In the traditional church calendar, the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” and it is the first word of this Sunday’s customary opening sentence, or introit, taken from Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” We light a rose-colored candle, to contrast with the purple or blue candles used on the other three Sundays of Advent. In many churches, Advent is still considered a penitential season, much like the season of Lent, and there was even a time when fasting during Advent was quite common. Gaudete Sunday was a break from that fast, a time to rejoice in the nearness of Christmas, less than two weeks away.
One of the features of Gaudete Sunday is the use of Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke in place of a Psalm. We used the beginning of it earlier, as our call to worship. Here’s the whole song:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:47-55
Mary’s song echoes the song Hannah sang when she brought her son, Samuel, to the temple and dedicated him to the Lord. You may remember that Hannah had been childless, and had begged God to give her a son. When Samuel was born to her, Hannah kept her promise to God, and gave him over to the priest Eli, to serve in the temple. Samuel became the last of the judges, and it was Samuel who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul. Later, Samuel also anointed Israel’s greatest king, David.
When Mary learned that she was to become the mother of Emmanuel, God With Us, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who, much like Hannah, had become pregnant after many years of childlessness. Mary imitated Hannah’s song, while Elizabeth reflected Hannah’s story. Mary and Elizabeth may have been related to one another by blood, but they were both related to Hannah in spirit. When Hannah sang, she prophesied that Israel would one day have a King. Mary’s baby would become King of Kings, and Elizabeth’s baby would be the prophet who introduced that King to the world.
Fast forward about thirty years. Just last week, we heard Elizabeth’s son, John, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'(Matthew 3:2-3”)
In today’s lesson, John is in prison, and Mary’s son, Jesus, has established his own ministry of preaching and performing miracles. But John wonders if the Kingdom he foretold is really as near as he thought it was. John isn’t sure that Jesus is THE King, because he isn’t bringing down the judgment that John expected Messiah to bring. Hear the Word of the Lord, from Matthew 11:2-11:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
A lot has happened since John ate locusts and honey out in the wilderness. Now, John has found himself in prison. In the first century, prison was not a final destination, but a place where one remained until trial, waiting to be acquitted or condemned. This waiting could be a cause of great anxiety, and John’s circumstances may have contributed to his doubt. After all, if Jesus really was going to inaugurate a new Kingdom, wouldn’t getting his friends out of jail be a high priority? What was he waiting for? Wasn’t it about time for Jesus to overthrow King Herod’s corrupt government, and then get Israel out from under the oppressive rule of Caesar? This wasn’t panning out the way John had hoped it would. Jesus wasn’t measuring up to John’s expectations for a Messiah King.
Perhaps we can take courage in John’s disappointment. After all, if the greatest prophet who ever lived can wonder whether or not Jesus is the real deal, maybe our doubts and disappointment are a little more understandable. As we frantically try to get ready for Christmas, we may find that fear and doubt come creeping in. If we’re just scraping by, how can we afford to buy presents for those we love? When we get sick, or we lose people we love, when stress rises and hope fades, how can we pretend to be cheerful? How can we sing “Joy to the World” when our personal worlds are crumbling around us? Where is God when we really need him? Maybe we can understand John, as he paces around his prison cell, wondering if he made a mistake. When will the Kingdom finally show up? Could he have been wrong about Jesus? There’s only one way to find out, and since he can’t go himself, he sends his disciples.
Jesus tells those disciples, “Go tell John what you are seeing and what you are hearing. The Greek tense used here indicates continuous action, not a one-time event. Look at the evidence that is right in front of you, Jesus says. That work is continuing all around you. There’s an old adage that says, “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.” Jesus must have heard that saying, because instead of going into a long defense of his kingship, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah and says, “Look around. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In John’s Gospel, we read that Jesus says, “the very works that I am doing bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). In other words, this is the kingdom. No matter what you were expecting, this is what it looks like.
The problem isn’t with the kingdom, it’s with our view of it. John’s disciples were looking for the wrong thing. We fall into that trap, too. We don’t see the kingdom at work around us, because we are looking for the wrong thing. We may be looking for more people attending church, or larger offerings, or better publicity in the community. And we miss seeing the healing, the resurrection, the good news happening right under our noses.
John was expecting military power and swift judgment, but Jesus came offering forgiveness.
Others were anticipating a king in a palace, wearing soft clothes, but Jesus came to die on a cross, wearing only a crown of thorns.
We may be looking for a quick solution to all our problems, but Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him.
“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says. Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me, might be another way to put it. If John was offended by the way things were turning out, Jesus wanted him to know that this was the way God intended his kingdom to come. Jesus wasn’t trying to ignore John or belittle his work. Jesus knew that John was in a very dangerous situation, and he also knew that his own ministry had depended on John’s “preparing the way” before him. Instead of downplaying John’s importance, Jesus lifts him up to the crowd as the greatest person who has ever lived, up to now. And yet, …
John was great, but the least in the kingdom of heaven will be greater than John. How can John be both the greatest person ever born, while the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John? The answer lies in John’s unique place in human history. John’s ministry marks both the end of the old order, and the beginning of the new. He is the bridge between the kingdoms of earth and the Kingdom of Heaven.
John is the climax of the old order. Biblical scholar Donald Hagner writes, “He is the one in whom the OT expectation has finally been distilled into one, final, definitive arrow pointing to the presence of the Messiah. Thus from a human point of view no one greater than John has ever been born.” John lies at the turning point of history. This is the point where promise becomes fact, where prophecies become reality. Nothing can ever be the same again. This is the beginning of a new era. This is where grace takes over, and the kingdom of God breaks into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. John is the pivot point between the old and the new, between the prophecy and its fulfillment, between what was, and what is now.
John himself says of Jesus, “he must increase, while I must decrease” (John 3:30). John knows that his job description has changed. No longer is he the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Now, John must exchange his prophetic stance with that of a disciple, whose only job is to magnify the Lord. Instead of preparing the way for Messiah, John must learn to follow him. John is no longer the messenger, the one who goes before Christ, announcing the way of the Lord. John must become a disciple if he is to participate in the kingdom that has come, is coming, and will come in Jesus Christ. Theologian Karl Barth says that “true discipleship [is] simply to point to all that God has done for us in Christ.”
John the Baptist asks, Who is Jesus? Jesus asks the crowds, Who is John?
But the real question we must face is this: Who am I, then?
It’s a question every Christian asks at some point. In John the Baptist, we find an answer: to be a disciple is no longer to look backward or forward or even deep into our own hearts, but rather to look only at Christ. In pointing to him alone, our identity finally becomes clear. It isn’t who we are, but whose we are that matters.
Once we grasp this truth, that we belong to God as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a job to do. Like Mary, our job is to magnify the Lord, showing Jesus to others so they can see God better. That’s our mission here: pointing people to Jesus, so they can experience the same grace we have experienced, choosing to follow Jesus as we follow Jesus.
Here we are on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, preparing to welcome the Savior on Christmas Day. As we make our hearts ready, our joy may be mixed with disappointment. Like John, we may be wondering where God is in the midst of all the trouble that swirls around us, trouble that seems to be magnified by the pressures that go with making a holiday merry and bright. Yet, Mary calls us to remember that God has done mighty things, and is continuing that amazing work right under our noses, right now, right here. Rejoice! Again I say it: Rejoice! The Kingdom of God is at hand!