Joy is found both in receiving God’s promised restoration and healing and in being a part of that healing by repenting as John calls.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Third Sunday of Advent, year C
Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Today is Gaudete Sunday – “Rejoice” Sunday.
Historically today’s Introit in Western Christianity was Paul’s words to the Philippians we just heard: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” In the current lectionary, Zephaniah joins Paul today and urges the faithful to “rejoice and exult with all your heart,” for God has come to bring them hope and healing. Today we pause in our Advent waiting to rejoice in what God has done and is doing in Christ for the world.
Two things make this challenging. First, John’s second appearance in two weeks is not the most joyful Gospel reading one could add to the others’ urgings of joy.
But, more deeply, if you listened carefully to Zephaniah, you might have grasped that perhaps you’re not the one being comforted. That someone else needs Zephaniah in ways you do not.
Zephaniah’s call for rejoicing is specifically for those oppressed, outcast.
“I will remove disaster from you,” God declares, “and I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. I will bring you home.”
From my privileged place in this culture, I know I’m not the one offered joy here. But there are many for whom this would be good news. If God really will deal with oppressors and restore the outcast, then for our neighbors of color who deal with systemic oppression daily, that’s something to hear, maybe even find hope in. For our indigenous neighbors whose voices are constantly ignored in our society and who’ve been systemically excluded, marginalized, their culture and lives and homes intentionally demolished for four centuries, perhaps God’s promise brings joy. If they see God is doing it.
Many, many more, including some here today, know oppression and marginalization. Rejoice, then, Zephaniah proclaims: God is with you.
But if you’re more like me, you might find yourself elsewhere in today’s readings.
Some of us are more at home on the Jordan’s banks today.
Whatever you feel about John’s harsh tone and unflinching words, people flocked to him. Maybe they saw in him the signs of a true prophet of Israel. Maybe, like some of us, they recognized a need to find their way back to God.
But John insists that repentance – turning to God – isn’t real if it doesn’t bear fruit worthy of it. Something visible, tangible, effective in the world. So we join the earnest seekers by the river – setting aside Rejoice Sunday for now – and ask John, “what does that look like? What should we do?”
John gives very practical and world-changing answers.
He answers by implying a question, one he hopes you and I will ask ourselves.
Do you have two coats? John asks. Well, you can’t wear both at once, and some have no coats. Give one of yours to one of them.
Do you have enough food? John asks. More than enough? Well, you can’t eat all you have, and some have no food. Give some of your food to some of them.
John speaks directly to those of us who are not in need, who often realize one of our biggest problems is we’ve accumulated too much and need to simplify. Who look at our organics bin at so much more food than we need just thrown out after sitting in our refrigerators too long.
John gives a blueprint for a society where all are blessed to have enough to eat, to wear, to be safe and healthy. But the blueprint is only followed when we who have far more than enough find the satisfying grace of enough.
To the inquiring tax collectors and soldiers, John gives another answer deeply relevant to our lives.
John’s replies to these two groups are relatively simple for them to understand. Tax collectors are asked to do their jobs without cheating others, effectively stealing from their neighbors. The soldiers are asked not to threaten others and steal from them, and to be satisfied with their pay.
Here John also speaks directly to those of us who find it difficult to live ethically in our complex world. Our changes are much more complicated and challenging than theirs, but just as critical. Live ethically and compassionately in all your behavior, John says, lest you steal from your neighbor. All our participation in the harmful systems of our world, whether it’s what and where we buy, how we vote, whether we work for change that benefits others, to all of this John says, “stop doing things that steal from others, that threaten others, that hurt your neighbor.”
John gives a blueprint for a society where all are blessed with justice and true peace, where all livelihoods are respected and cared for by all, where all our life choices are made for the common good. But the blueprint is only followed when we who are involved in these systems to our benefit discern and change our behaviors for the sake of our neighbor.
After John, for many of us, Rejoice Sunday feels anything but.
It feels that the gift of a day to simply rejoice in God’s goodness for us is more than some of us can ask. But that is not true. Paul’s encouragement clearly is for all, especially any who have anxiety. “Don’t worry about anything,” Paul says. Rejoice in God. That’s for you, too.
But Luke thinks even John’s whole episode today is reason for joy for you and me. After all this challenging encounter that brings a lot of us anxiety over our own lives and behavior, Luke adds a tagline none of the other Evangelists say: “So, with many other exhortations,” Luke writes, “John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
John’s preaching is Good News. Gospel. Good news for the fearful middle class people on the riverbank. Good news for the cheating tax collector and the extorting soldier.
That’s the secret of Advent you want to find today.
Somehow, all of this blueprint for God’s reign, this asking a great deal of you and me is Good News. Gospel.
It’s definitely good news for others when we live John’s fruits. When you are satisfied with enough and share all the rest, you fulfill Zephaniah’s promise. Those in deep need can rejoice because Christ has changed you from a hoarder into a joyful fellow participant in God’s abundance for all. Those who suffer from oppression and injustice can rejoice in God’s Gospel when you carefully change your behaviors that harm your neighbors. When people like us bear such fruit it is Good News to many.
But it is also Good News, Gospel, for you. Living a life sharing God’s abundance is a life of joy and hope for you. Living a life ethically and compassionately is a life of joy and hope for you.
Look for that joy. Luke’s let you in on the secret that living as John asks, as Christ models and teaches, is the surest way of living joy and hope you will ever know. It is Good News. Gospel.
And it will certainly bring joy and hope to many, many more through you.
In the name of Jesus. Amen