Rejoice greatly! How often I have sung those words, both in Handel’s “Messiah” and now as a priest. I’ve enjoyed singing it with children, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I say again Rejoice”. Today I sing these words with new relish, in honor of our new ministry together, and in honor of our not two, not three, but FIVE Joyce’s who worship at St. James Church. Talk about re-joycing!
The word for “rejoice” in Latin is “Gaudate”, and the third Sunday in Advent is traditionally called Gaudate Sunday, when we light the “pink” candle, set aside any penitence we may be observing, and live it up a little. Have lunch with friends, read a good book, bake some cookies . . I myself am going to enjoy a belated “Stir Up Sunday”. Do you know of that custom?
“Stir up Sunday” is the day – usually the week before Advent – when we pray the collect “Stir up your power, O Lord”. It is also the day that some English or Anglican families traditionally “stir up” their Christmas puddings – stirring spirits into their dried fruit batter, taking turns for each family member to make their Christmas wish – so they can be steamed and kept in the pantry for a few weeks. I’m pleased that the collect is so late this year, as there was no time for me to make our plum pudding during our move! Stirring up pudding is considerably easier than stirring up power; this past week, we experienced the power of God’s creation in the wind and the rain. My backyard got very stirred up indeed!
Last week, we talked about how God’s power can turn our lives upside down. In today’s Gospel, we find the prophet John stirring things up with his converts. John’s “good news” is pretty intense! Talking about giving away our clothing, our food, and rethinking the way we do business. Not only that, John predicts a Messiah who will baptize us with fire. Fire!? What’s good about that?
In the African American tradition there is an expression I’ve heard, when a pastor talked about God “boiling us down to low gravy”. That’s the really tasty gravy; as tasty as the pudding that’s been steeped in the cupboard for several weeks, so that its flavors are magnified. During tough times, when our beliefs are challenged, our toes are held to the fire, so to speak, and we are refined. We can let go of those ideas and behaviors that get in our way, that stand between us and the person God calls us to be: our saltiest, “low graviest” selves. If we live our lives in search of only comfort and routine, we miss out on that delicious opportunity.
During these final weeks, or days, of Advent, can we discover what things, what thoughts and behaviors, God is calling us to release? Of what must we let go, opening our hands and our hearts, in order to make more room for the Christ child? And what then may be born anew in us? For such new birth is indeed good news, the good news which we celebrate at Christmas.
The Israelites celebrated their return home from exile. God would “change their shame into praise”. Are we willing to let God take away our shame, our fear, our anger, and replace it with rejoicing? Negative emotions can be strangely comforting, promising us a false sense of control. Joy can actually seem scary, especially if we have known great sorrow. Can we trust God enough to rejoice?
St. Paul encourages us – as Jesus commanded – “do not worry about anything”. He assures us that our prayers will be answered by peace. The peace of God, “which surpasses all understanding”. The peace of Christ which will “guard our hearts and minds”, protecting us from doubt and fear. For Jesus will baptize us not only with Fire, but also with the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ first Christmas gift to us.
John exhorts us to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”. Which fruits are these: the fruits of the pudding, whose proof is in the eating? The dried fruits which become rich and moist as they soak in the “spirits”? Paul writes about the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians (Chapter 5, verses 22 to 25). What are they? The fruits of the Spirit are: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
That’s the deal: when we let go of hatred, of negativity, of fear, of judgment, selfishness, cruelty, apathy, harshness, and addiction, we make room for God, through Christ, to give us the gifts, the fruits of the Spirit.
So, rejoice – Gaudate! – Saint James Church ! God’s great power is here among us, refining us in so many ways – through challenging Outreach Ministry, through self sacrificing Stewardship, through loving service to others – and calling us to become our best selves. The weather may be cold and blustery now, but as with our garden, many delicious and nourishing fruits of the Spirit are waiting just beneath the surface.
With the warmth of the Christmas candles, the love of warm embraces, these fruits will blossom and flourish here. And these fruits announce the Good News, not only to our congregation, but perhaps most especially to our neighborhood, our community, and our world.
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice! AMEN.