Remember and Rejoice – Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete

Today is about rejoicing. At its heart, rejoicing is joy, but it’s more than that. It’s about re-experiencing joy. That is, joy again. Now we could spend a good bit of time talking about what exactly is “joy.” Too many people conflate and equate joy with happiness, and to be clear, they’re cousins, but they are definitely not one and the same. Joy is more basic, more fundamental, more elemental than happiness. Think of joy as a chronic condition, and happiness as a symptom of something larger. And so rejoicing is about reencountering joy, reconnecting with it, reuniting with it. That means it’s something that we’ve already known, doesn’t it? In order to rejoice, we must have already experienced joy in order to experience it…again. And so today is a day for us to rejoice. Consider as you go into the sermon today what it means for you to experience joy, and what it would me for you to experience it again. And going a step further, reconsider from another angle. Where does God fit into the experience of your joy? Where does God fit into your re-experience of joy?

Would you pray with me? May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

I spent a lot of time riding the train, the Deutsche Bahn as it was called, when I lived in Germany. I would often hop on the train and head to Frankfurt, which depending on the train I chose to ride, was only an hour away. Now the thing about Deutsche Bahn train cars was that they really didn’t have a front or back. The seats, for the most part, faced toward the doors of the car, which were naturally at each end. So that means if you took a seat closest to the door of the car when you entered, you might be sitting facing the direction the train is travelling, or you might be sitting facing the direction where you’d already been. You could choose which direction you wanted to face when you sat down. But not all the seats in the train were arranged this way. Some were arranged facing each other so that if you were travelling with other people, you could face each other and talk.

So, to recap, some seats faced forward, and some faced backward. You could choose which direction you wanted to face when you sat down. And some seats were arranged in groups so that you could sit with other people and see them, some of you facing forward and some of you facing backward. Got that?

I couldn’t tell you, statistically speaking, when I was travelling alone, how often I chose to sit facing forward and how often I chose to sit facing backward. I know that I did mix it up. It might have depended on my mood. I’m sure that sometimes it depended how full the train was. I’d take whatever seat was available. But I do know that there’s something odd about sitting in a moving train, travelling forward, while you’re facing backward.

In a train that’s travelling on a straight stretch, it’s hard to really “see” where you’ve been, but you can look out the window and watch the landscape go by and you can tell you’re looking backward. You can see the houses, the barns, the cars, the people, the trees—all that passing by, but unlike when you’re walking somewhere, you can tell these things are passing by you as you look backward. You didn’t see them coming, and you could watch them as they receded out of your line of sight—sometimes for a while depending on how far away they were. Going forward toward your destination while watching where you’ve been—that’s something odd. There really isn’t another way to put it than calling it something odd—strange, unusual, bizarre even. It’s not how we normally approach things. You might call it abnormal.

Today the Prophet Isaiah speaks of his commissioning from God. He tells us that the spirit of the Lord God is upon him. That’s the same breath that God first breathed into mud shaped like a person in the Garden of Eden that gave life to Adam. Isaiah is anointed with God’s Spirit, anointed with a purpose—to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to announce the year of the Lord’s blessing, and the day of the Lord; and lastly, perhaps most importantly, to comfort all who mourn.

Isaiah’s commission is forward facing. His mission is to declare to God’s people, to declare to us, what it means to be in relationship with God and what God will do for us as his people. “They shall build up the ancient ruins,” Isaiah tell us. We will raise up the former devastations, and those who come after us will be known among the nations, and our children’s children among the peoples of the earth. God’s promise is that we are a people whom the Lord has blessed—and that blessing will be evident to everyone and anyone.

Isaiah isn’t speaking within a vacuum though. He’s speaking to real people, in a real time, in a real place. He’s speaking to God’s people, in the midst of suffering, in the midst of captivity under the Babylonians. The world as they knew had been turned on its head. Everything about their day-to-day lives as God’s chosen people had been destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar II swooped into Jerusalem and ransacked the city and destroyed the temple—not only their place of worship, but the very house of God itself, the physical place that stood testament to the permanent, unshakeable glory of the Lord. All they had ever known had been torn away from them, and their lives were completely and utterly devastated in ways they couldn’t have fathomed.

