Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9: The First Song of Isaiah; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Today…is just a weird day all around.
It seems like everything is going to be about Joy. We begin the service by lighting a rose-colored candle – the candle of Joy — and talking about rejoicing. We have a special name for the Third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice.” Some churches even have a special set of rose vestments to use today.
Our first readings do a good job of mirroring this theme. The Old Testament Lesson today is from the prophet Zephaniah:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion: shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
Zephaniah even speaks about God “rejoicing…with gladness.”
The Canticle, the First Song of Isaiah includes the line
“Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy…”
And from St. Paul we hear,
“Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.”
It would seem that rejoicing…that JOY…is the order of the day.
And then…we come to the Gospel Lesson, and John the Baptist:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Whoa! That doesn’t sound much like rejoicing! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be very joyful if someone called me a poisonous snake.
But I do love John. He was never afraid to call things as he saw them, no matter who took offense. I wish I was that brave.
The beginning of this speech doesn’t seem to be designed to draw a large crowd. John was certainly no Joel Osteen, telling people that they should live their best life and living in an expensive mansion (sorry, pet peeve). There’s no mention of John asking for support, of claiming that unless a certain fundraising effort meets its goal that something terrible is going to happen. Or of claiming that sending a donation would assure you of God’s favor (another pet peeve).
No, John just got up there and told people how terrible they were. And they still came. Because they were hungry. They were hungry to hear what he said, and he gave it to them with no sugar coating.
But look at the last line of the Gospel reading:
“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Luke seems to think that John’s message was good news! And actually…it was. How is this possible?
To get an idea, an inking, let’s look a little more closely at the Old Testament reading for today and see why Zephaniah thought there was reason for rejoicing.
“I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth. “
Good news for the lame and the outcast, for sure. No mention of the well-off and comfortable, though. And seriously, the well-off and the comfortable were the people that John was yelling at. The people who already thought they were right with God.The people who were happy resting on the accomplishments of their ancestors.
No, this good news John was preaching was not good news for the rich and powerful, but good news for the downtrodden and the destitute.
So when people came to John asking what they needed to do, how did he answer?
“If you have more than enough clothing, share with someone who doesn’t have enough. And if you have more than enough food to eat, share with those who don’t.”
To the tax collectors who came to him: “Don’t cheat people by taking more than you are supposed to.”
To the soldiers: “Don’t extort money from people.”
Is there anything in these instructions that we wouldn’t assume to be proper behavior toward others? So why does John feel he needs to tell people?
I’m guessing its exactly because he saw that people weren’t sharing their clothes and food with the poor. Because tax collectors did take more than they were charged with collecting. Because soldiers did practice extortion to augment their pay. So eliminating these things would certainly be good news!
Isn’t there someone else who told us to behave this way? To love your neighbor the way you love yourself? To treat others the way you want them to treat you? Sound familiar?
And this really is good news! John was calling people to repentance. Repentance literally means turning around, going the other way, and not just in our heads. It means turning our actions around. Often it means turning and doing things we know we should already be doing, or stopping things we know we shouldn’t be doing. Turning from being hard-hearted, from saying to ourselves “Well, we’ve got ours. Those people’s problems are their problems.” Turning from ignoring the problem. Turning from not believing there is a problem. Turning to justice.
In our Confession, we confess sins “known and unknown,” and “things we have done, and things we have left undone.” If we really repent, we must turn from these things, not just pay lip service.
This repentance is what we are called to during Advent. We need to turn around from our hard-heartedness. From ignoring the problems. From not admitting there are problems. From assuming we can’t help. We can’t greet the Christ Child and honestly say we are glad to see him if we don’t.
Turning around is how we greet him. It’s how we get to joy.
Not just joy for us, but joy for everyone who has been the victim of injustice. Joy for every laid-off worker. Joy for those unable to work and support their families. Joy for the sick. Joy for those who are victims of discrimination, whether for reasons of gender, race, sexual orientation, age…for ANY reason. Joy for the hungry. Joy for the homeless. Joy for the destitute. Joy for the marginalized.
Joy wants to be shared. And when it is shared, it grows.
When John told the people, and the tax collectors, and the soldiers how to behave, he was telling them how they could bring the joy of the good news to the people they saw and dealt with on a daily basis.
We have less than two weeks until Christmas. Let’s spend those two weeks making sure that we share out joy with others — not just in words, but in everything we do. Take John’s words to heart and put them to work. Give to the poor and needy. Visit someone who is sick. Work against injustice. Stand up for someone who is facing discrimination.
Ring out your joy!