St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Amarillo, TX

"Gentleness and Joyfulness": Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

During this season of Advent, we as a church body prepare ourselves in anticipation for the coming of our Lord. We continue to live in this season in a state of “joyful tension.”

This Third Sunday of Advent is known, specifically, as Gaudete (gow·DE·te) Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin for "Rejoice." We traditionally mark this Sunday in Advent as special by having a pink candle on the Advent wreath, and by singing hymns of rejoicing.

We are reminded also of this theme from our epistle reading today from Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

And we can understand this idea of rejoicing this time of year. We hear the joyful tunes on the radio: "Joy to the World!" or "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas!" We see the pretty lights everywhere. Joyfulness is the order of the day.

But the reality is that this time of year can also be really hard on people. One reality is that here in the northern hemisphere, we are closing in on the shortest days of the year in terms of daylight. That can affect of our mood. The darkness all around can invade our spirits and hopes.

We can also be particularly reminded in this season of those loved ones who have died and are no longer with us in the midst of the celebrations and joyfulness.

Because of these realities, tonight at St. Andrew's on this Gaudete Sunday, we will recognize that not everyone is full of joy. We are holding our "Blue Christmas" service at 6:00 PM to acknowledge and to name grief and loss. But also to name the presence of God in Christ in the midst of our pain.

In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he tells us to rejoice, but that's not where his advice ends.

Paul goes on to tell us that we should let our “gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”

That quality of "gentleness" seems curious to me.

I've looked at this scripture many times in my life and wondered why Paul chose the word "gentleness." After all, it could have been "love" or "kindness" or "mercy" or any number of other qualities that Paul talks about elsewhere.

Several years ago when I was in seminary, I did an internship as a hospital chaplain. My supervisor helped me set some pastoral goals for this internship. She took one look at me and noted that I happen to be a very large man.

She said, "One goal I want you to have is to figure out how to not be so large. What I mean is, I want you to be less intimidating. I want you to find your "inner gentleness" as you work in the hospital."

I just looked at her and thought, "how the heck am I going to be small?...I've always been the biggest person in the room!"

Then my supervisor assigned me to be the chaplain for the maternity ward. Not only that, in that hospital, the chaplain before me on the maternity ward had been an exceptionally gifted woman. One her practices was to walk up and down the halls each morning with a pretty basket full of gift bags that she had hand-made, filled with Texas Wildflower seeds. The idea was she could enter the rooms of new mothers and their newborns, offer a gift of wildflower seeds and give a blessing. She would also tell them that when they got home, they could plant the seeds, and the beautiful flowers would grow alongside their newborn.

When I arrived in the maternity ward, I inherited this practice. I was expected to continue with the basket of seeds. It was a beloved program. "Be small, Robert," I told myself. "Think gentle," I said. So I did my best to make up the little wildflower gift bags as I had been shown with ribbons and neat handwriting on the cards (not my strong suit).  And then I set out each morning up and down the hall of the maternity ward with my basket of Texas Wildflowers. All the nurses and doctors immediately started calling me the new seed lady.  



But in that practice, what I found was I never knew what would be on the other side of the door. Because, of course, most of the time on the maternity ward, when I pushed open the door, it was absolutely joyful! It was the best day of someone's life! It was pure celebration! Texas Wildflowers for everyone!

But some doors...behind some doors lay nothing but pain...sorrow...the worst day of someone's life. No wildflowers for this room. No comfort or prayer or words will change anything in this moment.

But that was the point. That was Paul's lesson. Gentleness. Gentleness. It's not about me! Whether this was joyful celebration or a painful devastation, "the Lord is near!"

Paul goes on to tell us "don't worry about anything!"

Sure, Paul, that's easy for you to say!

Some days, frankly, I'm gonna  worry. That 's just how it's going to be.

But Paul's point is that the reason we don't worry is because "the Lord is near."

"The Lord is near." Even in the midst of our pain. Especially in the depths of our sorrow.

Behind those doors on the worst day of your life. On these darkest nights of the year. In difficult times when others are singing about joyfulness, "the Lord is still near!"

And Paul tells us that we need to pray with thanksgiving to God. And in doing so, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus.”

I think it's important to point out that Paul is NOT saying that God will just "give us anything we ask for" when we pray.

We are NOT praying to God as if God is the magic genie in the bottle who has granted us three wishes.

Instead we are looking for God's presence in the midst of our circumstance.

And God will bring us peace.

And knowledge of God's peace is worth rejoicing about.

I admit that it sounds a little counterintuitive to say, in the midst of tragedy or  suffering or difficulty or pain: REJOICE!

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Paul is saying here. Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS! Again I say Rejoice!

He does not say: Rejoice in the Lord in Good times, and then don’t rejoice when times are bad.

And by the way, he also does not say: “Never cry out in Lament." OR "Whatever you do, never complain to your Lord.”

Because I want to be clear: God can take our cries of pain and sorrow and suffering and lament as well. We can tell God we hurt. We can tell God we don't understand. We can tell God we are shattered.

When Paul wrote these words, he was sitting in a jail cell, not sure if he would ever be released again or not. And even in that situation, he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say rejoice.”

So, in this Advent season, what are the responses that we might have in the midst of difficulty. In the midst of crisis?

Rejoicing and gentleness will not always dispel every crisis that we are living through. They will not magically erase tragedy. But rejoicing and giving thanks to the Lord, asking for that peace that surpasses all understanding, can bring us comfort.

They can help us know we are never abandoned or alone. 

O Come, O come, Emmanuel.

Rejoice... The Lord is near!


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