Below is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17th, 2017. In a rare move for me, I don’t even mention the Gospel reading! This sermon is focused on the readings from Isaiah and 1 Thessalonians. Let me know what you think in the comments!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This time of year can be a season of homecomings. Schools are out for winter break, and college kids stream back home. Families travel from near and far to join one another for holiday parties and gatherings. Homecomings are always meant to be joyous occasions, but sometimes they don’t always live up to expectations.
It didn’t happen my first semester back from college, or even the second. But by the third or fourth time I returned to my parents’ home from school, I started to notice a few things out of place. It started small—there was no longer space for me to kick my shoes right by the door, the spot where I dropped my keys now housed a coin jar. But by my senior year of college, my closet had been taken over by my mom’s overflow clothing, and my desk had become her office space. My brother’s room wasn’t touched at all and still remains in pristine condition—something I’m completely fine with, by the way.
When I was still in school, it was ok to be home still, but things feel even more weird now, that I have an actual home of my own instead of a dorm room. When we go back to our childhood homes, we expect to fit back into familiar roles and patterns, but often they don’t really fit anymore. It’s not always that things at home have changed, sometimes we are the things that have changed—and home hasn’t.
Our first reading from Isaiah is actually the story of a homecoming. The book of Isaiah starts with the Israelites in exile in Babylon, and great things are promised about when they will return to the land. That’s the path in the wilderness, the highway through the desert, everything is supposed to work out well when they return home.
But here, in our reading from this morning, they have made it back to the land; the exiles have returned, and they’re realizing it’s not everything that they expected. The people are in mourning at what they have found: ruined cities, devastations. Home is not at all what they were promised.
I think many of us have had the experience of looking forward to something with high expectations, only to be disappointed when it finally arrived. Maybe, like the Israelites, it was with a homecoming. Maybe it was something else. Working hard to reach a milestone—a new degree, or a big anniversary, or a good promotion—only to find out that it’s not perfect on the other side of that momentous occasion.
This time of year is ripe for disappointed expectations. All around us we hear that this is meant to be a season of cheer and happiness, but that doesn’t mean that all of our problems go away during the holidays. Sometimes they might even fell like they’re worse, especially in comparison to all the bright lights and happiness around us.
And yet in the midst of all of this—in the midst of the ups and the downs of real life—we hear the Apostle Paul’s call to rejoice. And not just to rejoice, but to rejoice always. To give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is typically reserved for joy. This third Sunday, we focus on joy, because, as Christmas nears, we turn from hope and expectation to realized rejoicing. It’s why we light the pink candle today instead of another blue one. If I had them, I could even be wearing pink vestments today, to take the rejoicing to a whole other level.
But what does it mean to rejoice always, to give thanks in all circumstances. Honestly, these phrases feel like the kinds of Bible verses that you put on a cross-stitch and hang up somewhere, but not like the kinds of verses that actually help in the real world.
Are we meant to rejoice when something bad happens? To rejoice in relative or friends’ illness? To celebrate a broken relationship? To take joy in being depressed or struggling with anxiety? Is this the will of God in Christ Jesus for us?
On this Sunday of joy, we sometimes read or sing Mary’s song of praise to God, the Magnificat. After the angel has announced to her that she will give birth to God’s son, while she is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, she proclaims, “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.”
Mary shows us how we might rejoice in difficult circumstances. She is in a tough position: a young woman, a girl really maybe as young as twelve, unmarried and pregnant. No matter how miraculous the birth, she is still incredibly vulnerable. Nevertheless, she rejoices. She gives thanks for how God is working through her to bring about good.
We cannot rejoice about all things. We’d be lying. We cannot give thanks for all things. It wouldn’t be honest, and risks trivializing pain and hardship. But we can rejoice in the midst of all things. We can give thanks in the midst of all circumstances. Because in the midst of all circumstances, God remains with us, supporting us, sustaining us, and working for good.
The people in Isaiah return from exile to devastation. But in the midst of their devastation, God continues to promise hope and new life. God will provide for those who mourn in Zion, the prophet says—God will give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. The downtrodden, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, they will be called oaks of righteousness and display the glory of the Lord. They will rebuild. It won’t be exactly what they remembered before, but new life will come out of what was once lost.
We rejoice always because joy is about more than just happiness. Joy is about more than just good things. Joy is found in the deep and abiding presence of God in the world. Joy is found in God’s resilience, in God’s completed promises, and even in the promises of God yet to be fulfilled. Because they most certainly will be fulfilled.
So, as we enter this final week of Advent: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Amen.