Today, the third Sunday of Advent, we light the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath. Advent is a time of penitential reflection, for sorrow and contrition over sin. But today, we have some reprieve. Today, historically in the church year, is called Gaudete. It’s a word that means Rejoice.
And that’s why we’re here today, to rejoice. To rejoice in the presence of the Incarnate Lord. To rejoice in the love of God and sins forgiven, and to learn again how to love our neighbor.
Our social managers, technocrats, and the devil himself won’t have it. They want us only to hunker down and cower in fear. But Christian joy is unstoppable. It can smile and sing right through plagues, warfare, and pandemics. Notice we’re not necessarily talking about being happy here. We’re talking about Christian joy, because joy is an altogether different thing. Mere happiness is fleeting, it’s transitory, it’s an emotional state that comes and goes. Happiness can’t coexist with sadness, pain, and affliction, but Christian joy most certainly can. Today is Gaudete, Rejoice Sunday, and we rejoice in spite of the whole world. Happiness comes and goes, but Christian joy endures, it lasts right through everything we experience – through it all! Even through the very darkest night.
Today we celebrate a couple Christians saints who knew a thing or two about enduring a time of darkness and testing. St. John the Baptist makes his first appearance in Advent today. He’s awaiting a beheading in Herod’s prison. And today the church also commemorates St. Lucia. Both went toe to toe against the state. Both were martyred for their faith in Christ. Both endured a dark night of the soul and yet by the holy light of Christ were transferred from this valley of sorrow to God in heaven.
First, have a look at John. It wouldn’t be the season of Advent without him. He is the perfect example of a saint: One whose whole life bore witness to Christ. John didn’t even pretend to make friends with this world. He was too obsessed – too in love with Christ his Savior for any of that. Our Lord actually calls him the greatest born of women, the greatest human being – what an accolade from the Lord!
But look at John now. He’s languishing in Herod’s dungeon. He’s starved, tortured, and troubled. He likely knows his cruel execution is right around the corner. So when John heard about the deeds of Christ, His preaching, and miracles, from his jail cell he passed a message to some disciples, with a direct message for Jesus. And this was it: John asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” That is, Jesus, are You the Savior who was promised to us long ago? The one we have all been waiting for. The Messiah foretold in the garden after the Fall and proclaimed by the patriarchs and Moses and all the prophets. Or should we just go on waiting?
A lot has been made of this question. Could it be that John is possibly in doubt about Jesus? Or did he have a different expectation of the Messiah? Was he losing hope?
Historically in the church, many church fathers and theologians of the church have been eager to relieve John of any possibility of doubt, and so the idea goes that he is only asking the question on behalf of his disciples, for their benefit only, and not for himself.
But that does present another question for us that’s worth asking. What if John the Baptist, the greatest saint, the greatest born of women, struggled and wrestled in his faith just like you? Perhaps doubt would be a strong word, but what if John desperately needed reassurance? What if John, the one who preached Christ, himself needed Christ to be preached right back to him, especially now, in his hour of darkness? Would that really be such a bad thing?
Well, I suspect you know that answer to all that. The Scriptures say, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” And every Christian saint has need of that. Because who among us has not been tempted by unbelief, who among us has not doubted, or experienced agony of the soul or a crisis of faith? That is common to us all for one simple reason – because we carry around this sinful flesh, and we contend against the world, and the devil, and all his lies. And one the devil’s most common and powerful lies is to convince God’s children that nothing good can possibly come out of our sufferings and sorrows.
Well, St. John the Baptist, the greatest born of women, was flesh and blood too. He was not immune from these very same attacks that you all suffer. And so his question to the Lord is no weakness of faith. But it is faith seeking reassurance.
And that’s just what the Lord provides. Jesus sends John back with no empty promises, but points to His mighty works of healing, and to God’s own Word, proclaimed by Isaiah, which we read this morning. Jesus’ words and deeds verified and confirmed that He was the promised Christ – the fulfilment of all the Scriptures.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
What comfort John must have treasured here from this personal sermon to him from Jesus! Words of pure consolation, straight from Jesus’ own lips. As the cold blade of Herod’s executioner was lifted up above John’s head – I like to think of him staring heavenward cheerful and confirmed in his faith – and repeating those words of Jesus – the dead are raised up – and being translated from the church militant to the church triumphant – in radiant light. May God also give us the courage and confidence to fear nothing except losing Him who has loved us.
But St. John the Baptist is not the only saint we remember today. We also give thanks for Lucia. It’s no coincidence that Lucia’s name means “light.” So it’s fitting that her celebration is today, on the day which was once considered to be the shortest and darkest in the whole northern hemisphere. Therefore, no surprise that St. Lucia celebrations caught on in a special way in Scandinavia.
What should you know about Lucy? Well, she devoted herself to the nurture and care of the poor, and under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian she was asked to renounce her faith, that is, deny that she was a Christian. But that she could not do! She refused, smiled, and said, “I wish instead to please Christ,” and she was whisked out of darkness into the kingdom of light. But oh, how the light of Christ shone brightly in her by her good works and confession!
And even in death her light could not be snuffed out. Satan may have spilled her lifeblood, but today, she who was sanctified by the very blood of Christ sees God face to face! Today, we barely remember kings and emperors from that time, but we surely know Lucia, just a young maiden, a girl, who confessed a king greater than them all.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the light of the world, shines among us. We can never cower in fear at these dark times. The very same light which illumined the heart of St. John and St. Lucia shines brightly in you too – not because of anything in yourself, but because of the light and love of Him who gave Himself for you – for your life and salvation.
After all, the powers of hell had thought they had extinguished and snuffed out the light of Christ on Calvary’s dark hill. But how wrong they were! Because right in the middle of that darkness, Christ was bringing light to the whole world. Darkness temporarily covered the earth. But light shone forth from the empty grave when He walked out – securing for us eternal life and salvation.
This same risen Lord is with us this morning. God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. He is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. He is the light which no darkness can overcome. He teaches us all how to share in His light, bear our cross, rejoice in our sufferings, and stand defiant against the darkness of the grave.
May God strengthen us all this morning by His Holy Word and Sacrament. And may our faith in Him be confirmed and strengthened and all our doubts melt away. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
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