First United Methodist Church
December 11, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
Advent 3: Sacred Space
The third Sunday of Advent is sometimes called “Gaudete” Sunday – Gaudete meaning “rejoice” in Latin. It is the midpoint of our Advent journey and a moment to rejoice, for we are drawn ever closer to the celebration at Christmas.
Each Sunday in the season of Advent is supposed to be a feast day, a celebration, but this week is especially so. The third week of Advent is a time of joy, a time of being thankful for all that has been given—the promise of the Savior who has come, who is present, and who promises a return. The third Sunday of Advent is a day for celebration. We get to peel away the penitential mood of last week and rejoice.
This week, we look at ways we might multiply and magnify our joy. The need for joy and love is intense. How do we lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving when so much of our lives seem worthy of lament and intercession? One of the reasons I look forward to this week in Advent is that it forces me to focus on joy at a time when everything around me is shouting, “Stress! Stress! Stress!”
Isaiah paints a beautiful word picture that helps us to catch a glimpse of God’s joy. In a desert culture, images of flowing water and lush greenery are signs of good fortune, of blessing and prosperity, and, of course, joy. But Isaiah goes overboard, turning the desert into a swamp, our scripture says, but for us to truly appreciate the vision he is describing, we need to imagine a beautiful wetland, such as the Everglades, with river plants like reeds and rushes replacing the hardy desert grasses. There are pools and springs everywhere. The difference is almost overwhelming.
Isaiah also gives us some insight into the nature of joy. Joy is communal; joy is shared and sharable. It helps us to reach out and gather up others, particularly those who aren’t yet experiencing the joy. “Strengthen the weak hands” is a statement designed to help us be with others. It isn’t “strengthen your own weak hands,” but strengthen the hands of others. In Hebrew, this statement isn’t a suggestion – it is an imperative, or a command. So we should hear these words as, “Thus says the Lord, get out there and strengthen your neighbors! Be ready…for the coming of Christ.”
Notice, also, that the strengthening, or healing, comes from the sharing of the joy. Wholeness comes from the invitation, or the reaching out. Isaiah doesn’t say, “Go and heal;” he says, “go and build up, and the healing will happen.” And together, we will all become travelers on the same journey. We can’t lose our way when we travel together in joy.
Isaiah 35 speaks words of comfort and promise in the midst of war and desolation; the chapter right before it offers a terrible and terrifying vision of God’s wrath against the nations, and the chapter following describes threats toward Jerusalem. In between wrath and threats, Isaiah writes about a chorus of creation saying to one another, “Be strong. Do not fear. Here is your God.”
The Luke passage, the Song of Mary, strikes a similar tone. Mary is in a world of trouble: pregnant, not married. One could imagine that she felt fear, insecurity, ineptitude. And yet, she sings out with joy: proclaiming God’s greatness and rejoicing in God as Savior. She begins with God’s actions in her own life, for in choosing her to be the mother of the messiah, the Mighty One has indeed “done great things for” her. Elizabeth has just welcomed and honored her, saying, “blessed is she who believed.” Now she recognizes with awe that not only Elizabeth but all generations will call her blessed.
In our culture #blessed has become a meme, and “feeling blessed” makes regular appearances in Facebook posts. People tweet images or post pictures of themselves enjoying a delicious meal or an exotic vacation or a shopping spree at their favorite store. “Blessed” has come to mean living a life of privilege and comfort. Using the term has become a way of celebrating those moments when everything is going well and all seems right with the world -- or at least one’s own little corner of it.
The blessedness that Mary celebrates stands in stark contrast to this cultural attitude. By our standards she does not look at all blessed. God has chosen her to be the mother of the messiah, but in practical terms what does that mean for her? She is not from a family that can afford expensive food or clothing. She is a nobody, a peasant girl from a small village. Her friends and neighbors see her as a disgrace because she is unmarried and pregnant and Joseph’s initial reaction to her pregnancy is not good. Furthermore, as she will soon learn from Simeon if she hasn’t perceived it already, being the mother of the messiah is scarcely an unmixed blessing. She will bear the unspeakable grief of watching as her son is rejected, shamed, and crucified: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34–35). Despite all this, Mary praises God for honoring her.
Mary perceives God’s action in her life as consistent with God’s saving action in history. What we discover through the birth of Jesus is that God’s agenda differs radically from the expectations of humanity. In the 15th Century hymn, “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming,” a metaphor of a rose is used to describe the birth of Jesus from the womb of Mary. As this anonymous author realized, the picture of Jesus as a rose helps us see His beauty and the hope He brings.
Jesus was born at a time when many of God’s people felt hopeless. Under the hand of the Roman Empire, many were discouraged. Yet the author of this song realized that Jesus changed everything. He wrote, “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!” If you have ever seen a rose bush after a difficult winter, the thin, bare branches often look as though they are finished, but then suddenly, one spring day, they burst into life, producing leaves and buds that will later burst into beautiful flowers. Jesus came to earth during a time that seemed like all was lost, but He brought hope and life amidst a bleak reality.
The writer realized how God had fulfilled His promises. Jesus came from “Jesse’s lineage…as men of old have sung.” His birth demonstrated God’s faithfulness, because it had been foretold by Isaiah. This showed God’s love, how Mary “bore to men a Savior.”
It takes courage and love to sing songs of joy in the midst of great suffering.
Mary sings about the God who saves not just souls, but embodied people. The God she celebrates is not content merely to point people toward heaven; God’s redemptive work begins here on earth. God fills the hungry not only with hope, but with food. Rather than being satisfied with comforting the lowly, Mary’s Lord lifts them up, granting them dignity and honor, a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation. At the same time, God shows strength by disrupting the world’s power structures, dethroning rulers, and humbling the mighty.
Both Isaiah and Mary speak of a particular and embodied joy: seeing eyes, hearing ears, gushing waters, growing seeds, the hungry filled, the humble lifted. They also speak of a particular and embodied suffering: feeble hands, fearful hearts, people scattered and brought down. We like to think that if we just get through the suffering that joy will come: first comes suffering and then we progress to a joyful state of being. But the truth is, these deep feelings get tangled up together. We can go from one to another, back and forth, or feel them all at the same time. And the good news for today is that we can feel all these things, including suffering, and still joyfully proclaim a day when, “Gladness and joy will overtake [us] and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Looking for joy on this Gaudete Sunday doesn’t mean that we should ignore all that is wrong in the world. But it does mean paying attention to what is right, what is of God, and what is the sign that God is still at work in the world, in our community, and in our congregation. Every time someone walks into our space, our sacred space, seeking help, seeking hope, seeking love, we have the opportunity to proclaim the joy of the presence of God. Amen.