The third week of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Or, in English: Joy Sunday. If your church has them, they might use rose colored paraments and vestments instead of blue. At St. Paul’s, we have an Advent wreath with three blue candles and one pink–this is the week we light the pink. The tradition comes from Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. It says that John the Baptist (in Elizabeth’s womb) leaped for joy when Mary arrived. And so we read of this visit in our psalm for the day. My sermon is based somewhat on the psalm, and mostly on our first lesson from Isaiah.
Readings can be found here: Advent 3 readings
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever seen a crocus breaking through the snow? Those tiny, resilient little purple flowers? I always want to tell the poor little thing, “It’s too early! It’s not time for you yet; you need to wait until the snow goes away or you’ll never last.” But crocuses don’t wait. They don’t bide their time until it’s warmer and more welcoming. They burst out, a shock of color against fields of white, regardless of whether the world is ready for them or not.
They are a flower out of place, bringing joy and new life to a desolate winter landscape. In much the same way, our first reading from Isaiah is a word out of place. This beautiful prophecy of what it will be like when the exiled refugees finally return home. Springs rushing up in the desert, crocuses in bloom, deer leaping, people dancing. A road so easy to follow that even the directionally challenged cannot get lost. Can you imagine what this must have sounded like to a weary and war-torn people? To people who had given up on hope?
Only, it’s in the wrong spot. Isaiah is a very long book, one of the longer prophetic books, and it covers lots of years and many things. From before the Babylonians come and take over the land of Israel and exile its people, through the exile itself, and all the way to this joyous return.
And to find this marvelous description of what the return will be like at chapter thirty-five doesn’t make sense. It’s surrounded by prophecies of war, by depictions of desolation and anger and bloodshed. It makes so little sense that some biblical scholars believe our Bibles have it in the wrong spot. Something went wrong thousands of years ago in the copying of this text, they guess, and this prophecy wasn’t mean to be here. It belongs later in the book, after we’ve finished with pain and anguish. It’s a word out of place.
I don’t know when this word was first spoken, but I do think it’s where it is for a reason. Maybe it came later originally, but as this long, long book was being compiled, the Spirit had something to say. The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes. “Put it here,” she breathed, “before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.” And so here we have it. A word of joy and hope that just can’t wait until it might make more sense.
Isaiah dares to burst into joy with a word that refuses to wait until things have improved. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann has put it this way: “Israel’s doxologies are characteristically against the data.” They look at a land that has been scorched by the enemy in war, and instead of seeing the facts of dead and barren places, instead they see the possibilities of new life. Of streams of water and a land renewed and restored. It can’t wait until things are better to be heard; it needs to be said now.
I think the same is true of our psalm for the day, which, did you happen to notice, isn’t from the Book of Psalms at all? It’s from Luke and is actually Mary’s words. She has been told by the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear and son. Mary, unsure, but trusting the angel’s words, sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the country. At Elizabeth’s greeting, Mary breaks out into this song that today we call the Magnificat. She declares the wondrous things that God has done and will do in the future. She declares that she, Mary, is blessed, and that so are the poor, and the hungry, and the lowly.
It’s a word out of place. Mary was a young girl—although not unusually young to have a child in those days—but she was unmarried. She faces social disgrace and life as an outcast. Everything she was sure of is now up in the air. She doesn’t appear to have any close relatives to go to for help, so she must travel, by herself, to the country to see Elizabeth. Surely, she’s scared. Surely, she’s worried and anxious. Surely, there had to be a better way to go about this Messiah thing than a young girl on her own. But when she speaks, she doesn’t speak a word of fear or confusion. She speaks a word of blessing. A word of hope. A word of justice and deliverance.
God doesn’t wait until the right time to bring a word of rejoicing. God characteristically goes against the data. We know the data. We know the data. We see it every night on the news and every morning on the front page of the paper. And we can add to it the data of our lives: waiting for test results from the doctor, grieving the death of a loved one, wondering if we’ll make it through the next round of lay-offs, hoping the money will stretch to the next paycheck. Maybe this Christmas season isn’t a time of joy for you, but a time of sadness, of remembering loss, of hurt.
But God goes against the data and brings us a word out of place. God shows up even in the desert, in the barren places of life, to await us in renewal, restoration, and salvation. God is not waiting for us to get past our grief or pain, our confusion and doubt. God is there in the midst of all of it with words of hope and promise: I am here, you are not alone, there is a way through the desert. God doesn’t wait until we are ready, but comes in the middle of despair and fear to bring hope and joy. I could think of no better way to close than the Madeline L’Engle poem, “He did not Wait.”
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.
He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!