“Rejoice Until Then”
December 13, 2009 - Third Sunday in Advent
So what’s with the pink candle? Recently at home, some friends who are new to Advent traditions wondered about the Advent wreath on our table, expressing the thought that perhaps we had just run out of purple candles.
Apply the intellectual universal solvent named “Google” to the question, and you will discover that Advent wreath histories and explanations are myriad. The tradition is at least a few hundred years old, maybe older. Several authorities agree it began in Germany.
Purple is the color for the season, because Advent was at first considered to be a kind of mini-Lent, a time of spiritual preparation like the season before Easter, when we are to repent of our sins, fast, and take measures to change our behavior for the better. We heard that sense of the season in the Gospel lesson from Luke 3 this morning—John the Baptist excoriating the crowds and exhorting them to share and be honest and be content with what we have. A somber purple color reminds us to be thoughtful and serious and disciplined.
Yet the other three texts for this third Sunday in Advent sound a different note. Isaiah tells us to, “Shout aloud and sing for joy…” Zephaniah also invites us to shout and “Be glad and rejoice with all your heart…” And the text for the sermon today from Philippians 4 begins, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Somewhere along the line, a hungry monk or a weary German pastor got tired of the fasting and the penitence and the purple, read these texts, and decided to make this Sunday different. So he lit a pink candle instead of a violet one, poured himself a cup of beer, and sat down to a big plate of wiener schnitzel and sauer kraut, all the while whistling some happy tune instead of a mournful chant. And we’ve been lighting pink candles on the third Sunday of Advent ever since.
In Latin it’s called “Gaudete” Sunday, “Gaudy” Sunday, a day to cast off restraint and give in early to the joy we’ve been holding back for Christmas. So we light the gaudy pink candle on our wreath and my mind drifts back to Christmases when little girls rejoiced to unwrap gaudy pink and purple plastic ponies and mermaids.
Yet even in that memory comes a twinge of what that pink pillar of wax in the midst of the purple ones also symbolizes. You can hear it our text this morning because the call to rejoice in verse 4 moves directly on to address our anxieties in verse 5. Just by telling us not to be anxious about anything, Paul acknowledges how we often feel in this season. We are anxious and nervous and tired and lonely and sorrowful. As Christmas joy, as the joy of Christ our Savior comes to us, it comes right in the middle of our sorrows and anxieties.
We lost a friend and brother in Christ this Advent and celebrated his memory just this past Friday. Any joy that comes to Ted’s family this Christmas will come in the middle of that sorrow. Most of us will be missing someone as December 25 rolls around, a parent who has passed away, a son or daughter away from home, a friend who lives on the other side of the country. As Dickens taught us, Christmas celebration is haunted by ghosts of Christmases past.
And of course there are all the other things that trouble us at the end of 2009. Several of us are out of work or need a better job. Money is tight and we can’t buy the gifts we’d like to give. Our nation is stuck in at least one seemingly bottomless war and maybe more. The swine flu has hit 15% of us. And here in our community freezing weather has broken pipes and caused all sorts of problems.
In fact, Tuesday afternoon I was right in the middle of writing a blog entry about this text, about the call to rejoice in the Lord, when I left to make a visit. I came back about two and a half hours later to find water flowing out the front door of the Gathering Place. When I looked in the window and saw the whole building flooded, my heart crashed. If the floor had been dry, I would have sat down in the middle of it and just cried. We will wait weeks now for drying out and repairs to make our offices and youth room and Gathering Place usable again.
So we have some feeling for just how strange it is for the pink candle to pop up on this Sunday, especially when we’re feeling like everywhere we look is purple. Yet pink it is. In our readings today, God invites us into joy. Over and over, we’re told to rejoice. We’re told that joy is available to us, that joy is coming to us. Even hairy, grumpy John the Baptist, with all his warning and exhorting and rebuking, was preaching “good news” Luke said.
Paul points us toward that same good news in Philippians 4, verses 6 and 7. Don’t be anxious, “but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The good news John told the crowds by the River Jordan was that Jesus was coming. That same good news about Jesus allows you and I to rejoice in purple times. Paul points us back to last week’s candle, which represents the peace Jesus brought into the world, into our lives, and he reminds us that God’s peace in Christ goes well beyond our understanding. We’re asked to pray and be thankful, to make our requests to God, but much of the time we can’t really see how God is responding. We can’t really comprehend how the messes we find ourselves in are supposed to be answers to our prayers. Yet in Christ we are promised that the peace of God will be with us, will guard us, will give us joy.
