If Advent in its entirety is about getting back on track and focussing on waiting with expectation for the coming king, then today, Gaudete Sunday is a time when we can rejoice about all the good things given to us, as part of that preparation.
The first reading we had this morning comes from what is known as a judgement oracle which speaks of the wickedness of Jerusalem and the punishment and conversion of the nations to faith in the Lord. The book of Zephaniah, which was written in the seventh century before Christ, is predominantly about judgement, but it turns to salvation at the end.
Zephaniah, like many prophets understood that amongst other things, poverty and austerity can really pull people down. Psychologically and physically. The attitude to psychological health can either build up or break down a person, and Zephaniah is aware of that. He uses the imperative “Rejoice!” and “Do not fear!” “You shall fear no more.” Humans are inherently fearful – we fear that God is not with us, and that we will not be able to overcome whatever obstacle we see before us. We fear that we won’t be able to provide enough, or have enough, or even be enough. Zephaniah’s word acknowledges our fear, but instead of compounding that fear with more judgement, he presents the opposite, joy. “Rejoice!”
The women of the Hebrew Bible had a tradition of singing during times of crises and also celebrations and the song in the book of Zephaniah resonates with that tradition.
Our own preparations through Advent are penitential – we’re invited to acknowledge that our spiritual journeys aren’t always focussed directly on God, they might weave and wander. They might go around in circles for days before straightening up for a while when our focus returns to God. We have times when things seem to be going right, and sometimes there are the stretches of time when we just can’t seem to get going. There are those who feel that they can bring what they’re struggling with to God and sing and worship through that and by the end might feel that they are more focussed on God than they were to begin with. And there are those who feel that when they’re struggling that they cannot come to God until they have worked through some of the struggle themselves and then they might be able to sing praises to God. Being able to rejoice and praise God is something that our culture has taught us is highly individual, dependant on who we are and how we feel. But Zephaniah’s command and use of the imperative is that we should rejoice, regardless of our own individual feelings. This is a corporate statement. When we come together, we are no longer individuals seeking our own salvation, but one body seeking salvation for the church.
Rejoicing continues in the canticle from Isaiah. Forgiveness, comfort, joy, and the presence of God. It is not that God is present apart from us, or a little way away. It is not that he is in the sky above us, in the starry heavens, but as Isaiah writes, he is great in our midst. He is my strength and my might. He dwells in amongst us, not just from Christmas when we remember and celebrate Christ’s birth, but that God is amongst us all, here and now.
And as if that is not enough, our reading from Philippians tells us to rejoice too. The Lord is near. Our reading shows that the Philippians were anxious. Anxiety from or about what we don’t know, but I know that each of us feels anxious from time to time about various matters. Paul draws the anxiety to God by calling the people to prayer. This might have been silent prayer, but equally, depending on the culture one was in, this could have involved singing, just as the women of the Hebrew Bible did in times of crisis. Paul’s actions echo that of Zephaniah, in that Zephaniah having delivered oracles of judgement then followed up with an oracle of salvation. Paul could have continued to choose anxiety but instead chooses prayer and peace.
The gospel passage is no different. Yes, there appears to be an inordinate amount of judgement, but there is also a message of hope, of expectation. John attacks those in the crowd who justify themselves by their stance in their religion by telling them that their bloodline has nothing to do with their belonging to or being part of Israel. The challenge is that their heritage can no longer be a comfort to them. It is faith, and it was faith in Abraham’s time, in Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s time, in Paul’s time and in our time that enables one to be called a child of Abraham.
The grace and favour that God bestows on us shows that our expectations pale into insignificance when presented with a living God who chose, and continues to dwell amongst us. The expectation of what we should do is part of our commitment to the relationship that we hold dear in both allowing Christ to dwell within and submitting to the authority that Christ has in our lives, both corporately and individually.
Though we are watchful in Advent, waiting expectantly for Christ, both as individuals but also as a body, we rejoice in the good things we have received and anticipate in receiving, knowing that God is indeed with us.