Life in the kingdom of God, living as Jesus in the world, is joy for us, even if repentance and giving up of our sinful ways is the pathway to that joy, that new life Jesus gives.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Third Sunday of Advent, year C; texts: Luke 3:7-18; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I don’t much care for cauliflower, especially when it’s cooked. Or split-pea soup, for that matter. In this, my wife and I agree to disagree. In fact, the smell of those two foods cooking makes me queasy, uncomfortable. I lose my appetite. Yet I am told by people who should know that both these foods are good for me, healthy for me. They tell me that though this seems like a bad thing, it is a good thing.
That’s Luke’s job for us today. Did you hear what he said, after expounding at length the deeply angry rants of John the Baptist toward his hearers? Luke adds a phrase the other evangelists do not. He comments, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Good news you say, Luke? Must we go back and read those harsh words again?
Given my experience with foods I detest but which no doubt are good for me, I wonder if it might be possible that Luke is telling the truth. Granted, this second Advent Sunday in a row of hearing from John the Baptist is always a difficult one for us. Who wants to come to church and be called a “brood of vipers”?
But Luke says it’s good news. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for a moment.
It may be important to do this, if only for the sake of the other readings from God’s Word today, all of which speak beautifully to us of joy. And they don’t call sadness joy, they don’t do what Luke does. These readings positively radiate with joy. In a season of Advent which speaks of watching, preparing, being ready, the third Sunday of Advent is always about joy. A burst of joy and grace in a more contemplative, serious season, that’s Advent 3. But along with this, we get that John the Baptist. What in the world are we to do with him? His message of fire and axes and destruction sounds like an off-key screech in an otherwise exquisite choral song of joy.
He claims that the world is in dire need of repentance, that we each are in dire need. He warns that there are so many things that are not of God, that need changing, that the only answer is an utter turning around. And after the events of this past week in Connecticut, who among us would dare to contradict John’s evaluation?
So what in the world are we to do today? Do we talk of joy, or do we face John and his view of a broken world, the reality we see ourselves? Or do we consider that Luke might be right, that they’re the same thing? Can we find good news for us and for the world here?
Now, Zephaniah and Paul (and really the song from Isaiah we sang today) call us to jubilation, to joy, in God’s grace for us.
Zephaniah spoke in the time of King Josiah of Judah, and called for reform of the worship and faithfulness of the people. So much of his prophecy is warnings to the people to turn to God from their awful behavior and lives that in fact, it sounds a lot like John the Baptist.
But the section we hear today seems to come from later, from the time of exile, after the punishment. God promises to take away the shame and the judgments against God’s people, and God is in their midst. And the only thing to do is rejoice and exult at God’s grace and love.
Paul writes to perhaps his favorite congregation, his beloved Philippians, and urges them to rejoice always in all things, to give thanks even while they are making requests of God. And this joy is in living in Christ, having faith that God’s grace is ours.
This is the letter where Paul says he considers all things rubbish compared to knowing Christ, and that to live is Christ and to die is gain. For Paul, the joy comes from a life that models, as he says earlier in the letter, the life of Jesus, who gave up everything to be a servant to us.
So we notice this: even though Zephaniah and Paul speak of unadulterated joy which pervades our whole existence, they both come from a context where they understand our lives to have turned toward God and away from the things that draw us from God. They assume a life lived in God’s way, with God’s priorities.
In short, they are describing a life of repentance, a life where God’s people have turned from their sin and selfishness and have given their lives to God. And that actually sounds a lot like John the Baptist, doesn’t it?
Now, John sounds angry. He sounds terrifying, in spite of Luke’s editorial comment. Still, Luke says it: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Good news, Luke calls it. For Zephaniah, the fact that God is in the midst of the people is a reason to end their shame, a reason for hope and joy.
John also says the Lord is near, but that means people need to shape up and change. He calls those who come for baptism “children of snakes” and asks who warned them to flee from God’s wrath which is coming. He says the axe is laid to the root of the tree that will not bear fruit, and it will be cut down.
For this to be good news, we need to understand a few things.
