Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Proper B  ~  December 14, 2008

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar




+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,


If Advent is a penitential season, it is also a joyful one. The Forerunner warns us to “REPENT’”, but the Holy Prophet Isaiah and the Holy Apostle Paul command us to “REJOICE”. Repent and rejoice. They sound like opposites but they are not. The change of consciousness that is repentance is a change from sorrow to joy.


Repentance is not only, nor even primarily, sorrow for our sins. As last week’s collect put it, it is forsaking the: leaving them behind, forgetting them. Repentance is casting away these works of darkness and putting on the Armor of Light. As long as our consciousness is pre-occupied with sorrow over our sins we have not really changed our mind, we have not put on the Armor of Light. This is not to say, of course, that we should NEVER be sorry for our sins. No, we must face them, confess them, and be sorry for them. But once we have really been sorry, we must not dwell on them anymore. The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Like God, we must forget our sins, as though they never were. Repentance means changing our consciousness from sorrow to rejoicing.


And repentance is a matter of the will: it is a choice we make. An old friend of mine, who preached at my ordination almost forty years ago, later made pastoral visits to an old lady in a nursing home. She was all alone. No one else visited her. Her room was small and plain. Her window looked out on blank brick wall. But she regularly told Fr. Michael, shaking her head, “I can’t believe how lucky I am. I am SO lucky!” And she was filled with joy. And gratitude. Her joy was not the result of any actual circumstance in her life, but of a decision she had made.


Joy and gratitude are related. An ungrateful person cannot experience joy. In fact I would go so far as to say that gratitude and joy are one in the same. That is what Paul is getting at when he says


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances


AS long as we give thanks, we rejoice, and we live in view of the New Jerusalem, where the wolf and the lamb feed together. On the other hand, when we make ourselves miserable by grieving for losses, or even for our own sins, we are stuck in impenitent consciousness, oppressed by works of darkness, in need of changing our minds. So the Apostle tells the Thessalonians give thanks in every circumstance. That is sometimes very hard to do. Sometimes almost impossible. But even in the midst of dreadful loss ~ the death of a child, for example ~ though it may not be possible to feel joy, it is still possible to give thanks, not for what has happened, but for life itself.


That is what is so moving about Job. God permitted him to lose everything – all his possessions, his health, and all his children. In her grief, his wife advised him to curse God and die. But Job’s famous reply, a pure act of the will, was to give thanks:


Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return to the earth. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Blessed be the Name of the Lord.


Give thanks in all circumstances, as Job did, even in his own complete dereliction. And that was, I think, his own triumph of joy. Some commentators don’t very much like the end of the story, in which everything is restored to Job ten-fold. It seems to them to detract from the stark, existential heroism of the story, and to excuse God for the injustice of Job’s previous losses. But maybe Job’s latter prosperity is a literary figure for the mystical joy that was his gratitude. Perhaps all of his restored wealth and family are contained in that amazing declaration: Blessed be the Name of the Lord.


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances


If you have ever seen a really holy person, you have noticed this joy. It is visible and contagious. It arises out of self-forgetfulness, the change of consciousness that concentrates all of the attention on the Bridegroom. The saints in every age share the conviction of John the Forerunner: He must increase while I must decrease. The “I” who must decrease is our ego and its self-pre-occupation, grieving for our sins and losses. The “He” Who must increase is the Light that is about to dawn. A new consciousness, filled with that light, is what John called the fulfillment of his joy.


The world as “vale of tears” is not ultimate reality. As an unborn infant is surrounded by the nourishing warmth of its mother, so the cosmos is surrounded by the Love of God. The baby is soon to be brought forth into a completely new and more wonderful life. The world is to be born anew into light and joy.


But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,

and its people as a delight.