Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: How can we rejoice in a broken world?

The Third Sunday of Advent, 16th of December 2012

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Philippians 4:4-7

I had another sermon for today. Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is “Gaudete” Sunday – Joy Sunday, the only Sunday in the entire liturgical year whose colour is pink or, more accurately, rose. The name comes from part of today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians; in Latin, “rejoice in the Lord always” is Gaudete in Domino semper. In the midst of Advent, which can be rather a sombre time as we prepare for the Second Coming and are reminded to be ready for the return of the Son of Man, this third Sunday is a time of joy.

But my alarm is a radio set to Radio National, so the very first thing I heard when I woke up yesterday morning, before I was even fully awake, was news of the deaths in Newtown, Connecticut. My heart sank and I felt sick.

I’m aware that there’s something a little hypocritical in my reaction to this news. It could be pointed out that more Palestinian children died in Gaza in the most recent violence there than died in Newtown. About 19,000 children under the age of five die every single day, many of them from preventable causes, and very few of them will get the attention that the child victims of Newtown will receive. There’s something about American children being killed at school that touches Australians more closely than Palestinian children being killed by bombs or African children dying of hunger. It’s a tragedy with which we don’t merely sympathise, but empathise. Despite the difference in gun laws, we feel that it might happen here. Yet, equally, it’s important to acknowledge the horror of what happened in Connecticut. It’s not less tragic because it happened in a first world country instead of a developing country, and the deaths aren’t less heartrending because they’re the result of violence rather than poverty. The pain we feel at these deaths is a reminder of the pain caused by any death. John Donne, so many centuries ago, put it best when he said: ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’ [John Donne, ‘Devotion XVII’ Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)]

So, having been reminded afresh of the fragility of life and the horrors that happen in this world, how can we celebrate today as Gaudate Sunday? How can we “Rejoice in the Lord always”?

In the first place, we can know that the pain we’re feeling, our horror at a tragedy and sympathy for the victims, would be understood by Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul, from whom we hear today. When he wrote those words to the Philippians Paul himself was in prison. In telling the Philippians to rejoice, Paul was not pretending that everything in the garden was lovely; he wasn’t hiding from the harsh realities of life. He knew all too well what human beings could do to each other; he’d been both perpetrator and victim, and yet he still rejoiced.

Zephaniah and Isaiah knew too. Both of them are pre-exilic prophets, warning of the defeat and exile to come. Zephaniah’s prophecy is short; only three chapters long, and most of it is given up to prophesying disaster for Israel’s enemies and for Jerusalem itself. It is only at the very end, in the verses that we heard today, that the prophecy offers hope. Isaiah has already told his people how long their destruction will last: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.” (Isaiah 6:11-12) I’ve talked before about the Babylonian Exile, about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the context in which the prophets we know as First, Second and Third Isaiah were writing. The biblical writers were at least as familiar with tragedy and horror as anyone living today.

Yet they have a message of hope; a reason for rejoicing. They tell us that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors. Zephaniah’s message from God is that: “I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” (Zephaniah 3:18-19) This is the God who freed the slaves from Egypt and brought the exiles home from Babylon; the God who in Jesus came to bring release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and good news for the poor. Whenever we see tragedy in the world, we can be sure that God is with those who suffer. No matter how much the oppressors and persecutors of the world may claim God is with them, and throughout history oppressors and persecutors have, the story of our faith is that God is with those who suffer. It may not look like it when Paul is in prison, or the people of Jerusalem are in exile, or Jesus is dying on the cross, but it’s true.

When Paul tells the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” it is because: “The Lord is near”. Isaiah tells his people that the Holy One of Israel is in their midst. Zephaniah says the same thing: “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst”. This is the reason for rejoicing; no matter what else happens, God is with us. This is what Christmas is all about, the coming of Immanuel. The God about whom Isaiah and Zephaniah and Paul are writing is the God who enters into the very heart of the world; the God who in love for us rejoices over us with gladness, and exults over us with loud singing. This is the God whose birth in as a human baby we will celebrate soon.

Even so, how can we rejoice while others mourn? We shouldn’t rejoice if it means we ignore others’ mourning; our joy shouldn’t make us forget other people’s pain. As Paul told the Romans: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”. (Romans 12:15) But I remember the time I spent in the Philippines years ago, with people who by Australian standards were very poor, people losing their livelihoods to foreign mining companies and fishing trawlers, people being oppressed by their own government, who yet took time to sing and dance and party and rejoice, because those times of celebration kept them alive. I’ve never forgotten partying with people whose lives were so desperately hard. In the midst of injustice, rejoicing in the Lord is its own form of resistance.

In the end, when tragedy strikes, Paul says it best: the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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December 20, 2012 - Posted by | Life, etc., Ministry | , , , ,

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