Today Advent moves to the day nicknamed Rose Sunday or Gaudete (which in Latin means rejoice, and comes from the first word of our Epistle today as well as from an older introit.) Last week we heard, both in our Gospel and in our intergenerational event, about John the Baptist, who always gets a two-week run in our lectionary. This week shows us the more intense and fiery side of John. So let’s be clear that, for example, while the Episcopal church recommends inviting people to worship with you over the Advent and Christmas seasons, we do not recommend referring to them as a “brood of vipers.” That is what would technically be called a “Bad Evangelistic Strategy.”
Isn’t it interesting, though, that when the crowds hear these strident, judging words from John, this is their response: it says, “all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” That was the buzz on the street: “That John the Baptist guy is raking people over the coals. He’s really making me feel bad about myself. Do you think he’s the Son of God?”
Now, isn’t that human nature? The crowds assume that they can recognize God by his attitude of condemnation. That the coming of the Messiah will be bad news which makes them feel guilty, inadequate, and unclean. People often think the same thing about the church: that if they show up, we will look down on their behavior and heap guilt on their heads. There’s one sentence I’ve heard hundreds of times: “If I walked into church, the roof would fall in.”
Well, even strident John the Baptist is at pains to clear up those kinds of misconceptions. He is not the Messiah, he insists, and in fact the Messiah is not like him. The coming Messiah, whose name we know is Jesus, is going to have a better kind of power. He is going to come and fill people with the Holy Spirit. He will cleanse people from what separates them from God on his own initiative, not expect them to have cleaned themselves up first. His goal is to gather a harvest of everything that is good. That’s what the wheat and chaff language means – a harvester isn't focused on burning up chaff, although that’s part of the process, just as the cleansing of sin Jesus offers us through his Cross and Resurrection is part of the process. But his job is not about burning up chaff; it’s about harvesting as much wheat as possible. Remember our Sarum frontal, which pictures us at Emmanuel as that very same wheat, slowly turning gold in the light that streams from the tabernacle? That’s what this harvest is about. As Jesus himself said, though judging is part of the process, he did not come to judge the world but to save the world.
“One who is more powerful than I is coming,” says John the Baptist. The Jesus I announce is not like me. Thank God you and I can say that too: don’t look to me, don’t look to us, look to the One who is more powerful than us, who has come not to judge the world but to save the world. It takes far more power to save than to judge, after all. It’s easy to condemn and criticize, to fear and exclude; people do that all the time without having to make very much of an effort. It takes much more power to make broken things whole, to gather in what is good, to bring the best out of people. To be able to save rather than to judge -- now that’s real power.
It’s an interesting exercise to do with a Bible study or a vestry to talk about the kinds of saving power Christ has. What can he do? What has he done for you? If you look at our Epistle from Philippians, which provides the theme verse this week for those of you who are using the "Taking Faith Home" handout, you’ll find some possible answers. What does this Jesus whose coming we wait for in Advent actually have the power to do? This is only a very partial list, of course, but I’d like us to look at that passage and see what it suggests. If we are going to invite people at Christmas to come with us to Mass, to re-open a door to God that they closed years ago, or perhaps to explore the possibility that God is real for the first time, we can do so knowing that we're inviting them to encounter someone who has the power to make what Paul is talking about here a reality. None of Paul’s comments describe anything that we can force to happen by our own individual willpower. What he’s talking about can't be accomplished in your own strength; it comes from and by and through the power of Christ dwelling inside us. So what does this brief Epistle reading tell us about the One we’re inviting people to meet?
First, he is someone who has the power to make us able to rejoice always. Now this does not mean to ignore trials or never feel negative emotions. When Paul wrote this he was in prison; you can't ignore being in prison and you are not going to feel happy about it. But the Biblical account of this prison stay tells us that after he was beaten and locked up, Paul sat in his cell singing hymns. That's the power to rejoice, as it says, in the Lord: a power that can keep you in touch, regardless of sometimes painful circumstances, with the energy and Spirit of God who is always more significant than your circumstances and who is an inexhaustible well of spiritual joy. That’s what we’re inviting people into.
Going on, we can also invite people to encounter someone who has the power to make us able to be gentle, which in the original Greek also means able to yield, to be flexible. When you begin to receive a spiritual perspective on your life, you find that getting your own way feels less important. Imagining that other people may have reasons to see things differently than you feels more possible. Think how much better our world would be if more of us could receive that gift and begin to be set free of the natural human tendency to exclude and fear those who are different. That’s what we’re inviting people into.
Next verse: we can invite people to encounter someone who has the power to make us able not to worry. This time of year, when all those pressures of secular holiday expectations are mounting, that sounds pretty good. I don't know about you, but I need that power. As we begin to know, not just in theory but in experience, that God can be trusted and that our own efforts to control things or measure up really don't produce very reliable results, we start learning to let go. And again, remember that the man who is writing this letter telling us we don't have to worry is behind bars. He knows that Jesus’ power works against worry. That’s what we’re inviting people into.
And as it goes on, it shows us more: we can invite people to encounter someone who has the power to make us able to take everything, any need or issue we have, to God with confidence that we are heard. This is rooted in the way Jesus immerses us into a genuine relationship with God, so that we can share our whole lives with the Lord, not just throw out prayers in the hope somebody up there might be listening. We can have confidence that God treasures every single thought and hope we have, and longs for us to lay them out before him. The joy of that intimacy with God what we’re inviting people into.
Continuing, we can invite people to encounter someone who has the power to make us able to be thankful even in the midst of all those needs we pray about. Every one of us has needs, but we don’t have to grant them the right to make us miserable. To let Christ form in you a habit of gratitude, where you are more likely to say “thank you” than “what now?!” – that attitude is something that just opens up your life. It makes you happier. It makes you more generous. And it benefits the people around you as your outlook turns from keeping to giving. That’s what we’re inviting people into.
And finally, we can invite people to encounter someone who has the power to make us able to be guarded by a peace which surpasses all understanding. Notice here that the peace of God is not irrational; it doesn't wipe out understanding, it surpasses it. You can get a temporary sense of peace by dulling your understanding -- through binging on Netflix or alcohol or too much shopping -- but the inner peace that Jesus gives isn't dull; it's clear and authentic, and as he said to his disciples, it is a peace that the world simply cannot give. That’s what we’re inviting people into.
Joy, gentleness, no more worry, an honest prayer life, gratitude, peace: now there's a Christmas list worth asking for. And of course, that list is only a beginning of what we can find in Christ. Jesus also has the power to heal, the power to reconcile enemies, the power to give guidance, and so much more. He is working to renew all of creation, to move the whole universe out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life, until that final day when the Kingdom he began to inaugurate in a manger in Bethlehem is fully made manifest.
The One who is more powerful than we are – that’s who we’re pointing to. One who came to save, not to judge. One who, if we're willing, will fill us with his Holy Spirit and give us the freedom to live the way our Epistle invites us to. Look at that text again. This is the mentality we can invite people to receive as a gift from Jesus: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.