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Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 65:17-25; John 3:22-30
Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is known traditionally as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word that means “rejoice.” A traditional introit to the Mass for today in Catholic churches goes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.” Advent is a season of waiting upon the coming of the Lord, but this Sunday is meant to be a respite, a brief moment of peace and light in the midst of uncertainty and darkness.
And that is the human experience, isn’t it? Some days are dark, hard, discouraging; others give the relief of light, ease, joy. The dark days, the hard days, feel disproportionate in their significance, perhaps because they are heavy and far-reaching in their consequence, and as we grow older, we acquire a significant back catalog. And that is why it is so important for us, vital for us, to grab ahold of the days of peace and light and laughter and joy, because those are what we were made for, those are what is truly real, those are our future.
“He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease,” John the Baptist said. His disciples had concerns and were asking questions about Jesus’ baptizing and teaching people. It is likely they saw Jesus as a competitor, another prophet trying to edge in with an alternative message. John, however, makes clear that Jesus is the one to supersede him. John was not the Messiah, nor had aspirations higher than he had been called to. He was simply the messenger, and he knew that. He must decrease, for he was but the friend of the bridegroom. Can you imagine, if the best man at the wedding did everything they could to draw attention to themselves, away from even the couple to be married? John had to decrease, so that Jesus, as the Christ, the Son of God, the Lamb of God who would die for the sins of the world, could increase. And that, against all human expectations, was the very source and ground of his joy. John was unto the very end a witness to Jesus Christ, and no more.
I say against human expectation because it is such an irregular perspective. Whose ambition ever lets them say, “I must decrease so another can increase”? We all want to edge out the competition. We all want recognition. We want to be raised to managerial status, receive a promotion, publish before a colleague, be at the top of our field, whatever it may be. Especially in youth, we have such eager ambitions, laser-focus on achievement, and to some degree that’s well and good. And the hardest, as one commentator put it, is “to gather followers about oneself for a serious purpose. But when they are gathered it is infinitely harder to detach them, and firmly insist that they go after another.” (Good lesson for church planters!)
It is never the servants job to outpace the master, and that is a lesson for every age. In every walk of our life, whatever it might be or however successful we may make ourselves, this is central: Bearing witness to the increase of Jesus Christ is the source of our joy.
We are not made to do anything purely for ourselves. All of it, from carpentry to administration to teaching to physical therapy, is all for the sake of serving Jesus Christ and witnessing to his goodness with our lives and talents. Everything we do, as a result, has the capacity to give us joy, to enrich us, not because it is directed at gaining more prestige or power for myself, but because it is oriented at witnessing to the love of God in Jesus Christ that has made of us a new creation as a downpayment to the total transformation of all things. When our lives are so oriented, so directed towards Jesus, then what we are doing is living out what God has said about us, and participating in the blessed future that awaits us, as prophesied by Isaiah.
Our joy is not found in our achievements or ambitions, today or tomorrow. Our joy is rooted in the future, in that which is truly real, complete, whole, joy-filled. Our joy is in Jesus not just because he “did a nice thing dying for us” 2000 years ago, but because by sacrificing himself for our sins and rising from the dead, He secured for us the vision of Isaiah’s redeemed people in a heavenly Jerusalem. When we live in such a way that makes everything in our lives dependent on our success and accomplishments, we rob ourselves of the joy of being diminished, the joy of letting the bridegroom rejoice at their wedding day. We rob ourselves because we make an idol out of ethereal human “happiness,” rather than rejoicing that Jesus Christ has come, is here among us now, and will come again. On that day, we discover that the so-called brief moments of light and peace in life are actually what we were made for, the rule, not the exception.
Bearing witness to the increase of Jesus Christ is the source of our joy. Be joyful, Christians, by diminishing yourselves for the sake of Jesus Christ. Be joyful, not because you are mighty, or have followers, or are wealthy, healthy, or wise, but because Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of the Father. Be joyful, not by trying to create an idol out of yourself, but by bowing to the one who is worthy of all honor, glory, and power. Be joyful, not because the times do not grow dark now, but because the dark times are passing away, and God has said to us, “But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”
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