“We can choose a better way”
December 11, 2022 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Matthew 1:18-24; Luke 1:35-56
Third Sunday of Advent
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,
Mary Visits Elizabeth
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
Mary’s Song of Praise
46 And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Today is Joy Sunday! Rejoice in the Lord, always and again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord, always and again I say rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say rejoice!
This Sunday is the Sunday traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, Gaudete being the Latin word for Rejoice. I love that the church has this ancient tradition going back many centuries of making one Sunday of Advent all about joy. I love that the liturgical color for the day is inspired by a blossom. I love that in the midst of formality and serious ritual, there is room for a burst of color and joyful song. When I was in college, I studied abroad in Russia for a semester and while I was there I attended a Roman Catholic Church. Being a cradled Methodist, this was a mystifying experience. Everything felt so ancient and beautifully ritualistic. And then on the third Sunday of Advent the very serious priest came into the sanctuary covered from head to toe in a bright pink chasuble, which is like a robe on top of the robe. And I mean it was bright pink. I loved it. It showed that there was room in the ancient tradition for joy.
You might be thinking it makes perfect sense that there is a Joy Sunday as we lead up to Christmas. Christmas preparations are all about joy, right? But this was not always the case. The Gaudete Sunday used to stick out from the rest of Advent like a blossom blooming in winter. The Advent of our ancestors looked very different than the Advent we know today. It was a season for preparing for Christ’s arrival with solemnity and frugality. Faithful Christians used the days of Advent to intentionally cut back on luxuries in their life and their days were simplified around activities that brought them closer to God. It was a common occurrence for faithful Christians to abstain from indulgent food during Advent… sugar, butter, eggs. And more time than usual was spent in prayer, confession, Bible study and service.
It was into this kind of Advent that Gaudete Sunday rolled around on the third week with a burst of color and a blessing from the church for everyone to let go of their fasts and their penance for a day. After all, preparing for Christ wasn’t just about emptying ourselves and giving up luxuries. There also needed to be room for extravagance. Gaudete Sunday was born as a day of reprieve from the intentional scarcity faithful Christians put on themselves in Advent. It was a feast day amongst the fast. It was a day to remember that surprise and joy are also part of the faithful waiting. A wilderness blooming. Contradiction in the most beautiful way possible.
I give you this brief history of Gaudete Sunday because here in the 21st century we might scratch our heads at the thought of some of these ancient Advent traditions. These days it’s common for all four weeks of Advent to be full to the brim of cheer and feasting. Fasting and penitence are not really in our vocabulary as 21st century Christians at Advent. Advent has become a pre-celebration for Christmas. In fact, there was just this week an interview on NPR with an expert on consumer behavior talking about Advent Calendars. Now Advent Calendars first came about in the late 19th century as a visual way of starting to unwrap the mystery of Christmas a little bit each day. It started with paper card where you opened a little door to see a partial picture of the Christmas scene. Fast forward to today and Advent Calendars run the gamete but one consistent theme is that they are primarily a vehicle for delivering treats. You can find a commercial “Advent” Calendar in just about any product you desire. Beef jerky, cheese, wine, socks, make-up, jewelry. If you want it, why wait? Sprinkle the riches of Christmas throughout the season. The people who sell us Advent Calendars make us think this will make us happy. That this will give us joy.
And they’re not wrong. We like to think that, too. We are tempted to think that joy is something that can be bought on a shopping list or purchased as a light up decoration for our front lawn. We are surrounded by attempts to mass-produce joy this time of year. So my question today is, if we have feasting and happiness inundating us all through our Advents these days, what is the point of Gaudete Sunday? What is the wilderness into which it needs to bloom?
It’s true that Christians no longer put on sack-cloth and eat breadcrumbs for the season of Advent. But maybe it’s also true that the surface-deep cheer and happiness that is represented by the 100th playing of Feliz Navidad and yet another day of chocolate treats from our Advent Calendars does not necessarily equate to the kind of Joy we’re talking about in church today. In fact, I can almost categorically say it doesn’t. Maybe in the midst of all the abundance, we’re actually still searching for something that represents a deeper joy. A joy that money can’t buy. A joy that can’t be marketed inside the latest trending product in the store. A kind of joy that cuts through the surface-deep celebration and speaks to a profound truth. The profound truth that true joy is not about what makes us happy, true joy is when we watch the work of God unfolding for those around us.
