A story for Advent 3

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-8

Gaudete Sunday – Rejoice.

We only have 9 days until Christmas. Our shops and Christmas fairs are doing good business, our Carol services are in good voice, and the children in our schools are getting more and more excited for the holiday. We have a lot to rejoice in.

Take a little time and count the occasions that, good news, calls to rejoice and be happy and joyful are used in today’s readings. Today marks a change in our focus during advent, the third Sunday of advent is known as Gaudete, which means rejoice. Amid the patient waiting and quiet watching, there is now an impending sense of joy. And the church is very keen that we should rejoice today. We have a lot to rejoice in.

Except we know that this is not the case for everyone. For some people, they will look around them and see nothing to rejoice at.

Our Bishop this week published his Christmas message for this year, and in it he reminds us, that although this season is filled with joy for many, for others it’s a different story, since I began speaking (and I quote) “Someone has just lost a job, another business has hit trouble and someone’s debt has just got that much worse. Personal debt in the UK stands at a staggering £1.421 trillion. In short for some people this period is full of reasons to be fearful and for some the only festive note leads to a period of oblivion providing a kind of escape from it all.”

Bishop Andrew also casts our minds back to the images we saw of the flooding in St Asaph, and asks how many families there are able to rejoice with their livelihoods and homes being ruined for such a long time?

The gathered angels singing “Glory to God in the highest” to the shepherds which our Bishop refers to, and these references to rejoicing and joyful ness in our readings today, do not offer much comfort to those families.

Nor does it offer much to the families of the children and adults killed in Newtown this past Friday. They have a long and weary path to walk before joy can become a possibility again.

And everyday there will be people, whose stories do not make the news, but whose lives are lived in the shadows of their hurt and sorrow.

The angels song, the truth that they brought was not an invitation to escape anything. Theirs was a message that God had come. God had come to this place, this place of crisis, anxiety and trouble, this place of hurt, confusion and pain. And those who see in Jesus’ birth something of the way God loves the world, can also see that life can be different. The world can be seen with new eyes and the needs of others take on new urgency.

St Paul is right in what he says.
Despite the darkness of the world, and the plans of Christmas changed so terribly, we can rejoice.

I want to tell you a story, it’s one I first heard a few years ago when I was living in Bangor. It may sound like a story of disappointment and let down, but I ask that you listen especially hard to its ending, because beyond the darkness, the light shines.

Once upon a mountain top, three little trees stood and dreamed of what they wanted to become when they grew up. The first little tree looked up at the stars and said: ” I want to hold treasure. I want to be covered with gold and filled with precious stones. I’ll be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!” The second little tree looked out at the small stream trickling by on it’s way to the ocean. ” I want to be traveling mighty waters and carrying powerful kings. I’ll be the strongest ship in the world! The third little tree looked down into the valley below where busy men and women worked in a busy town. I don’t want to leave the mountain top at all. I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me they’ll raise their eyes to heaven and think of God. I will be the tallest tree in the world.

Years, passed. The rain came, the sun shone and the little trees grew tall. One day three wood cutters climbed the mountain. The first wood cutter looked at the first tree and said, “This tree is beautiful. It is perfect for me.” With a swoop of his shining axe, the first tree fell. “Now I shall make a beautiful chest, I shall hold wonderful treasure!” the first tree said.

The second wood cutter looked at the second tree and said, “This tree is strong. It’s perfect for me.” With a swoop of his shining axe, the second tree fell. “Now I shall sail mighty waters!” thought the second tree. ” I shall be a strong ship for mighty kings!”

The third tree felt her heart sink when the last wood cutter looked her way. She stood straight and tall and pointed bravely to heaven. But the wood cutter never even looked up. “Any kind of tree will do for me.” He muttered. With a swoop of his shining axe, the third tree fell.

The first tree rejoiced when the wood cutter brought her to a carpenter’s shop. But the carpenter fashioned the tree into a manger for animals. The once beautiful tree was not covered with gold, or treasure. She was coated with saw dust and filled with hay. The second tree smiled when the wood cutter took her to a shipyard, but no mighty sailing ship was made that day. Instead the once strong tree was hammered and shaped into a simple fishing boat. She was too small and too weak to sail to an ocean, or even a river, instead she was taken to a little lake. The third tree was confused when the wood cutter cut her into strong beams and left her in the wood yard
“What happened?” The once tall tree wondered. ” All I ever wanted was to stay on the mountain top and point to God…”

Many days and nights passed. The three trees nearly forgot their dreams. But one night, golden starlight poured over the first tree as a young woman placed her newborn baby in the manger. “I wish I could make a cradle for him.” Her husband whispered. The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the smooth and sturdy wood. ” This manger is beautiful.” She said. And suddenly the first tree knew he was holding the greatest treasure in the world.

One evening a tired traveller and his friends crowded into the old fishing boat. The traveller fell asleep as the second tree quietly sailed out into the lake. Soon the wind got up and a terrible storm arose. The little tree shuddered, battered by huge waves. She knew she did not have the strength to carry so many passengers safely to harbour in this weather. The tired man awoke. He stood up, stretched out his hand, and said, “Peace.” The storm stopped as quickly as it had begun. And suddenly the second tree knew she was carrying the king of heaven and earth.

One Friday morning, the third tree was startled when her beams were yanked from the forgotten wood pile. She flinched as she was carried through an angry jeering crowd. She shuddered when soldiers nailed a man’s hand to her. She felt ugly and harsh and cruel. But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth trembled with joy beneath her, the third tree knew that God’s love had changed everything. It had made the third tree strong. And every time people thought of the third tree, they would think of God. Her sadness turned to joy….a joy for all people.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Beyond the darkness, there is light, and it shines. We await this advent for the light to be born to us again. With a rejoicing patience we wait for the son of God to be born. Rejoice, Gaudete!

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Minor Canon Youth Chaplain at St Albans Cathedral. Dog owner, historian, technology geek, pilgrim.

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