Sermon by Sion Hughes-Carew, Ordinand

Gaudete Sunday, 16 December 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-18
Luke 3:10-18

“Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.  Let your moderation be known unto all men.  The Lord is at hand.”

You may recall those words from Purcell’s ‘Bell Anthem’, one of his more famous choral pieces.  They’re drawn from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, and form the Introit of today’s Mass.  Rejoice in the Lord: Gaudete in Domino.  Hence this Sunday’s name: Gaudete Sunday.  Not only are we told to rejoice by the Apostle, but again, to rejoice: it’s rather emphatic as an imperative.  We get the same message in today’s reading from the Prophet Zephaniah: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem… The Lord, your God, is in your midst.”[1]

One of my favourite Agatha Christie novels is ‘By the Pricking of My Thumbs’ – not a Poirot or a Miss Marple mystery, but one featuring the Beresfords.  Early on in the novel, Prudence Beresford, known universally as Tuppence, introduces herself to her husband Tommy’s aged Aunt Ada: “’I’m Prudence’, said Mrs Beresford.  ‘Your niece, Prudence.’  ‘What a ridiculous name,’ said Aunt Ada.  ‘Sounds like a parlourmaid.  My Great-uncle Matthew had a parlourmaid called Comfort and the housemaid was called Rejoice-in-the-Lord.  Methodist she was.  But my Great-aunt Fanny soon put a stop to that.  Told her she was going to be called Rebecca as long as she was in her house.’”  And so, as we are called to rejoice on this day, just over half way through Advent, I’d like to address the theme of calling, of vocation, just a little bit with you this morning.

Firstly, why are we called to rejoice?  On my desk in the office where I worked at Church House, above a photo of The Queen, taken when she came to inaugurate the new General Synod in 2015, captured at the sole moment she smiled all day (and who can blame her?); above two Christmas tree decorations in the form of Rowan Williams and John Sentamu which flanked my books; above a scroll made out of carboard reading “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, a remnant from my friend David’s Jesus-themed 33rd birthday party, to which I went dressed as John the Baptist; above all of this tat which recalled joyful memories was pinned a sheet of paper bearing a single line of Gregorian chant: “Sion, noli timere: ecce Deus tuus veniet, alleluia”: ‘Zion, do not be afraid: behold your God is coming, alleluia’.

My reason for having it there was not specifically to do with the beauty of the chant.  But rather because, when I first came across it, I felt as though it was speaking to me.  In Latin (and sometimes in English), Zion – a synonym for Jerusalem, or Israel more generally: God’s people – is spelled with an ‘s’, the same spelling as my own first name. And so this tiny script, to me at least, told me: “Sion, do not be afraid: behold your God is coming, alleluia.” While those words were not specifically addressed to me, I have found them hugely helpful.  Do not be afraid, your God is coming.  And of course He is coming.  The God who loves us and knows us, before we were born, has come, is coming to be with us in the birth of Christ.  As the carol says: “Love, the Lord, is on the way”.  That is why we are called to rejoice, why today is known as Gaudete Sunday – Rejoice Sunday – and why the sombre purple of our vestments – a symbol of our prayerful preparation during Advent for Christ’s arrival at Christmas – are, for today, lightened to rose.

‘Vocation’, as we know, is a much-misused word.  Historically, and to an extent still today, it seems to have been appropriated to mean only a call to ordination or to the religious life. But of course this is only one facet of what a vocation is.  Originally, the term – while used in an expressly Christian context – meant not only the specific call of a person to a role or state of being, but the general, universal call of all people to holiness and salvation.  I think we could do with remembering and rediscovering that. In the Roman Catholic Church, the three vocations are to marriage, the religious life and the ordained life, in that order of importance.  Which is wonderful: all three are vitally significant; but perhaps it seems a little unfair: what of the single lay faithful?  What of the teachers, doctors, lawyers, athletes, charity workers, artists, actors who knew what they wanted to do from a very young age, felt themselves drawn, and did just that.  What of the parents, spouses, friends, family members, whose vocation is to be a loving presence?

