12 Dec Sermon: 3rd Sunday of Advent (Year C)
Today on this third Sunday of Advent we hear the message of John the Baptist and his call to repentance. ‘What then shall we do?’ says the crowd, and John replies with specific advice for the three different groups of people. To the general crowd he says that they must be willing to share; if you have two coats be prepared to share with the person who has none and do the same with your food. To the tax collectors he has this command; don’t take more than what is actually due; and finally to the soldiers in John commands them, no more bullying or blackmail but be happy with your pay. It’s clear and simple language directed at the different contexts and situations of the people who are listening to him, and I suppose if we had to summarise it, we might say that John is encouraging people not to be greedy or selfish in their behaviour, but rather to give thanks for what they already have.
This theme of thanksgiving is also part of Paul’s advice to the church in Philipi, from our second lesson; ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’
Today is also sometimes known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word meaning ‘rejoice’. Traditionally it was observed as a pause in the normal penitential themes of advent, when the Church was encouraged to give thanks, and certainly it is thankfulness which is, I think, at the heart of John’s message to the crowd. The different groups are challenged to recognise with thanksgiving what they have rather than grasping for more. To put it in the language of advent, we prepare for what is to come by meeting God in the here and now, giving thanks in our own situations for what we already possess.
Our thanksgiving then has an important role to play in our preparation for the coming of Christ and in our daily discipleship, yet perhaps it’s something we don’t always give much attention to. For all sorts of reasons thanksgiving may become something rather secondary in our practice of faith.
Perhaps part of the issue is that thanksgiving can be linked very closely to how we are feeling. If we are feeling great and successful then we can easily give thanks, but what happens when that success fades? The experiences of the past week, our temperament and personality, our experience and understanding of the world around us, all of this can affect our practice of thanksgiving, and although it is natural that our experiences and feelings play a part in our discipleship, there is a danger that we can slip into a habit where thanksgiving only occurs in the days and seasons that are joyful and prosperous, and is then completely absent at any other time.
The thanksgiving that Paul and John are pointing to is, however, of a nature which wells up from a place of prayer and reveals to us both the truth of God’s love as well as our place within God’s gaze of grace. This is an understanding of thanksgiving that does not depend on external factors or the successes or mistakes of the day, but is known simply in its truth; the truth of who God is and therefore who we are.
This is a gift understood as we immerse ourselves in the presence of God. Of course there will still be struggles and mistakes along the way. Like the crowd who listen to John, we often want to grasp hold of the goods and the status of the world, and to find our thanksgiving in those things. Like the crowd perhaps we are greedy for all that we can find to give us the edge, to make us feel better, and give thanks only when we have that sense of superiority; however, if we choose, we can let go of what is actually unnecessary, and discover that we can give thanks for that which we have had all along; namely the Light which illuminates the truth in our lives and in the world.
This thanksgiving releases us from the grasping and the clinging, and instead enlivens within us generosity and grace. It’s a thankfulness which is known by the deep peace of our hearts and is revealed through generosity and care for our neighbour.
As we continue our advent journey we will experience the routines, the stresses, and the joys of this time of year, and we may with the crowd ask the question, ‘what then shall we do?’. Surely part of the response to that question is the extent to which thanksgiving becomes part of who we are. A thanksgiving which is wise to those things which in the end will only burden us, and instead rejoices in the gifts which have been with us all along.