Sunday, 14 December 2014

Gaudete Sunday - A Sermon From Two Years Ago

Today is the third Sunday of Advent - Gaudete Sunday.  What follows is a the roughish text of a sermon I preached on this Sunday two years ago.  So much has happened since then and perhaps the sermon I'd write now would be very different.  But this is where I was two years ago.  Don't feel obliged to read it - it was much complimented on at the time and I still think there's plenty of good things here but there are also elements worth cringing at with some embarrassment!  And you'll have to imagine it in my style of delivery else something is lost.

Allow me to take you back to December 13th 1973. I understand that this will be more difficult for some of us than others. Some of you hadn't been born and I was only two years old so I can't remember it.

So there you were – or you weren't, but imagine that you were – sitting in front of your posh new 15 inch black and white television in 1973. You wanted to watch Top of the Pops and hoped to catch a glimpse of Marc Bolan and his new hit single. But on this occasion you were disappointed. Yes, Bolan wasn't on. The Children of the Revolution had been thwarted by tax evasion. Disappointing.

Instead, who did Tony Blackburn introduce? Cozy Powell from Black Sabbath performed “Dance with The Devil” and in a zealous moment you wondered if a Christian should be listening to such things. And then there was bunch of strange looking English folk singers, all men apart from one woman in the middle and none of them with so much as a musical instrument. This isn't T. Rex, this isn't even Slade – though they'll be on later with a song that still haunts us forty years later. What's going on? Can things possibly get any worse?

And then the men start to sing. In folk singer voices. In Latin. Good grief, why on earth would anyone buy this? And then the woman pipes up, several octaves higher than anyone else.

Yes, this was Steeleye Span, and this was one of their two hits and though I've seemed to insult them, I confess that by my teenage years I'd bought quite a few of their albums at car boot sales.

Here's what they sang, with only one wrong pronunciation that I won't repeat here:

Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est Natus, ex Maria, virgine, Gaudete...

So, why on earth am I singing you a sixteenth century Scandinavian song in Latin that was a surprise hit 40 years ago?

Today, as the liturgical experts among you will know, is Gaudete Sunday. (sing again)

Gaudete is a word we translate as rejoiceand the day is named, not for that song but for the first word of the reading from Philippians that we've heard. That verse traditionally was also the entrance antiphon in the Catholic mass and in higher church Anglican eucharistic services – the verse spoken or sung right at the start of the service even before the priest had a chance to say hello.

It's advent. You might have noticed that. It's a time of penance. A time of preparation. A time of great meditation on the first coming of Jesus and a growing expectation of him coming again – both into our lives in new ways and at the end of time when he returns in glory. Which I predict will not happen on the 21stthis year.

I know that most of us (myself included) do not make any big changes to life for advent. But it was and is and actually should be a time of fasting, without which the great feast of Christmas loses some of its meaning. And that's hard work.

So here we are half way through and the church says to us, well done people you're doing well, not long to go now and you can have a big party. But we think you could do with a bit of encouragement today.

So we arrive at our nice traditional service, having been doing all the traditional Adventy disciplines. We are tired, cold, a bit hungry and on our knees seeking God with an earnestness that we didn't have halfway through November.

And suddenly a voice cries out “Rejoice always in the Lord and again I say rejoice”. Here is our encouragement. Rejoice. The Lord has come. The Lord is here. The Lord is coming. He who loves you says to rejoice and to do it in him and through him and with him. It's not only something you can do, it's something that you are commanded to so.

So we've come to our text for the sermon “Rejoice always.” It's taken a while and I feel like a mild version of a preacher I was listening to recently who, 20 minutes into his talk said the words, “and so to the sermon” and began from there.

Now there's quite a lot to say about these two words. I thought I'd have an easy job with this one. Preach on two words and it will be quick. But I can pretty much guarantee that nobody has slaved over a sermon in this place quite as much as I've slaved over this one. What is a short sermon is turning into a book on the meaning and practical application of these words. I'm actually quite shocked at how much there is to say and at some of the directions my thoughts and writing have gone. “Rejoice always”. Seems pretty simple. But it is rich and deep and when you start thinking about all the reasons why we don't rejoice, all the reasons why we should rejoice, how to learn to rejoice always and the benefits of rejoicing – among other things – there's far too much for a little sermon. Hence my slaving on a book that perhaps nobody will ever read but me. So here I can only say two or three things about rejoicing – and those only briefly. Here we go: The sermon proper, in three very quick and incomplete points...

Point One– Don't get guilty

There's just a possibility that you may not be rejoicing at this moment. Please, please do not feel bad about that or think that because you're in effect breaking a command from God that you are a terrible person. You're not.

For years I suffered periodically with bad depression and sometimes Christians were the worst people to have around me. They would pile on guilt and just make me feel worse. “God loves you, why aren't you joyful?” “You need to repent of your depression”

In Morning prayer before advent one of the regular readings is from Psalm 42 and every time, the last verse sent involuntary shudders through me. We read “Why are you downcast O my soul … hope in God.” That's fair – and hoping in God can and does in time ease a lot. But people would tell me that I had no right or reason to be depressed and thought that just telling me to hope in God would solve everything. When it didn't I was often made to feel like I was a bad person. Or “I was depressed and I prayed about it and God took it away -so I don't see what your problem is.”

