Rejoicing with John the Baptist

“All of you rejoice!”  That is the message for us on this Third Weekend in Advent.   All over the world people are lighting a pink candle instead of a purple one, or a light blue candle instead of a dark blue one in their Advent candle wreaths at worship this weekend, and saying to each other: “rejoice!”  This is ‘Gaudete Sunday’ – and ‘Gaudete’ means rejoice.

“But what is there to rejoice about?” I hear you say.   We are only on the Third Weekend of Advent and you keep telling us that this is a season of waiting, so surely it is too early to rejoice – we still have another ten days before Christmas!  There are no greater signs than on any other day that Jesus is going to return, so what is all the rejoicing about?

Here is a simple yet profound lesson on this Third Weekend in Advent.  It will not be new to us, but at the same time it is not always at the forefront of our minds.  It is a corrective to all of the other important things that we say about waiting for God’s actions to be fulfilled amongst us.

In the Advent season we wait with the patriarchs of old, the prophets who longed for a better world and Mary who waited for her son, our saviour, to be born.  The clear message as we do so, is that we will rejoice when things come to pass.  We will rejoice when the Messiah comes, we will rejoice when the baby is born, we will rejoice when Jesus returns again.  But this weekend, on this Third Weekend in Advent, when nothing has happened yet, as we wait with John the Baptist, we rejoice anyway.  That is the message for us today, keep waiting for God to act, but keep rejoicing while you wait!  It is as simple as that – we know it of course, but we forget it all too often.

The story of the life of John the Baptist is a reminder to every bit of our being that is tempted to think that time is calculated only within our life times, that what is important is not only what is accomplished by us.  It is a challenge to the short termism to which we are accustomed in our national politics – that everything should be measured in what can be achieved in a particular term of office, rather than the distant horizon of longer periods of time.  It stands in contrast to those who want to measure the success or failure of the ministries of the Church only on the basis of what we see today.

When we heard about John the Baptist last weekend he was out in the desert baptising people and calling them to repentance as he prepared the way for the coming Messiah.  Now he is in prison, having challenged the king who is soon to have him executed.  His life is coming to an end and he sends some of his followers to Jesus to find out if Jesus really is the one that he has been waiting for.  But the deep reality is that he will not be alive when Jesus’ ministry grows to its momentous conclusion.  He has paved the way for the Messiah, he has prepared people for his arrival, but John the Baptist will not live long enough to see Jesus crucified and raised from the dead.

Since John, as an unborn child, first leaped in the womb of his mother Elizabeth at the approach of Mary pregnant with Jesus, the Gospels paint for us a picture of a man who has devoted his whole life to waiting for Jesus to commence his ministry.  From the high point of the baptism in the river Jordan when it all seemed to be coming true to now, as he sits on ‘death row’ in prison, where he questions whether Jesus really is the one who he has been preparing people for.  Like the stories of Moses written so long before, where Moses leads his people through the wilderness but doesn’t actually make it himself to the Promised Land, so John has seen the first signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God in the life of Jesus, but John will die before they come to their fruition.

The Church calls to us on this Third Weekend in Advent, to reframe the way that we think about our own lives in the light of the life of John; to remember that time is not to be measured by the length of our own lives, but to be seen within God’s bigger, wider and eternal plan; to measure achievement in the part that we have played in being faithful, rather than what we have ourselves achieved.  And in all of this we are called to rejoice.  Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was himself assassinated before he had seen much of his life’s work come to completion puts it this way:

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.  We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.  Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.”

There are things that others have begun before us, that we have wonderfully seen come to success and fruition.  There are also projects, dreams, visions for the future of the Church that we are part of beginning, but which we will never see concluded.  Like architects of great buildings that are only completed after the end of their life times.

There is an urgency in what we do now.  We are aware of the serious and precarious situation of the Church not just here in East Maitland but across Australia.  But like John the Baptist, our task is to be faithful, to do what we can as we wait for God to bring the fruits of our labours.

Those of you who are grand parents and great grand parents know this as part of the experience of your lives.  You are helping to lay foundations for lives that will continue and that will flourish long after you.  What is important is not only what happens while you are around, but what may happen long into the future.  Our rejoicing comes not only from what is being achieved now, but from what will be achieved in the future because of the foundations that we lay today.

The writer of the Letter of James, in our Epistle reading today calls us to be patient as we wait in the face of things that seem to be taking a long time, like a farmer who has to be patient with his precious crops. Watering, weeding, fertilising.  Digging some of it up to see what is happening – but all the time waiting for rains that may or may not come.  Doing his part, but always with the risk that what he has done may not bear the fruit that he dreams of.

We are a Church that welcomes a great many visitors.  Ninety families have brought children for baptism here this year – giving thanks to God for the safe arrival of their son or daughter, and asking for God’s blessing on all that is ahead for them.  Those families have, in turn, brought hundreds of others families into this church building to celebrate those baptisms with them.  Couples have come here with their families and friends to celebrate their marriages, and we have asked God’s blessing on the new life that they will share together.  This hasn’t just happened this year, it has happened for over a hundred years – as thousands of children have been baptised, and hundreds of couples have been married.  In the main, we have no idea what will happen next for them.   We might be tempted to be despondent because they have not returned here and joined us on a regular basis, and we certainly need to do more to encourage them to.  But we also, like John the Baptist, need to remember that we are called to play our part in God’s plan, we are not called to do everything.

What is true for baptisms and weddings, is true for all that we do together as the Body of Christ.  Archbishop Romero went on to say,

“No statement says all that could be said.  No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection.  No pastoral visit brings wholeness.  No programme accomplishes the Church’s mission.  No set of goals and objectives includes everything.  This is what we are about. 

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.  We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.  We lay foundations that will need further development…  We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.  This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. 

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.  We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.  We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”

I encourage you to hold these words in your heart as we wait with John the Baptist today.

As we wait in this Advent Season we rejoice – Gaudete – not because all that we have hoped for has been achieved.  But because God in his grace and mercy has invited us, like John the Baptist, to play a small part now in his greater plan.  All of you rejoice!