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Sermon: Choral Mattins Advent 3

Sunday 15th December 2013
Choral Mattins
Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Philippians 4: 4-7
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‘Gaudete in Domino semper.’ Those are the Latin words that give the Third Sunday of Advent its traditional name, ‘Gaudete Sunday’, meaning ‘rejoice’. The Latin phrase is the text of our second reading this morning, ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I will say, rejoice’.

The obvious question that leaps to mind when we look around us in the wider world today, at home and abroad, is, ‘what is there to rejoice about?’ We see war, terrorism, grinding poverty, food banks, financial squeeze. To coin a phrase, ‘we don’t do joy’.

So what do we do? Well if we don’t do joy in our circumstances perhaps we do the opposite. In the dictionary the antonym of rejoice is lament. Do we do lament?

The thing about rejoicing and lamenting in scripture is that both are set in relation to God, and both are good in their time. We have a book called Lamentations, and in the midst of the bitter lament and mourning of the deserted city of Jerusalem is the growing conviction that God’s steadfast love endures. So yes lament means, ‘tears stream down like a torrent day and night!’ (Lamentations 218b) but also that ‘the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning; great is [his] faithfulness. (Lamentations 3.23) Glimpses of hope and faithfulness mean that lament becomes less a barren experience and one that is filled with grace.

We know there is a fine line in bereavement between crying and laughing; the people of South Africa are showing that today (Nelson Mandela’s funeral)

Generally we don’t do lament well in our world and society. We do desolation evacuated of hope, promise and God’s presence. And that is the experience of many people. For people of faith the deepest lament, even from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’ calls on God’s enduring presence.

So we might say that lament is a falling back into the arms of God. To rejoice is to see the open arms of God into which we can fall. All flows from the life God gives us and all returns to him.

The poor lamenting of many today is matched by the inability to rejoice. Instead we desire fun filled froth. As Pope Francis has put it in his most recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ (addressed to all Christians):

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures and a blunted conscience. (Evangelii Gaudium §2)

If that diagnosis is right then the consequences are, as he continues, that, ‘many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless’. (Evangelii Gaudium §2) There is no dignity in that life because there is no joy in it.

The rejoicing of Advent isn’t banal and vacuous froth of poor little Christians naïvely grinning. The rejoicing of Advent is, as Paul puts it, the conviction that, ‘The Lord is near’ (Philippians 4.5b). The rejoicing of Advent, which is the rejoicing of the daily life of a Christian, ‘new every morning’. (Lamentations 3.23)

The book of Lamentations begins with the desolate empty city. Zephaniah, our first reading, heralds the repopulation of the city through God’s faithful presence; rejoicing because the arms of the LORD are open,

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem! (Zephaniah 3.14)

This is the rejoicing of those bridesmaids prepared and alert for the coming Bridegroom, the ones who have their lamps trimmed and prepared. Whether lamenting or rejoicing we are in the arms of God. Hence Paul can say, without the froth or banality of a fun- based culture, rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice.

Lord, in our weeping and desolate world
give us the gift of true lament, grounded and rooted in you;
give us the gift of true rejoicing, grounded and rooted in you.
May we be ever watchful and expectant,
that as we come to rejoice in the nativity of your Son
we may herald his incarnate presence with the song of the angels
and rejoice with shepherds at his birth.