And then I'd want to make these people happy with me and also to make them shut up. So I'd put on a false joy. I'd act my way through life with false smiles and a forced joy that in the end only made things worse because I was living a lie.

So, don't get guilty if you're not a bundle of rejoicing now. And don't feel guilt if you are currently mourning or grieving or want to be weeping – that's part of a balanced Christian life too, just not the subject of this particular talk.

Yes, sometimes people pray and a miracle happens – they are given the gift of joy. But more usually that doesn't happen and while they may be given seeds, it takes time and a lot of effort to prepare the ground so that God may grow the fruit of joy in us. That's far more common – rejoicing always is a command but it's a command to grow into as the fruit is grown within us.

Point two– the seeds

There are lots of seeds that lead to a life of joy. There are worldly seeds – all the blessings we enjoy, all the positive things in our life. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (and others) sang the song You've got to accentuate the positive....

Accentuating the positive is good. Focusing in on the good things of life. Family, friends, home, food, health, and so on and so on. Practising finding the positives is a good habit and practising thankfulness for those positives is even better. No matter what you are going through there will be positives in this worldly life.

I've looked back at my own life. Five years ago I wrote a list of positives in a few minutes and I found that list recently. A page filled with them. Twelve years ago I was in a mental health support group and we all used to write lists of positives. On some days my list struggled, with an hour's work over it, to contain one thing. Yet as I look at the list from five years ago, many or most of those positive things were true twelve years ago but at the time I was in such a state that I couldn't see them. Take from that what you will.

Finding those positives is good. But these earthly blessings are not actually the major basis of our joy and our rejoicing as Christians. (Joy, from this reading, by the way is the Greek word Chairo which isn't a joy of bounding about everywhere in a manic glee but rather a quiet calm within, an inner peace and warm fire that suffuses from a deep root within us into every corner and crevice of our lives, into all the nice things that happen and into our greatest suffering too so that we rejoice even in our deep pain – which we all have and mourning and grief have their place too.)

No, the earthly blessings are not the main basis of Christian joy. For the simple reason that they are transient. If our joy is based solely on friendship, a nice house, having tasty food for tea, our marriage or anything else – and these things are very good – what are we going to do if we lose these things. If our spouse dies and we end up homeless eating other people's leftovers, can we rejoice then? The gospel of true Christian joy says that we can.

We need a more permanent cause for our joy, a cause that cannot and will not fail us. And that cause is God and that cause is what he has revealed to us in Scripture. There are lots of Scriptures about “rejoice” - nearly 200 of them, and loads more about “joy” and studying and praying with these verses can be an excellent way of filling our hours.

Vine's dictionary gives a nice list of reasons for believers rejoicing (chairo). Here's part of it. Believers rejoice: in the Lord; His incarnation, His power, His presence with the Father, His presence with them, His ultimate triumph, hearing the gospel, their salvation,receiving the Lord, their enrolment in Heaven, their liberty in Christ, their hope, their prospect of reward, the obedience and godly conduct of fellow believers, the proclamation of Christ, the gospel harvest, suffering with Christ, suffering in the cause of the gospel, in persecutions, trials and afflictions, the manifestation of grace, meeting with fellow believers …

lots of reasons but the only one I'll mention now is the one sung by Steeleye Span.

Gaudete: “Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary”

I don't need to say anything about it either – you'll be hearing lots more about it in the next fortnight. Christ is born. God is with us and will never leave us. Salvation is here. Hope is here. True life is here. Forgiveness is here. Rejoice.

Wonderful. There is so much to say about the vast riches of the gospel and why this will – with much prayer, meditation and sharing together – become firmly rooted as the foundation of our life, welling up into a life of calm, unshakeable joy. I'm not there yet myself – but I am resolved to keep moving in the right direction.

Point three – the work.

Some of you won't like this bit. The hard work. Just two verses for you from the New Testament:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2 KJV)

Joy was set before Jesus.

A simple question: How did Jesus reach that place of joy?

A simple answer: He endured the cross. Another verse:

Then Jesus told his disciples,"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt16:24ff)

Joy is set before us. Jesus has it and we (hopefully) want to come after him and have it to. So how do we do it? Jesus himself tells us “"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
I know that's a tough end to a sermon. But we have to take the words of Jesus seriously. If we want to come after him into that place of joy and ultimately to be seated, reigning with him as co-heirs, then we have to seek to do what he says. Deny ourselves. Take up the cross. And then, and only then, can we truly follow him.

Joy will not come to us by seeking the experience of being joyful. True, deep, permanent, all embracing Christian joy will only come to us as a consequence of living a Christian life in imitation and love of Christ. That's the only way – and any preacher who gives you any other way, some easy way out is telling you fibs. Joy is not to be pursued as the end in itself – it is the by-product of a relationship with each other and with the living God. Without that relationship there can be no true Christian joy. Without self-denial, serving others, generosity to others and living to serve one another true Christian joy cannot blossom into the beautiful thing it is.

