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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Advent 3, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
December 15, 2013

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

God's song in our hearts’

Joy is God's song in our hearts. So we have prayed this morning, this third Sunday of Advent. Today is also known as Gaudete Sunday, after the Latin word for "rejoice" as in Philippians 4:4: "Rejoice in the Saviour always." On Gaudete Sunday we light the pink/rose-coloured candle of the Advent wreath. We have passed the midpoint of Advent, and we "lighten" the mood a little. The change in colour may be seen to offer encouragement to continue our spiritual preparation for Christmas. God be with you ...

Our Gospel relates an exchange between John the Baptiser and Jesus, an exchange mediated by others. Having criticised the corrupt powers, John is in prison. Jesus is busy teaching, preaching and performing the works of compassion. Our artwork shows John behind prison bars, two of his disciples (or possibly a disciple and Jesus) outside the prison. The fiery prophet (we likened him last week to Nelson Mandela, Jacques Ellul and Adam Hill) has prepared the way for Jesus. Today we see his vulnerable side. It seems he is having doubts. "Are you 'The One who is to come' or do we look for another?" John asks of Jesus. It's the quintessential Christian question. And Jesus replies in terms of compassionate works: the blind recover their sight, those who cannot walk are able to walk, those with leprosy are cured, those who are deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the poor, the "have-nots", have the Good News preached to them.

John anticipated a "coming wrath" in terms of an ax and baptism by fire. Jesus performs miracles among the "nobodies". Jesus ministers to those who are suffering.

What will John make of this? Will he be scandalised by this Messiah? Will he find this Good News a stumbling block?

Jesus' words about John are compassionate and clear-sighted. John is a great prophet, Jesus says. He is the Elijah figure of the messianic age. And yet, "the least born into the kindom of heaven is greater than he".

An analogy to Nelson Mandela is, again, apt. Mandela is quoted as saying that he spent the first ten years of his sentence seething with anger. The injustice of racism and inequality in his country - the indignity of his imprisonment, isolation, hopelessness, made him sick with anger. He imagined the coming wrath. And then, he says, something happened, something overtook his anger.

The next 17 years were different - a time of preparation for release and for leadership in the service of a peace to come. It's quite incredible, the 27 years of Mandela's imprisonment - this is too much for most of us to take in, and yet ...

The Clint Eastwood-directed film, Invictus (2009), celebrates the conversion-determination-wisdom of Mandela with reference to a 19th-century poem the prisoner treasured and memorised. The poem is by William Ernest Henley, and begins: "Out of the night that covers me,/ Black as the Pit from pole to pole,/ I thank whatever gods may be/ For my unconquerable soul."

Turning points like this are steeped in mystery. Anger runs its course. Something stirs. It's a blessing, always. To use the words of Jesus, one is born into the kindom of heaven. The kin-dom of humanity. The kin-dom of compassion, creation.

On one level it might seem strange to hear this Gospel about a prisoner in doubt and perhaps despair on this day marked for rejoicing, for joy. It's certainly challenging. How blessed we are, seriously, to have shared some time on this earth with Nelson Mandela and his patient, deep-seated joy despite adversity. The victory he glimpsed from prison was no fantasy, no mere wish, but precisely the way to peace (right relations) in his country.

We know the story and we know the ongoing struggles in South Africa and elsewhere. Here in Australia and here among us - here within each of us. We know, all the better for knowing the story of Apartheid and Truth and Reconciliation, that anger may give way to something other, that doubts may be interrupted by joy - a strong sense of one's "unconquerable soul", a deep sense of one's acceptance, calling, nobility, purpose.

Joy, we may discover, is not so much a steady-state emotion as a reaction to something beautiful, hopeful, life-giving or redemptive. Isaiah sees the creation reacting with joy to the coming of God's Glory, which John is encouraged to see in the life of Jesus, in the works of compassion, in the miracles among the nobodies.

If Jesus is to be found among those who are suffering - if the Glory of God is to be found among those who are suffering - then John is not far from the kindom of heaven. John is in need. John is broken. And yet ... something beautiful, hopeful, life-giving and redemptive has visited John. The Messiah is a minister, a carer, a healer, a lover and a peace-maker - just as Isaiah prophesied.

Will John be scandalised by this Messiah? Is that the hint of a smile on the face of John? Might John be, to borrow the title of a book by C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy?

Where do we see God's characteristic joyful surprises? Has a prevailing cynicism tended to blanket joyful reactions? What has brought joy to you/us? Where do you see God's characteristic joyful surprises?

I met a friend for dinner on Friday night and there was joy in her company and presence. I behold my niece and nephews ... I find myself in this space with artworks by Gaylene Smith ... I hear and touch the words of the Sermon on the Mount ... I read of Act for Peace projects in Vanuatu - including support for growing and harvesting sandalwood - and there is joy. Unconquerable. I make some preparations for the commissioning of Maidie Wood (a compassionate and intelligent young person with God's song in her heart and on her lips) as an Elder in the South Sydney Uniting Church ... and there is joy.

Aboriginal activist Ray Jackson described his invitation to speak at the Sydney Memorial for Nelson Mandela as "a bolt from the blue". He found himself among friends and fellow supporters of justice in Australia - acknowledgement of stolen lands, bad laws, hurtful attitudes - commitment to honesty and courage.

That's not the end. It's the beginning. And there is joy.

Where do you see God's characteristic joyful surprises? ... Amen.