'The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.’ Isaiah 61:1
Brothers and sisters, Covid has crept back into our lives over the past few weeks as the official inquiry is broadcast on the BBC. It seems like a different time—a different world even—when we had to stay locked-down in our homes; when we could have only one walk a day; when, if we got to see loved ones, it was through a window. We wondered at the time if we’d ever get back to normal; now we struggle to remember quite what it was like back then. And because many of us struggle to remember what it was like back then, we may also struggle to remember the joy which accompanied the announcement of a vaccine. It was the 8th December 2020 when Maggie Keenan was the first person to receive the Covid jab and what a difference the jabs made. A vaccine meant that the most vulnerable could be inoculated: this meant that we could—as it were—come out of hiding, come out of lockdown prison; no longer did we need to fear what a bug which we could not see might do to us and to our loved ones. I don’t remember the announcement of the approval of the vaccine but it would have been entirely appropriate if the Prime Minister had said ‘Rejoice’—not just because it was Boris Johnson and that’s the type of thing he might have said—but because that was exactly what we could now do. Rejoice, for we have light at the end of the tunnel. Rejoice, we can protect the elderly. Rejoice, our lives may soon be back to normal. Rejoice, for our national imprisonment is at an end. Rejoice!
We’re three quarters of the way through Advent which is meant to be period of reflection, of penitence, of saying sorry, and of seeking to change our sinful habits. Consequently, Advent can be a bit dark, something which is reflected in the usual colour for Advent, purple. Over the past few weeks we’ve been reflecting on the fact that Jesus will return to judge, and when He does each of us will have to give an account. It’s a healthy thing to do, to reflect upon our lives now while we still have time to change, but as with all health regimes it can become a bit overbearing. There can be a danger that if we enter into this season properly we might now be feeling a little depressed. Today, the Third Sunday of Advent is meant to be an antidote to any lingering depression, it’s meant to be the chocolate treat for those who have been dieting. Today, we put off the purple, and we’re commanded—ordered if you like—to ‘rejoice.’ How can we possibly rejoice with judgement on the way? Well, it is all down to knowing the One who is coming, the character of the One who will judge, and it’s all there in our first reading (Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11). You may recognise this reading—even if you don’t know Isaiah very well—for it’s the passage which Jesus reads in the synagogue at the start of His ministry in Luke chapter 4. Jesus chooses the Isaiah reading as the programme, as the summary, as the manifesto of His work: that is of who He is, what He does, and what He will do. And this programme, this manifesto, is all Gospel, it’s all good news! ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.’ (Isaiah 61:1). ’Good news to the poor’ we often take that as good news to those at the bottom of the financial ladder but remember Jesus also uses the term the ‘poor in Spirit’ in Matthew’s Gospel, so this phrase includes the spiritually poor! Who are they? All those who are far from God. All those who have lost sense of the true meaning or the true purpose of life. This, then, includes everyone for all of us have times when we’re spiritually poor, when we’re far from God, and we can’t see the purpose of life. Jesus addresses everyone and comes to proclaim to all the Good news, that you, that each one us, can be free, can be who we were made to be; that is why we can—whatever situation we find ourself in—now ‘rejoice’. The passage continues: ‘He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Vv1b-2). The broken-hearted?: that’s every single person who has been alienated from God, and Jesus says He has come to heal them. Freedom for the captives? Release for the prisoners? That’s captivity to sin, the imprisonment of a soul which is meant to reach out to God and to the world but has been locked-down by wrong choices, finally—because of Jesus—being able to fly to God. Jesus rescues us by coming to us, by being born as one of us, and then breaking the bars of our self-imposed prison by dying on the cross. Jesus does all that for us so He says ‘rejoice’.
In 2020 we were waiting, longing, for the scientists to find a vaccine. We knew they would, we knew that eventually it was likely that a vaccine would be developed but it seemed to take forever, and, while we waited, we were imprisoned—pretty much—in our homes. Similarly the Jewish people knew the prophecy of Isaiah, they knew God would act but they waited and waited, and nothing seemed to be happening. Almost out of the blue the announcement came. Our Gospel reading (John 1:6-8,19-28): ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John. [When asked about himself] John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way for the Lord.”’ Here is the breaking news. Here is the announcement everyone hoped for but no one really expected. The man appointed walks out on stage and says the time has come. I imagine back in December 2020 there were a few glasses of various sorts drunk in celebration of the vaccine announcement. I imagine many people ‘rejoiced’ at hearing the news, at knowing for certain that soon they would be released from lockdown forever, that soon they would be able to see their relatives, that soon the sick, and the lonely would be able to feel the touch of their loved ones. That's is how John the Baptist’s announcement is meant to make all those who hear it feel, whether back then or right now. And that is why John is the right person for ‘Gaudete’, for ‘Rejoice' Sunday because what he came to tell the world is there is a spiritual vaccine and it came in the Person of Jesus Christ. For all those who—as the poor in spirit—know that they aren’t good enough for God but now know that God is good enough for them that God-in-Jesus is coming not to condemn but to free. That is the Good News of the Third Sunday of Advent, the Good News of John the Baptist, the Good News of the Gospel: that Jesus’ coming both now and then, need not cause those who choose to follow Him to fear rather it should cause them to rejoice.
Reading this there are bound to people in different places, some will be feeling a bit Advent-ed Out, a bit exhausted by focussing on the Second Coming. Others will be here wondering if Jesus’ return is good news for them as they haven’t paid Him much attention before. Others will look at their lives and know that if they are judged by their actions it can only be bad news. If you are in any of those categories Gaudete Sunday, ‘Rejoice’ Sunday, is the Sunday for you because it is today when we hear the announcement from John the Baptist, that Isaiah’s prophecy of good news has finally come true. One comes to us to: ‘bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ and that One is no other than Jesus Christ—Emmanuel—who was born into this life to save all those who follow Him. Today we rejoice and sing with good reason: ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel. Rejoice, rejoice.’ Amen. (from Fr Mike).