And so back to Advent for the next week. Back from this wonderful call to rejoice and into the season of advent. The fast, the self denial, the cross bearing. The path to the great joy that we will all, god-willing, experience when we celebrate the first coming of Jesus in just a few days and all the staggering, amazing things that means for us.

Let us pray:

Love is the heartbeat of God listen to the rhythm
Joy is its gift, catch the rhythm
Peace is its result, Live the rhythm
Be drawn into the kingdom of God .

Lord whose light shines in the darkness, Have mercy upon us,
Christ whose birth gives hope to all creation Have mercy upon us,
Lord whose advent brings us joy and love Grant us peace.


  1. Lovely post Clare. I am now wondering if you were a preacher once or was it that you (and others) were given the opportunity to preach? Either way you made a good job of it. I also learned the meaning of those words for the first time since hearing the song all those years ago. I didn't take Latin as you might have guessed,

    Shirley Anne x

    1. Ooops! I realise my mistake. You weren't preaching. I am definitely losing it! LOL

      Shirley Anne x

    2. Yes. I was preaching. Fascinating how such things have been thrown my way for so long, whether preaching (at college, with Baptists or with Anglicans) or teaching or leading worship. And it'll all get used again for the future. I look forward to it, while recognising that it's a great responsibility and that God has to be in charge of the whole thing.


  2. “God loves you, why aren't you joyful?” “You need to repent of your depression” A truly appalling bit of advice. Sadly there is little we can do to stop people giving what they think is 'good' advice. Sue and I once attended a Christian conference centre and were told by two people that my gender dysphoria would eventually wreck our marriage, so the best thing would be to divorce as soon as possible. Sadly, it was that advice that nearly destroyed our relationship; the dysphoria hasn't come close to it.

    I guess the one answer is good Christian teaching, such as that contained in your sermon. Not only is the theology spot-on, but it even has three points, so 10/10 for homiletics!

    1. “God loves you, why aren't you joyful?” “You need to repent of your depression”
      In real terms it is right but no-one who is depressed wants to hear such advice in that way. We should be able to rejoice in our afflictions because we know the love of God but doing it isn't always easy. Not all marriages fail because one partner has gender dysphoria and it is preposterous to suggest it. Quite bad advice as you say Angela and can probably cause more harm than good.
      Shirley Anne x

  3. Thanks to both of you.

    Yep. Years ago I used to preach and was a deacon at a baptist church in Lancashire. There was a rough plan to head into ministry and study for a doctorate along the way - because two theology degrees wasn't enough! I think the third degree would have been interesting and useful and was to have been somewhere in the area of Christianity and mental health. I'd had discussions with local ministers, the church wanted me to do it and I'd discussed the plan with the Northern Baptist College. But we upped and moved to Wales and life went a very different direction.

    And then after moving here and accidentally leaving the Catholics (I've been in more than a few churches!) and walking into the local Church of England parish I ended up preaching again. And there were plans again to study more and at least become a licensed lay reader, possibly head for ordination. But again, that didn't happen because life did happen. I was quite fortunate that the parish wasn't too worried about the letter of the law which meant they were happy for me to preach without a piece of paper saying I was allowed to. Very supportive place until I was told it would be inappropriate for me to preach or lead anything anymore in case anyone was ever worried by my gender. Actually it's still a supportive place and I guess the vicar who has arrived since then would have helped smooth the way. Love the new vicar!

    People in both places said I was a decent preacher. Who am I to argue? I never heard one of my sermons and never liked my voice anyway. Much of it is in delivery and while I'm not great sitting in a conversation with more than one person I can write and deliver a talk. People tell me how great it is that I have theology degrees. To an extent I disagree. They weren't very useful in sermon preparation. Generally commentaries weren't useful either - I only really consulted them when I had a question and couldn't find the answer in a Bible. And the commentaries very rarely answered the questions. A commentary or officially being "Master of Theology" is fine. But far more useful for preaching is faith, reading, prayer and experience.

    It's possible that next year will see me in a pulpit again. The option is there but the time has to be right. I look forward to it but know that it will be harder now. I took it seriously then but even more so now. And these days I have less of the answers and that changes things. But I am very sure that I am at least in the right place for whatever surprises and non-surprises come to pass.

    In the meantime maybe I should start writing sermons again for myself, or at least sermon notes, and see what happens.

    1. Wow. I think you've done very well indeed to have obtained such academic qualifications. You say they are not much help when preparing sermons but I disagree, you must know what you are talking about before opening your mouth don't you agree? As for the content, the delivery and having the drive to do it must come from above. The Holy Spirit is your only true guide. What does it say in Scripture? 'Unless the Lord builds the house,
      the builders labour in vain'. Psalm 127:1 Did you consider that unless the Lord wanted you to preach you'd never have done it? Well twice anyway! I am sure you've been Spirit led Clare and if you are still being led you must respond. I would think it best to write just the notes and not the whole sermon and let the Spirit put the words into your mouth. Go for it if your heart is telling you ought to.

      Shirley Anne x


Comments are welcome. But not spam and not obscenity. It's not all politeness though - religion and politics aren't banned.