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Testify to Joy – Advent 6

Advent 6 (Advent 3B): Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-66);

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

December 17, 202

            Good Morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the sixth Sunday of Advent. Our seven-week Advent journey has been bringing us through this holy space of already and not yet, anticipating the coming just reign of God and the fresh dawning of hope in the coming of God the Son, the Word made flesh, into our midst. Today we welcome a further sign of that hope shining into this season with the theme of “Gaudete,” Latin for the declaration “rejoice.” Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee,” the famous Advent hymn repeats in the refrain our Prayers of the People have been evoking each week. Joy is a theme in which Christmas basks, and Advent anticipates it particularly on this day, the second to last Sunday in its sequence. Some communities visually proclaim this joy through pink or rose-colored vestments, only otherwise used on Laetare Sunday in Lent. In both of these rose-tinted Sundays there is a sense of joy emerging early, bursting forth ahead of a coming, fuller joy – for us of Christmas, and in Lent of Easter. The biblical scholar Reginald Fuller noted that in Laetare Sunday in Lent that early emergence feels more like an oasis in the desert, whereas in Advent today marks a distinctly anticipatory joy.[1] This is the joy of leaning forward toward or perhaps even tasting ahead of time, the amazing thing soon to fully unfold. As Gaudete Sunday comes to us in this cycle of our three-year lectionary, we are invited into this joy through testimony. Testify to joy, we are called.

            Our gospel passage conveys this call through the witness of John the Baptist. John was brought into our awareness last week, as you may recall, through the perspective of the Gospel of Mark. This week we are given us another angle on John’s ministry through the fourth gospel, the Gospel of John. As in Mark’s telling, John the Baptist is closely associated with the prophet Isaiah’s “voice crying out in the wilderness” (Isaiah 40:3). But while last week the story showcased John’s prophetic garb and menu, his embodying of the wilderness in which he appeared crying “prepare the way,” today the emphasis is upon that cry, that testimony, itself. John is, we are told, “a man sent by God… a witness to testify to the light” (John 1:6-7). A witness to testify to the light. Normally light is fairly apparent. We might not think of light as something that needs to be pointed out.[2] Yet John insists, it does. It does. Why? “Among you stands one whom you do not know,” John responds to those questioning him later in our passage, “the one who is coming after me” (John 1:26-27). He was responding to a question about why he baptized. His answer underlines his purpose: to testify to light that was not yet known, not yet fully visible or legible in the world’s shadows: the light shines in the shadows and the shadows did not overcome it, to adapt the line of the Prologue of John’s gospel that just precedes the entrance of John the Baptist (John 1:5). When John had been asked earlier who he was if he was not the Messiah or Elijah or another returned prophet, he again spoke his purpose: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23). I am that voice. I vocalize that Good News. I testify to the light. 

            John does not testify in joyous tones, but Mary the Mother of Jesus certainly does. We might say we followed in John’s footsteps this morning by vocalizing Mary’s prophetic rendition of the Good News, collectively declaring the joy of God’s in-breaking kingdom. The Magnificat, as this canticle is also known from its Latin translation, is Mary’s response to Elizabeth who would become mother of John the Baptist. The two women, both pregnant against all odds, rejoiced in their meeting and in the amazing new things God was doing in collaboration with them. “Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” said Elizabeth to Mary (Luke 1:45). To which Mary responded, “My soul magnifies God, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46-47). She goes on to declare the qualities of God’s reign: the filling of the hungry with nourishment, the lifting up of the lowly, the bringing down of the powerful, the sending away of the rich. Mary rejoices in how God has acted and announces in the process the qualities of the divine dream that her son Jesus would share. Mary testified joyfully to the light.

            Several weeks ago I had the odd experience of being interviewed via Zoom for an NPR story about the (growing?) practice of churches observing a longer, seven-week Advent.[3] It was a half-hour conversation, snippets of which ended up being used for the story (along with some audio from our worship that morning). One comment that did not make it into the final cut contained a reference to the various Advent calendars you see everywhere in stores or online —I said something about Advent basically not being an unfolding chocolate countdown to Christmas. After the official interview was done and we were waiting for it to upload, the reporter remarked that all of us whom he had interviewed had critically riffed on that same capitalist Christmas culture phenomenon – chocolate, or Lego or even whiskey shot Advent calendars. I think in the end the reporter summarized that point himself (no doubt much better than any of us!). I stand by that point. Advent locates us within, the coming of the just, divine reign of God. But now also, from this place of Gaudete Sunday, of anticipatory Advent joy, I also want to say: for God’s sake, please take a moment. Bring on the chocolate. The Legos. The whiskey. Whatever it may be. Lean into joy. Know in your very bones, taste and see, that the reign of God whose nearness Jesus announced is radiantly good news. As this morning’s prophetic Isaian words declare, “[God] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” God sent the prophet to provide “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 3). God’s justice brings joy. Claiming joy even as the fulness of God’s reign is not yet completely realized is critical to responding to God’s call to collaborate in ushering in the divine dream. What John the Baptist and Mary the Mother of Jesus add to this call to joy is to testify to its presence as to light shining in contexts where we do not see it and among people we do not yet truly know.

And so, dear friends, I wonder what it might look like in your life right now to claim joy, a joy that is a taste of joy’s fuller divine expression. What might it look like testify to that joy as to light shining in the shadows? I will close with one small glimpse I have seen of such joy. Yesterday afternoon and early evening we hosted the Diamond Heights Holiday Party. As with the Thanksgiving Dinner in November and Dymphna before it, we had not had such an event in this space in person since 2019. Not only had four long years passed since we had been together in this particular way, singing kitchy Christmas carols with Scrumbly Koldewyn, enjoying food, hearing from representatives of local organizations Resilient Diamond Heights and Urban Angels. But at least four and maybe five years had passed since a particular embodiment of Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus had graced us with their festive presence here: Peter Fairfield and Linnea Sweet. The moment Santa and Mrs. Claus wended their way through this space, there was a newness of joy I could feel bubbling to the surface. As Patricia Wilder played blues renditions of Christmas Carols and Santa got up and danced, truly I saw and heard the refrain rejoice. 

Rejoice, rejoice! God-with-us shall come. God in Christ has come, is present, will come fully. With glad tidings God invites us to revel in that deep truth, to collaborate in the holy in-breaking of the divine dream. Christmas is indeed coming. In Advent anticipation, let us rejoice and be glad in that.

[1] Reginald Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1984), 211.

[2] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John 1-XII. The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 28.

[3] Jason DeRose, “A longer Advent helps some Christians prepare for more than Christmas,” National Public Radio, November 25, 2023.

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