First, John apparently thinks that some of the crowds who have come are there just for the show, just for a ritual perhaps, thinking the baptism will fix what’s wrong with them, and they can go back to their lives. Sort of like coming to church week after week but not wanting to change anything about our lives or our choices. And at that John levels his angry rhetoric. So John wants the people to take this seriously and not look for easy ways out of their messy lives.
But another thing to remember is that John takes his role seriously, the preparer for the Messiah. And he sees people who live and create injustice, folks whose lives oppress others, whose lives don’t show the fruits of people who are turned toward God and God’s way. He sees a world that is out of balance, and a mess, one that needs serious cleansing.
And John’s only approach, the only thing he can think of, is to shock them out of complacency, to get them to take as seriously as he does the coming of the Messiah and their need to shape up. Because their joy will be found in the repentance, in the new life. Just as Zephaniah and Paul know, too.
The fruits of repentance John calls for are specific and concrete, each group gets a clear idea of what to do. Only Luke tells us this part of John’s message, and it’s critical to his understanding of why John’s preaching was good news.
Note first, that the people aren’t turned off by John’s rhetoric. They actually want to know what they can do to be different, to repent.
If you have two coats, and someone has none, give them one, John says.
If you have food, and others are hungry, share.
If you’re a tax collector and you’re charging extra to line your pockets, stop it.
If you’re a soldier and you’re extorting for money, stop that, too.
And the beauty of these examples is that it leaves us open to consider what John would say to us. Since each group had specific things they were doing to contribute to injustice and oppression and suffering, each had specific things to change. And so do we.
And the joy is found, the new life in Christ is found, when we discover those things and change them. When we turn to God. When we discover the joy of life lived for God and not ourselves.
Joy is found when people without coats have coats. When hungry people get to eat. When people who’ve been cheated are restored what is theirs. When children can live safely without fear of death or hunger or abuse. There’s the joy.
And there’s joy for us when we make that happen, when we are God’s agents for justice and peace.
This is the good news: true joy comes from facing the ugly truth about ourselves and finding God’s love healing us, restoring us.
We can be selfish people, and tend to care only for ourselves, and getting beyond ourselves, as John calls, turning to God and God’s way, is our way not only to joy but to life. To get to God’s joy, we have to go through John the Baptist and his truth, which cleans us and returns us to God.
Think of our good friend Ebenezer Scrooge, whose story hovers over this month each year. The spirits who visit him are his John the Baptist, helping him see the ugly truth that he had hurt others, shut off love from others, abused others, and wasted his life.
He starts to learn that he’d have been happier had he lived differently. Certainly others would have. So when he wakes on Christmas morning, he wakes to joy. Joy that he is still alive. Joy that he still has a chance. Joy that he has been forgiven. Joy that it is still Christmas Day, he hasn’t missed another opportunity to be gracious to others. So he brought joy to others in his new life, and he is filled with it himself.
In a life of repentance, with the Lord in our midst, near at hand, we, too, find joy.
Joy in loving others, not for its reward, but because it makes our heart grow.
Joy in caring for the children of God who are in need of our help, because it makes us alive and real.
Joy in being changed into new people by God who have a mission and a purpose in this world. And wonder of wonders, still enough time to do it. There’s still a chance to do something.
“So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
I’m grateful that Luke helps us see this as good news. From here, we each might want to bring John the Baptist along into our day, our week ahead, and think what he might answer us when we say, “What should we do?” What is it that he would say hinders us from the joy of following Jesus? What is selfish in me, in you, that if we let it go we would find God’s joy? What are we doing that is not of God, that needs forgiveness and turning? What is God calling me, calling you, to be and to do? What is our call to make this world a better place, a just place, as God would have it? These are the questions we need to bring to John the Baptist, so that he can show us the path to joy.
This is the good news that Luke sees in John, the good news that belongs to all who hear these words from God’s servant: that though we are part of the problem of the world, and contribute in our selfishness to the very things Jesus came to remove and eliminate, we need not remain the problem. Rather, by turning our lives to God we become part of God’s solution, God’s grace, God’s love.
And if that doesn’t bring us all a little joy, we’re just not paying attention.
In the name of Jesus. Amen