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My Spirit Rejoices in God

  • December 16, 2018
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 16 December 2018 (Advent 3 Year C)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Zephaniah 3.14-20; Canticle 15 (Magnificat); Luke 3.7-18

Title:               My Spirit Rejoices in God

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1.46-47).

My dear friends: how do we measure success? Was John successful? Was John, that last of the prophets who was baptizing in the Jordan River – was John successful?

Was Mary successful? The one who sang about the mercy God has shown to the hungry and the descendants of Abraham, the blest Mother of Christ – was Mary successful?

It is now the Third Sunday of Advent. Tradition has given a particular name to this Sunday. It is Gaudete Sunday. It is the Sunday, and the week, when we light the pink candle, which represents joy. Gaudete is a call to rejoice. To rejoice in the Lord always.

And so it is fitting on this Lord’s Day that we hear Mary’s great song of praise as well as the rejoicing of the prophet Zephaniah. These songs spring out of pure joy in what God has done and who God is.

But let’s consider for a moment why WE rejoice. What is it that causes us to rejoice? What is it that brings us joy? Which I think is really another way of asking how we measure success.

In sports, the players celebrate when they have success, right? When they accomplish their goal, they are filled with joy and they celebrate.

In art and music, it is the same. When the play or the score is delivered successfully, then there is celebration. Although in this case, it’s the audience that celebrates – definitely not the performers! You don’t see the orchestra stand up and chest bump one another, or see the soloists do a little celebration dance. Though I think they should go ahead and do it once in a while and forget about “what is acceptable”!

But to be clear: none of us rejoices when things do not turn out the way that we want. We rejoice when we succeed, right? When we win a competition, or when we complete a challenge, or overcome an obstacle – that’s when we celebrate.

So I ask you again, was John successful? Did Mary achieve success? Or for that matter, do you think that the Savior was successful? Did our Lord Jesus achieve success?

John called the people to repent. To turn away from greed and to be generous. But did it work? Did the people of God change?

Well, let’s have a quick poll right here. How many people here this morning have more than one coat? How many of us have more than enough to eat while we know that millions of Americans struggle to have daily food security? Anyone? That’s nearly all of us.

By ordinary human standards, we cannot call John a success.

And even Mary did not see things go the way she wanted. She never asked to be a young mother prematurely pregnant in a way that made her neighbors to be suspicious about her.

And yet she sang out her song of praise, finding joy in God regardless of how things appeared to be going.

As we once again consider John’s call to repentance, perhaps one thing that surely needs to change within us is the way that we measure success.

So let me tell you a story about changing the way that we understand joy and success.

One winter day, early in the thirteenth century, in the hills of Italy, St Francis was walking with his good friend and companion Brother Leo. They were walking back home and it was very cold, and Francis called out to Leo, and said: “Brother Leo, if it were to please God that all of our brothers throughout the world gave a great example of holiness and teaching, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy.”

They kept on walking and a little further, Francis called to Leo a second time: “O Brother Leo, if our brothers were to make the lame to walk, if they chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and even if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Shortly after this, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if our brothers knew all languages; if they were educated in all science and could explain all the Scriptures; if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only the future, but also the secrets of people’s souls now, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

And then just a few steps further, he cried out again with a loud voice: “O Brother Leo, little lamb of God! If our brothers could speak with the tongues of angels; if they could explain the courses of the stars; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, fish, animals, people, trees, stones, roots, and waters – write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if our brothers had the gift of preaching and could convert everyone to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Now when Francis had been speaking like this for half an hour, Brother Leo was very confused and so he asked Francis, “Father, please tell me: what is perfect joy?”

And Francis answered: “If, when we get back home, all drenched with rain, trembling with cold, covered with mud, exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the gate, the gatekeeper should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, ‘We are two of the brethren’, he should answer angrily, ‘You are lying. You’re just two impostors trying to deceive us and take away food for the poor. Go away’; if he refuses to open, and he leaves us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger – then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and contempt with patience, without being disturbed and without complaining, believing with humility and charity that the gatekeeper really does know us, and that it is actually God who makes him say these things against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that THIS is perfect joy. And if we knock again, and the gatekeeper comes out in anger to drive us away, swearing at us and hitting us, saying, ‘Get out of here, nasty thieves! You can’t eat or sleep here!’ – and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, Brother Leo, write that THIS indeed is perfect joy.

And if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our blest Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that HERE, finally, is perfect joy.

And now, brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt. For THIS is perfect joy.” (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, Chapter 8).

My friends, can I be honest with you? I don’t really know what this means. I’m not nearly smart enough to understand all of this! Honestly, I do not yet know how to rejoice in being misunderstood and falsely accused and being mistreated, or how to rejoice in suffering.

I don’t know really what this means, but I do know with every fiber of my being that this is true. And that this is the way of Christ. I know that GOD’s way of measuring success is radically different than our way of doing so.

Just consider this quickly approaching Christmas celebration. On what basis will you consider this holiday to be a success? How do you measure it?

Will you find joy this Christmas time on the basis of what gifts were given and shared? Or how amazing the food and drinks are?

Can you instead measure the quality of this Christmas on the basis of how well you are able to give love, and to share peace and tranquility, and to never complain or grumble – no matter what happens, no matter how well your family behaves themselves?

It is Gaudete Sunday, my friends, and we were made for joy. But for true joy that is beyond our simple measurements of success or failure.

What it comes down to is this: True joy is not found in anything that we can count or measure. No money, no possessions, no power, no pleasure, no position, no sense of control can take the place of the real joy of simply knowing God and accepting whatever God sends our way, and not allowing anything to interrupt our conscious connection with God.

Christ HAS come, and IS coming, to bring joy to the world.

But it is GOD’s joy, brought in GOD’s way. So accept what God’s brings – and you will share fully in that joy. May it be so. Amen.

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