The joy we hear about in the Bible stories today is a what we could call a generational joy. A joy that is so deep and long-lasting that it doesn’t fade when the Christmas lights come down and it doesn’t get old like that song on the radio. Generational joy is not necessary a joy that is felt or known immediately. It’s like planting the seed of a tree and knowing that someday it will create beautiful shade that you will never experience.
We find this kind of joy by making choices that affect more than just our own short-term happiness. Take, for example, Joseph. He easily could have chosen a path for his life that brought short-term happiness. He had just found the woman he was engaged to had become pregnant… and he was not the father. This was a recipe for humiliation. He had every right and expectation from his society to leave this woman in the dust and get as far away from her as he possibly could. But then he had an encounter with God in a dream. And God told him that he, Joseph was in charge of not only his joy, but the joy of generations to come after him that he would never know.
The angel told Joseph, do not be afraid to do what is unpopular. It might not make you happy immediately, it might be difficult and uncomfortable, but in the long-term this baby you adopt will save his people from their sins.
Joseph chose a better way. Joseph found true joy by thinking not of his own immediate desires, but the unfolding of God’s love over generations to come.
And then there’s Mary. Barely a teenager, faced with unimaginable circumstances, she makes a choice not only to say yes to God’s purpose but to do so with conviction and prophetic power. She doesn’t just consent to be a bodily home on earth for the unborn Lord, she gives her soul to the generational joy this baby inside of her will bring. Despite the challenges and vulnerability she faced, Mary could glimpse the scale and scope of the good news she was part of bringing forth. This good news transcends time and space—it was and is bigger than just her. Christ was coming for collective liberation: God’s redemption was at work for years to come. The joy is meant to be lived out and passed on from generation to generation.
When we are living through Advent seasons so rich and permeated with indulgences that bring us only surface-deep happiness, Mary cuts through the noise and sings a song about a joy that goes deeper. And the bottom line was, it wasn’t about her own satisfaction or happiness, her joy came from the gift she was helping to bring generations of people she herself would never meet.
She chose a better way.
We can choose a better way, too. Don’t let Christ’s arrival only be about a chocolate-filled count-down to Christmas. Don’t let the preparations for Christmas stop when you’ve bought everything on your shopping list. Don’t let the surface-deep happiness the stores try to sell you ruin your desire for something deeper. Christ’s arrival is revolutionary. It is supposed to be a beautiful contradiction of justice blooming in a wilderness of injustice. Of the last being first. Of the tables turned. Of the weak finding new strength. Of the lowly being lifted up to a place of honor. When we chose to help the wilderness bloom, when we choose to share our joy with those who have less. When we choose to use our life to make life better for people we’ll never meet, then we will know true joy.
I want to share one last thing with you today. We are sitting right now on land that originally belonged to the Haudenosaunee (hoe-dune-a-shownee) people, the Iroquois Confederacy. They lived their lives with a philosophy that has come to be known as Seventh Generation thinking. A way of living in which the decisions that are made today result in a more just world not only now, but seven generations into the future. This is wisdom that makes up a better way of living. Less about the short-term “me” and more about the long-term “us.” This is not a choice we’ve always been good at making. In fact, the way some of our ancestors treated the First Peoples of this land is case in point.
But we can choose a better way. We can hold on to some of the ancient beauty of this Advent season when we sacrifice our own short-term happiness for a greater good. A generational joy. Choosing a better way doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as giving up your time to ring a bell out in front of Price Chopper or passing down a tradition to your grandchildren that your grandparents taught you. It can be as easy as piecing dough together into a pie-shell for someone’s Christmas Dinner treat (actually that’s harder than it seems…). We can start small and work toward bigger goals. We can start to rethink our gift-giving entirely. Giving gifts that are less about our immediate needs and more about making the world better in the future. Purchasing fair trade gifts, donating money to organizations that are doing justice-oriented work in our communities, reusing and recycling instead of buying new.
This Advent, how will you help the wilderness to bloom? How will you find true joy? What will your impact be not just today but seven generations from today.
Let us pray.
God of mercy, a million times a day we have the opportunity to be gracious, to assume the best in others, to give the benefit of the doubt. A million times a day we could choose the better way, but so often we don’t. Fear and greed kick in. Assumptions and insecurities take the wheel. Comparison and critique lead the charge. Forgive us for forgetting that we are descendants of Joseph. Forgive us for forgetting that grace and mercy are in our blood. Forgive us for forgetting that all belong to you. Give us the courage to love even bigger than before, and the wisdom to choose a better way. Amen.