Gaudete in domino semper, as the Church once sang on this 3rd Sunday in Advent. Gaudete. Rejoice…“Rejoice in the Lord always.” After the first two weeks of this season with their solemn anticipation, after John the Baptist’s fiery denunciations, after two weeks of longing and waiting we get to the 3rd week in Advent and it announces that the time is near. Rejoice!
And our Psalm joins in as well. Hallelujah! it begins. Hallelujah! it ends. Hallelujah. Hebrew for “Praise the Lord.” “I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.” “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Gaudete in domino semper. Hallelujah!
And while we get this pre-party warm-up to Christmas under way, while our hallelujahs go bouncing off the walls of these Advent days…from out of the dark depths of a prison another voice is heard. The voice of John the Baptist groans up from the depths with his questions—“Who?” “When?” And lurking like a malevolent spirit behind all of his questions there’s a plaintive, woeful “Why?”
On this festive Hallelujah Sunday, John languishes in prison. The voice crying in the wilderness is now crying in the darkness of a dungeon. He had railed against the hypocrites, “You brood of vipers.” He had thundered, “Every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
But John himself is now cut down. John has been thrown into the brood of vipers, including one whose poison was worse than John expected. King Herod. John had said to the king, “Repent!” The king had replied to John, “You go directly to jail!”
So while we are busily getting our Hallelujahs on, and decking the halls with boughs of holly…what are we gonna do with John? What are we gonna do with this voice rattling from the cellar, a voice which doesn’t fit with our festive hallelujahs?!
When you think about it…on this festive 3rd Sunday in Advent, this Hallelujah Sunday, John the Baptist is playing the role of Jacob Marley from out of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Ebenezer Scrooge heard “a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar…. The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door…. His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. … The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.
[Scrooge] “did not believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.
“‘How now,’ said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. ‘What do you want with me?’ ‘Much.’ Marley’s voice, no doubt about it.”
It’s a great story. And Christmas for Ebenezer Scrooge would have turned out very, very differently if not for Jacob Marley’s clanking, clattering visitation. Because the ghost of old Marley rose up out of the depths of his prison, Scrooge’s “Humbugs” became “Hallelujahs!” as the old miser was set free.
So John’s groans today remind us…his clanking chains from a prison cell remind us why we sing our Hallelujahs as Christmas now draws near. It’s what our Psalm tells us: “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; He upholds the widow and the fatherless…”
That’s what Christmas is all about! These words are fleshing out with Jesus’ flesh that whole business of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” which we will hear in a week and a half. This is the very thing we’re waiting for!
“Put not your trust in princes,” the Psalm cautions. King Herod for all his bluster was next to useless. Even the mighty Caesars went the way of all flesh. Their breath departed and on that day their plans perished. And who could even begin to number the woes we bear with our princes today? Their plans tumble like dominoes. Their thoughts perish in the blink of an eye. But…the Lord reigns forever. Hallelujah!
Yeah but…but…hold on to that hallelujah a moment! John is still in prison! And it is telling that of all the signs that Jesus gives to John’s disciples to carry back to him—“the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them”—of all these wonderful signs, there is one in our Psalm that Jesus does not name: “The Lord sets prisoners free.” As if Jesus is saying to John, “No, not yet.”
And there it is again…Advent’s paradox of now and not yet. “Go and tell John ‘Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.’” God is a very present help…now! But also, “Go and tell John, ‘Blessed is he whose hope is in the Lord his God.’” Who hopes…who waits…for the Lord. For not yet is that very present help fully manifest!
So John comes to us today, like old Jacob came to Scrooge, as we stingily hoard our hallelujahs for fear that they will get ripped away from us by a world which can turn cold at a moment’s notice. It is the deep wonder of this season. It is a more profound joy that goes deeper than that of piling up a lot of ha-ha-hallelujah songs, sacred or secular. John is reminding us of that greater joy which comes with a maturing faith…a faith matured by what it is called upon to endure!
For example, it is only a mature faith, living in the world as it is, which recognizes, for instance, that despite all human desires, war remains an inescapable part of this world. Short of eternity there will always be wars. And yet this same mature faith—matured by the struggles, the prisons which take it captive—a mature faith also recognizes that despite human sin, war is not an inevitable part of life. There are things we can do short of war in this world. And that’s just one example!
So our hallelujahs today sing of a promise. It is a promise for which the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is the deposit. And from that depositing birth comes all the joy which inhabits our hallelujahs today.
The One who is born into a world of prisons, both literal and figurative, is the One who will give new birth to the world on the Last Day; the Day when every prisoner is set free, when every blind eye is opened, when every hunger and injustice is banished. It’s a promise that lifts us now in faith, and fuels our hope as we wait for its fullness.
And if John’s noisy chains on this Gaudete Sunday awaken us to what is now and to what must yet be, if John awakens us to the paradox of Advent…well, Hallelujah! It will be like Ebenezer Scrooge on that Christmas Day. “‘Oh, Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!….I don’t know what to do!’ cried Scrooge… ‘I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!’”
Thus, thanks to our Jacob Marley John, faith knows a Hallelujah which transcends all human endeavors. The Lord does reign forever…even if, for now, we see Him reign, as John did, through the prison cell of a cross. Still, we sing of Him, our King…not the blues of despair which can rise so easily from those dark cells of our lives…but in Advent’s vibrant tones of hope, of anticipation, of faith…as we wait for that which is surely to come. And blessed are they whose hope is in the Lord their God. Hallelujah!