Advent is a penitential season, but not like Lent. Advent is a season of joy rather than introspective repentance. Blue vestments, rather than purple. The pink candle is lit – “Gaudate Sunday” – that is today. “Rejoice and exult in your heart. The Lord is in your midst.” These joyful promises of the prophet Zephaniah, spoken centuries before Jesus, still ring true. As do the words of Isaiah: “Cry aloud, ring out your joy….”
John the Baptist harshly tells us to repent and change to be sure, “you brood of vipers!” But John message is one of joy also – his emphasis is on the new life, the new presence of God with us – and how we are to act with compassion and love, and bear the fruit of repentance. We will live with new hope and faith, accept the grace and mercy of God who is coming to us. We are welcomed by God with joy.
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!” The words of St. Paul are for us too as the birth of our Lord nears – Jesus’ birth in the world and in our hearts.
In spite of what is happening in the world and in our lives – fear and violence, division and discord, illness and death – we rejoice for we know that in all things, the Lord is near, the Lord is here.
In a few minutes we will confess our sins, the things which have separated us from each other, from the church, from God. The form of confession we use this morning is adapted from the service of “Reconciliation of a Penitent” found in the prayerbook. The metaphor is the prodigal son. We know the story: the son runs off and wastes his inheritance and his life. Finally, he returns, sorrowful and repentant. Contrary to what we might expect, his father runs out to meet him with joy; he embraces his wayward son and celebrates his return. This is Jesus’ parable for us. We talked about last week: take all the old stuff and throw it out, all the trash, the worries, the fears, the resentments of the past that holds us back – confess it, throw it out, and return to the loving God.
The miracle of God’s love is that no matter what, God welcomes us with mercy and grace. With joy. We return to life, changed and hopeful, sharing in this divine joy. Mercy and grace – the joy of advent. Mercy, forgiveness for what we have done. Grace, gift of love undeserved, empowering us to live a new life. Joy of life with Christ, joy with God who comes to us in joy and love.
In the midst of the joy of Advent, the question is “What should we do?” Joyful repentance, joyful change of life results in joyful action. This is especially important for us here at St. Paul’s – a year of thoughtful reflection on the past and the future has come to an end with this new Advent.
And now, we look away from the past. We have hopes and excitement about the future. The parish profile is just about finished. It will be posted in the appropriate places so that clergy can see who we are, what we are doing, and join us in our ministry. You will want to have a look at the profile as soon as it is available since it is an expression of who we are, our past, our present and our future. Since many of you have not seen it yet, I will summarize this morning.
In response to the joyful Advent question “What should we do?” I hear an important answer in the end of the profile section on “Our Hopes.” “We hope to celebrate, collaborate, and cooperate.” What more joyful hope can we have?
The new rector will not be able to do everything. It is you, each and every one of you, who will share your ministries with one another and the new rector. You all are doing the work of Christ here at St. Paul’s. The new rector will support and guide and inspire you, and join with you in ministry.
The rector will be a spiritual guide. A guide, yes, clarifying and inspiring the life of the spirit, but each of you must follow and often lead. Prayer, worship, spiritual growth and deepening of faith – all of you will strive to grow with the rector in the life of the spirit.
One of the major resources for spiritual growth is the scripture, the stories of our faith from the people of God. In the familiar collect of a few weeks ago we pray that we will mark, read, learn and inwardly digest the scriptures, making the old stories new, and the themes of faith and love and hope come alive in our lives today. Your rector will have the training to help you in this, but you must cooperate. Knowing the scripture is more than just hearing a few words on Sunday morning. Knowing the scripture is exploring and entering into the story of God’s way with the community of faith, and making that story your own. Bible study, and thoughtful exploration of the traditions of the church are essential.
Caring for young and old is a strong ministry that we already have at St. Paul’s. Your new rector will help with this, but you all will continue this essential ministry of the family of Christ by caring for each other. Guide your new rector to the places of pain and hurt and need in the community, the church and individual lives; help with the administration of care and sacrament that the rector will bring. And remember to care for your rector as one among you in love.
We know how important this place is to us and to the community. The recent removal of our beloved oak is evidence of how God speaks to us through the blessings of creation. So help your rector understand the unique character of this environment, both the Church Yard and the Eastern Shore. Create paths of ministry which celebrate God’s presence here in this beautiful and blessed place.
All this will be done as you continue to recognize the valuable and creative interplay of reason, tradition, scripture and experience that is the unique gift of the Episcopal church. Celebrate this diversity since it reflects the amazing diversity of the spirit of God.
“Celebrate, collaborate, cooperate.” This is how we celebrate Advent joy every day, growing as we live out our mission to “Learn God’s Word, Live God’s Love.
This morning, come forward to the altar, put your hands out and receive the life of Christ. Celebrate with joy the ministry you have already, the faith and hope that is growing in you. Anticipate with joy the life of St. Paul’s in the future that you will share with the rector you call, the one who with your prayer and cooperation and support, will lead and guide, nurture and support you in the joyful life of God.