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2023-12-17 Advent 3

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!

Last Sunday my kids were asking me why one of the Advent candles is pink if the rest of them are blue? Well, it goes all the way back to 16th century when good German Lutherans invented the concept of the Advent Wreath. A couple hundred years later, a Lutheran Pastor named Wichern was doing mission work amongst poor street kids who would daily do the “are we there yet” routine we normally reserve for road trips! Every day they would ask him if Christmas was here. Pastor Wichern, no doubt being driven up the wall by these kids, took a wagon wheel and decorated it with 24 small red candles and 4 larger white candles. A small candle was lit every week day and a large candle was lit on each Saturday of Advent, helping the kids count up to Christmas and hopefully preserve Pastor Wichern’s sanity! Eventually the small candles dropped out and transferred their red colour to the 4 remaining large candles. Originally, Advent had more in common with the season of Lent in that it was a less joyful and more somber time of spiritual preparation. Rigorous fasting, prayer and alms giving were devoutly practiced. But as Advent matured into its own distinct season, people lightened the preparations and symbolized this with a lighter shade of red: pink. The third Sunday in Advent came to be associated with joy for this reason. Advent wreaths were finally brought to North America in the 1930s where they often had purple candles and purple paraments like the season of Lent. Even as Advent took on its own distinctive blue colour in the church year, the third candle kept its pepto-bismol pink hue!

So a warm welcome to the third Sunday in Advent! The ancients called this Gaudete Sunday, the Latin word for “joy.” This comes straight out of Thessalonica where St. Paul writes: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16-18). This is an inspiring and yet challenging verse. I’ve at the same time both loved and struggled with it. How is possible to “rejoice always?” Life is chock full of situations and people and events that are anything less than joyful. 2023 has seen more than it’s fair share of bad things. Sorrowful things. Wars and conflicts. Disasters. Thousands of painful reminders that our world and life are marred with problems and frustrations. As God’s people we know in our hearts and minds that these are all symptoms of death and sin that affect our world and everything in it like a plague. We know the true spiritual reality, but it can be of little comfort to us. Life as we know it here on this earth will always be difficult. It will always have trials and temptations, disease and depression, sadness and sorrow.

Dealing with this harsh reality is generally what causes problems for people. I think one of the more common ways today is pretending. People simply pretend things aren’t so bad. They fill their hearts and minds with positive thinking and good vibes. But eventually, the stark reality of our world with its full compliment of pain and suffering will bite with a fierceness and shake them back to reality. We see this commonly in the modern funeral industry. I’ve ranted about this in the past but it’s still the case. The marketers are getting good about downplaying sadness and grief. Don’t have a funeral! Celebrate life instead! Don’t worry, be happy! But, it’s all fake. It’s just pretend. No amount of positive thoughts and good vibes can change the searing pain of death. You can’t gloss it over. You can’t sugar coat it. We talked about this in our Psalms Bible Study. Sadness and lament are part of our human experience in this sinful and broken world.

So how do we deal with it? If mental delusion and pretending doesn’t dull the pain, most people turn to other things to do the job for them. Alcohol. Drugs. Gambling. Addictions of various kinds. All of these things are escape methods, ways of dodging dealing with the sad reality. But it’s still delusion. It’s like a mouse caught in a steel tub. It just can’t climb out on its own. No matter what it tries to do, or how hard it tries to do it, it’s stuck. It can’t deal with the problem that lies before it on its own. It needs outside help. This little mouse describes us all when it comes to dealing with the problems and struggles of life. No matter what we do, on our own we can’t get out. No amount of pretending or intoxication can make it better. We need to be lifted out by Someone bigger than ourselves. We turn to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Our Triune God is big enough to handle all of our problems. His grace and mercy and forgiveness and strength is what fills us with hope, peace, joy and love. It is because we have a Savior who was born for us that we know we can make it through this life and all of its sadness, perils and tribulations. Without Him, we are that wee little mouse stuck in the steel tub.

It is the light of Jesus, the light that John the Baptist gave witness too, that fills us with joy. It’s joy that even the best things of the world cannot give. Better than a scratch and win ticket, greater than the smiling faces on our wedding day, happier than the sparkle in the eyes of our newborn baby, more exhilarating than pushing your toes into a white sand beach while everyone else you know is pushing a shovel through white snow sidewalks! The joy that Jesus gives is like none other. And the other sweetly puzzling thing about it is that it only has one condition: the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it, which means that it can erupt in a depressed and downtrodden economy, in the middle of a war, or in an intensive care waiting room.

The joy Jesus gives is much like His peace – it surpasses all human understanding. It isn’t contingent on us having every physical comfort, or having good emotions or anything else. No matter what our circumstances in life, we can have joy and, as St. Paul says, “rejoice always.” We can be joyful in the deepest darkest depths of despair because “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame”” (Heb 12:2). As with everything else in life, we look to our Lord’s cross. We look to where Baby Jesus would grow up and go. We see that Jesus endured the worst for us “for the joy that was set before Him.” How beautifully humbling this Scripture is. ‘We’ are the Lord’s joy. We are the reason He was born and gave up His life, that God may be with His people forever - Emmanuel.

This is a heavenly reality that we enjoy right now. The third candle is lit on the Advent wreath to remind us of it. It’s purposely pepto-bismol pink because it’s light and joyful. It’s much like a flag flown from the top of the castle of the heart when the King is home. And indeed, our King has come and will come again. Jesus is truly our King who has delivered us from sin and death. And, continues to deliver us today from all the darkness and ugliness in his fallen world. We cling to His humble birth as the Christ child and to His promise of life everlasting. The little mouse inside the tub has been lifted out as Jesus our Lord proclaims liberty to the captives. No matter what situations, conflicts or calamities might come our way in life, we take immeasurable comfort and joy in Jesus our Savior. His grace helps us endure all challenges, His love surrounds us and protects us from all things. This is what fills us with joy this Advent season and in all times. And the greatest joy, that of our heavenly home, still awaits as we trust in our Savior who was born to set us free. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

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