Yet there’s still all that purple. On top of everything else that’s happened in our church life, we’re dealing with a small homeowner’s trial. Our oven went out over a week ago and it won’t be repaired for at least another week. So our Christmas baking, the wonderful Christmas cookies Beth and Susan create, are all on hold. No, please don’t bring us cookies, that’s not the point. The paunch I’ve grown this year means I don’t need them. No, the point is that I really need to think about something else, instead of my own stomach. Paul’s solution in verse 8 is something else. Think for awhile on the pink things, the joys God puts in our way regardless of our situation.
All through this week our church family was blessed with the joy of sharing a warm place with people who have no shelter. I’m told that of all the warming centers in town, folks found Valley Covenant the one they liked best. It was carpeted and cheerful. It was quiet. There were friendly, loving volunteers. And there was a big screen TV. One man with a long beard that I really envied told me just how very happy he was to sit in a comfortable, warm, quiet room and watching that television. A pleasure you and I take for granted but it gave him so much joy. And it gave me joy to hear it.
I’m cookieless and flooded out of my office, but I get to pastor a church where people bring help and joy to others. That’s a joy I want to hold onto and think more about during the rest of this Advent. And there’s much more to contemplate as well. Paul gave us a list: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—thing about such things.”
My suggestion this morning is that we connect that wonderful invitation to holy contemplation with our anticipation of Christmas and the story we will remember then. Let us think about these things:
“Whatever is true” is that the Son of God was in fact, in truth, in reality born as an infant, as one of us, long ago. It’s not just a pretty picture for Christmas cards, it’s the truth that changes the world, that changes our lives from purple to pink, from sorrow to joy. Let us think about that truth.
“Whatever is noble” is that in His birth, Jesus sacrificed the glory and honor of His throne in heaven for a baby bed in a stable, and all for us, for you and me. The nobility of His humility brings us hope and peace and light in our darkness. Let us contemplate our noble Lord.
“Whatever is right” is the simple obedience of Mary and Joseph. When they heard God’s direction for their lives, even when it meant embarrassment and shame, they did what was right, they did what God asked. Let us meditate on how you and I might be more like Jesus’ earthly parents in doing whatever is right.
“Whatever is pure” is the Virgin Mother and her quiet love for her Child. As Protestants we are not so familiar with this, but through the ages a contemplation of the pure heart and life of Mary has inspired Christians to seek purity and holiness in their own minds and hearts and lives. Let us sit with such thoughts for awhile.
“Whatever is lovely” would be the sight of a sky full of angels singing God’s praise, and all the other beautiful images that surround the Christmas story, like the animals who quietly attended the manger and the star that shone over Bethlehem. Let’s reflect for awhile on those lovely pictures.
“Whatever is admirable” would be rough, temporarily homeless shepherds who heard an unbelievable message but believed it any way. Let’s pause and consider for awhile how quick they were to believe and pray for the same kind of admirable willingness to trust God and go wherever He directs us.
“Whatever is excellent” is the saving grace of God which came down to us in that precious baby boy. Let us ponder that salvation, which cost Him not only humiliation, but suffering, and a Cross. Let’s remember how He gave it all to us without any price or payment on our part, but completely free. Let us ponder that excellent, excellent gift and seek out how we might give Him all that we have and are.
“Whatever is praiseworthy” would be nothing less than our Savior Himself. Think about His miracles, about His teaching, about His compassion. Think about His selfless suffering and think about His glorious Resurrection. Think about Jesus, worthy of all honor, all glory, all praise. Let us think about Him most of all.
Paul concludes these thoughts in verse 9 by inviting us to put into practice whatever we’ve learned or heard from him—or seen him do. Yes, think on such things, but then let thinking become joyful service. Let contemplation become action. Let gratitude become giving. “Put it into practice.” And so we do and have and will. You’ve sheltered the homeless. You’ve comforted the grieving. You’ve given to the needy. You’ve prayed for the jobless and the sick and the heartbroken. Now as you think about true, lovely, good things, may you be renewed in the thought of why we pray and give and serve. Then when it gets cold again or someone needs a friend again or there’s a need to give again, you will be full and ready, filled with grace and blessing and joy.
One last joy is given us to think about. A wonderful thought was expressed back in verse 7. It was the benediction at Ted’s memorial service, “the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Yet verse 9 makes that thought of peace even better, even deeper, even more worth our contemplation. Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us” in the language of the prophet. He came down from heaven to be with and He still is. So the last thought for today is not just “the peace of God” keeping and guarding our hearts and minds, but now, even better, if we can only feel it, “the God of peace will be with you.” In Christ, God is with you. Think about it. And rejoice.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj