Sunday Sermon 14/12/03 – Gaudate Sunday

Rejoice, says the author of the epistle to the Philippians. Rejoice for the Lord is near.

As our Advent countdown goes on, we know in a very special way that it is so. The Lord is very near. The one who is present with us always is also coming to us. And his coming is just around the corner.
As the weeks go by and the Advent candles get lit one by one, week by week, our sense of expectation grows. No wonder then that we find ourselves reading our Gospel reading at this time of year. This is why we think about John the Baptist just now. He made the people full of expectation for what was coming.

Nowadays, we can be so caught up in the business of the season that it can become so easy to become full of crossness and bad temper instead of expectation. But Advent is our gift of time. The king is coming, he is coming soon, but we have time, just a little precious time to get ready for him.

And this morning we have to get ready for him by looking closely at the three readings.

I?m not so sure that I would have been convinced by the message of the Baptist, had I heard him in the Judean hills. I am not sure that I would have gone out to see him striding the high places and preaching in the valleys. I am not sure that I would have wanted to hear him yelling at the people to change their ways. However many did. And many still do.

Though I myself find it hard to understand, people still like to hear this kind of preaching. You can hear it if you go to particular churches not very far from here. The further North you go, the more likely you are to hear it. (Which, interestingly, is true all over the Northern Hemisphere).

However, though I find the style of his preaching unattractive, there are things that he is saying which cannot be ignored.

Firstly, that we cannot rely on the faith of our parents to save us. He is right we cannot. Nor, might I add can we rely on our own sense of worth or our own experiences or promises or hopes. We can rely on God alone. God who loves us enough to be one of us.

Secondly, the Baptist comes with a promise that the Lord is going to have a clear out. The threshing floor will be swept clear of all the detritus of all the years. All the baggage that we carry. All the dust and dirt. Everything will be swept away. We have a God who promises to come to us afresh. To make all things new. There are times in all our lives when we may need to experience that sweeping away. That spring cleaning of the soul that comes from being truly honest with God and of knowing of his true love and devotion for us.

And thirdly, the message that I take from the Baptist is that there is something right about ethical living that God?s people cannot ignore. And by God?s people, I don?t mean those who are sitting in churches or houses of worship. I mean all God?s diverse company of people in their many shaded cultures all over the world. The Baptist tells us that living rightly is in itself right. Sharing the resources of this world is Godly business. And this is neither separate from religion nor exclusive to it.

These are the things then that make for a life worth living. Firstly, relying on God for our sense of salvation (which means healing and wholeness). Secondly accepting the promise that everything can be made new when we need it. And thirdly living a life where we think of others.

It isn?t rocket science ? these things really do make for a good life and I am aware as I say that, of the research which was published recently that indicated that religious people were often much happier and found life easier than non-religious people.

It is these things which make for the kind of rejoicing that is described in the reading from Zephaniah and the joy that is on offer to the Philippians.

That reading from Zephaniah is the only cheery bit of the book. Much is depressing and miserable, so much so that some people think that this bit was tagged on by a later editor who could not bear the misery and needed things to be lightened up.

For whatever reason it is there, I rejoice in it. I rejoice in the promise that our God will rejoice in us. Not only that, but that our God will sing for joy for us.

So much, we think of singing for God. Singing to God. Singing in praise. Singing in worship. Fine and God ? but I delight in a God who promises to join in the song and sing with exultation over the people. Singing with exultation as people are set free. Free from what makes them limp through life. Free from their oppressors. Free from disaster. Free from being outcast. Free from homelessness. Free from shame.

When these things happen, promises Zephaniah (or his editor) then our God joins in the singing. God?s mouth falls open and God joins in our song.

And with all that going on in this world and beyond when God?s people are set free, can we not accept the commandment to the Philippians. Not a commandment to do this or that or live in one way or another. A commandment to rejoice. Rejoicing in the coming of a king. Who comes to set us free.

And then joins in our song of celebration! Amen

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