And so, this good news of blessing that Isaiah declares to the Israelites in their Babylonian captivity—it was a promise rooted in hope. Hope for a future where they’d rebuild the old ruins, raise a new city out of the wreckage. They’d start over on the ruined cities, take the rubble left behind and make it new. The future for God’s people is bright with promise—that is Isaiah’s message.

Doesn’t Isaiah’s message blare loud as a klaxon for us today? All we ever knew torn away from us, and our lives completely and utterly turned upside down in ways we couldn’t have fathomed, even a year ago at this time? A pandemic. Fire. Uncertain employment. Trees falling on houses. Friends, spouses, parents dying. Loved ones getting sick. Friendships stressed to the breaking point. The list goes on and on. Isaiah’s message is precisely what we need to hear in this time. We need a message of hope, of a future bright with promise as God’s people. We need a message of blessing…

Yet Isaiah’s message is not one that forgets the past, or paints it with great Pollyannish brushstrokes. Did you notice that? “For God has clothed me with the garments of salvation,” Isaiah tell us. “He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” God has already done these things. God has already blessed us. And what’s more, the promise that Isaiah declares must rest on this faithfulness, on God’s faithfulness to the covenant. Not only the covenant he made with Abraham, but the covenant made to the whole of Israel in David. The covenant made to Moses in the law at Sinai. The covenant made with Noah after the flood. The covenant made with all humanity in Eden.

And now, in their captivity, God promises to make yet another covenant with his people. And this covenant, this promise, is sure, like all the rest, because in all his covenants God has been faithful. We know this because we remember it. And so, even as Isaiah summons the Israelites to look toward the future with hope, bright with promise, he bids them recall the faithfulness of God throughout history. Looking forward requires them to look backward.

Isaiah summons us likewise to remember the future today, just as he did some 2700 years ago in ancient Judah. He bids us remember the future, which is an odd thing to do, admittedly. You might call it as abnormal as travelling facing backward in a train car. How do you remember something that hasn’t happened yet? For us Christians, we remember each time we gather together and share communion with one another and with God.

We declare the fundamental truth of our faith—Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We remember the whole of the past—Christ has died. We remember the whole of the future—Christ will come again. And in so doing, we remember the whole of the present—Christ is risen. This sums up our blessings.

Our lives center themselves entirely, in the here and now, on the mighty act of God’s faithfulness throughout all time, since before the foundation of the universe. God is faithful to his promises, and with us, God makes a new covenant—a covenant through water, where we are anointed with the Spirit for new life in Jesus, buried with him in death and resurrected with him to God’s greater glory. We are God’s people, even as now we sow tears of sorrow and weep in suffering, we will reap songs of joy and will rejoice again with gladness. God is with us—our greatest blessing.

This promise is God’s eternal promise—past, present, and future. It has no beginning, and it has no end. And it’s not an individual promise, but one made to us in relationship with God and with one another. We don’t travel the journey of faith alone—because faith is by its nature a relationship. God means for us to enjoy the blessings of eternity in the here and now, in this very moment, in this very present—with him, and with each other.

We remember the past, not in an effort to return to it. We don’t journey in faith facing backward with our eyes glazed over with the patina of nostalgia, seeking to recreate memories that never were. The past is the past, and it cannot be reobtained. We cannot make new memories by remaking old memories. Neither do we journey in faith facing forward with illusory hope for a tomorrow free of suffering and want, seeking to forget the sorrow and troubles of yesterday. We cannot live in a future devoid of memory.

But neither the past nor the future are what are at stake. We remember the past and we remember the future in order to more fully remember the present. We remember just as God was faithful to us, never abandoned us in our worst trials, God will remain steadfast and true to us, and never abandon us come what may. That is a promise that makes us remember—makes us remember the present. Even now, we are claimed by God, marked with the death of Christ’s cross, and anointed for abundant life with God’s Holy Spirit. We are blessed.

God draws us into communion with one another where we neither dwell in the past with unfounded wistfulness, nor ache for the future with unrealistic expectation. God draws us into relationship with him, journeying together in communion with one another, to remember the present, to live life and live life abundantly. God calls us not merely to look forward or merely to look backward, but to live together in the mystical present, to remember and rejoice at what God has done, what God never stopped doing, and what God never will stop doing. God calls us to embark on this journey with him and with one another—to remember and rejoice that God is our past, our present, and our future; our beginning, our now, and our end; our eternity.

Remember the past. Remember the present. Remember the future.

We are blessed.

Remember and rejoice.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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