At the Reformation, theologians such as Luther and Calvin argued that the traditional understanding was far too narrow in scope, and that most occupations could in fact be considered vocations or callings: God creates each one of us individually, uniquely, and gives us particular gifts and talents to help us fulfil a specific purpose in life, that His will might be done.  We remember that St Paul tells the Christians in Rome: “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”[2]  Different, but complementary; diverse, but none greater than another.  God-given.

To go back to my Christmas decorations, Rowan Williams talks about how vocation can sometimes be interpreted in a rather dramatic, theatrical way: as he puts it, vocation as ‘casting’.  “God has a purpose for the world,” he says, “a very long and very good play… with plenty of juicy parts in it. The nuisance is that he draws up the cast-list before doing any auditions. We find ourselves called to fulfil a definite role, but we haven’t actually seen the script, and as time goes on we may suspect we would do better in another part…”.

I have certainly felt that way myself over the last few years, and particularly during the last couple of months, as I come to terms with priestly formation.  Why me, why now, why here?  Surely someone else would be better suited – I’d rather not.  Are there any non-speaking roles…?  This appears to be an integral part of things: vocation always requires sacrifice – not in a dramatic or destructive sense, hopefully, although that can sometimes be the way.  Richard Holloway, onetime Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of Scotland, recalls how when the principal of his theological college “was showing a distinguished guest round the great chapel, he had responded to the visitor’s dismay at the size of the altar by chuckling, ‘We sacrifice young men on that altar!’”  We are not called to that sort of sacrifice, hopefully, but rather a sacrifice in the sense of denial.

By answering God’s call, and submitting to our vocations, certain paths are closed to us, certain freedoms denied.  A vocation to marriage, for example, means giving up the life of a single person; a vocation to the religious life conversely means giving up the possibility of a spouse and children.  “Accepting what even the most ordinary choices of daily life teach us”, says Rowan Williams, “(I can’t go to the movies tonight and finish a 10,000 word dissertation [or a sermon, in my case, not that it stopped me] by 9 o’clock tomorrow morning) is hard. We have to trust that finally, through action and decision that is properly committed and properly detached, we shall find our freedom.”

How, then, do we find that freedom, that joy?  Largely, I think, by recognising where our calling comes from. At Baptism, we are called by a name. “Name this child”, says the priest to the parents and godparents, before baptising them by that name, with water, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  But in that Baptism we are also reminded that we are called tosomething.  After the sacrament itself, at the Commissioning, the priest may say: “Those who are baptised are called to worship and serve God.”  This is our common calling as Christians, our shared vocation.  To be here, together, worshipping as one body, and serving God through our various ministries and talents.  All other vocations stem from and build upon this mutual foundation: to worship and serve God; to respond to his love.  Like St John the Baptist, we have been called to a special service before we were born. We, too, are to make Christ known in the world, to love, to serve, and importantly to rejoice.

God tells Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine”.[3]  The God who calls us by name (even if people can’t pronounce it properly) also calls us to him, into an ever closer, more intimate, transforming relationship with him and with his creation.  The same God who has set us apart before we were born for a special purpose.  The God who is faithful and does not change, despite the vacillations and traumas of the world about us.  The God who tells me, tells us, not to be afraid, because he is coming.  And how do we respond to that love, to that call?  With joy. The American poet and author Madeline L’Engle wrote:

“We cannot wait till the world is sane,
To raise our songs with joyful voice,
For to share our grief, to share our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!”

And so, as we come to this Eucharist today, as we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, let us pray for each other, and our rich, diverse callings, that God may strengthen each of us in our vocation, calling us on, always, deeper and nearer, reminding us not to be afraid, but to rejoice, for He is on his way.  Jesus is coming, look happy!


[1]Zephaniah 3:14;17.

[2]Romans 12:6.

[3]Isaiah 43:1.