d been run out of town
—chased out of Thessalonika—
and was on the road again as a vagrant,
a mendicant pilgrim,
peddling the Jesus-news that had thrown his life into exaggeration.
Paul travelled on sandals that might not make the journey,
faced public mockery,
was frequently arrested and whipped
by authorities in an empire
that showed no signs of curving toward justice.
Chairete, he writes.
No one in the New Testament
says “rejoice” more than this man
so acquainted with sorrow and lack,
whose life constantly went wrong,
for whom every day meant uncertainty.
“Rejoice always” can’t mean a plastic grin,
or a spoonful of denial.
What kind of joy is it, then?
Which is to say it’s the joy of the future
reaching back to touch the present.
It’s like the joy of the hundred twenty-sixth Psalm,
which is a “psalm of ascents,”
a folksong for pilgrims on the long walk to Jerusalem.
The psalm opens with bittersweet nostalgia:
We were like wild-eyed dreamers back then,
when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion;
the exile ended (so impossibly!)
our refugee families came home in caravan,
and we glimpsed for the first time in years
the precious rubble of Jerusalem.
But it’s been a while now.
The wine and oil aren’t exactly flowing.
the Temple is as ramshackle and sorry as we are.
And just there the folk singer rallies:
Restore our fortunes again, O Lord,
like when rains covers Israel’s dry southlands,
filling the channels in flashfloods that makes grasses,
wildflowers and crops grow in just hours and days.
Keep sowing in this long drought, with our eyes wet,
hoping for heaven to rain down on us some cause for hallelujah.
By the end of this song
(which Paul knew by heart
and perhaps chanted through the hard nights)
you can feel the way the joy of harvest
holds up the farmer’s hope against the long odds,
keeps her feet moving forward.
And you can see the light of that future
making even her tears a little bright.
It’s the joy you can’t manufacture for yourself.
Handel’s Messiah begins with the words of Isaiah 40:1,
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.”
In Hebrew it’s a command,
“Somebody, please speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
lift her eyes to what’s coming down the road to her!”
And in Isaiah 61, read this morning, somebody speaks up.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” he says,
“because the Lord has messiahed me,
smeared me with oil to set me apart for a task.”
To lift the humiliated with good news;
to piece back together the heartbroken,
to shake the chains loose,
and soften with oil the salt-chapped cheeks of the mourners;
to tell those who despair at the disrepair of God’s people—
who fear the thing is just too far gone—
that it’s time to change out of their funeral black
and discover by the work of their own hands
that it’s not too late to build again.
And this Mystery Herald
finishes by lifting his own voice in joy,
confessing God as his seamstress and stylist and comforter.
“You decked me out in salvation,” he exclaims.
“You wrapped me in righteousness like it was my wedding day.”
Meaning that this Comforting Voice
passes on the comfort he has himself received.
This Anointed One,
was sent ahead of all God’s weary exiles
into the full reach of both mourning and joy.
He is exaggeration incarnate,
the living fullness of Advent joy.
Which is perhaps the reason
St. Paul doesn’t just say “rejoice always.”
No, he tells us why.
“For,” he says, “this is God’s desire for you,
in the Messiah Jesus.”
is the joy given now and always
in the One who sowed in tears at the garden
and reaped in song at the tomb,
when salvation came upon him like a flash flood.
is joy offered from outside us
by the One who once came
to comfort and bind up the broken
across the hills of Galillee,
the One who remains God’s future gift
to this blue world,
and who teaches us even now
to rejoice always by spreading joy
with a kind word,
a token of hope,
a meal dropped off at the door.
For this Child born unto us
comes to make us all
like the couple who calls their family and friends
after the ultrasound appointment
or adoption papers arrive to say,
“It’s been a hard year,
and we just wanted you to celebrate
some good news with us.“