Advent 3 (Year C) | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 12 December 2021 | Zephaniah 3:14-20 | Canticle 9 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 3:7-18

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who rejoices over us with singing.

Good morning, friends! What a joy it is to be together on the third Sunday of Advent. We’re getting so close. We’re more than halfway to Christmas. And this Sunday is special because our readings remind us to rejoice as the Lord comes near. This Sunday even has a special Latin name in Christian tradition—Gaudete Sunday, and Gaudete is that word “rejoice” from our Philippians reading.

Gaudete Sunday is here to lift our spirits and let us know we’re almost there. It’s a Sunday when we hear the good news of great joy for all people especially clearly. We hear it ringing through our readings this morning.

We hear it from the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah. We hear it from St. Paul. And we hear it from John the Baptist too, even though John the Baptist is a little pricklier and we’ll take a minute to get to the good news and great joy in what he says when we get there.

But let’s start with the prophet Zephaniah, and see what kind of joy we find in his message from long ago. Zephaniah says, “God will rejoice over you with singing.” And here we learn something beautiful and something mysterious about the joy of this season: The great joy we proclaim now is not just our joy, but God’s joy. We are sharing in this great and mysterious divine joy. God Godself rejoices in us, and rejoices to come near us, and rejoices to help us and do good for us.

For the people who first heard the prophet Zephaniah, this word of rejoicing was about their return from exile. “God will bring you home and gather you,” Zephaniah says.

They had been taken away from their homeland in war, taken into exile in a foreign land, and Zephaniah was speaking a word of hope: that God would bring them home.

And most of us have not experienced the same trauma of exile that the people of Israel did in that time. But maybe we do have some understanding of what it’s like to long for home. Maybe some of us know what it’s like not to have all the shelter we need or all the protection we need or all the love we need. Maybe some of us know what it’s like to wander. Maybe some of us know what it’s like to feel like a stranger.

Zephaniah offers the hope of a joyous homecoming to people who wander. And as if our joy in coming home weren’t enough, Zephaniah gives us the insight that even God would rejoice in it. God would rejoice to make a home for us. We would share this joy with our creator, who sings over us and over all people with joy at our homecoming.

The joy continues in Isaiah, with hope in God’s help and salvation: “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust God and not be afraid.” And the rejoicing comes in with this beautiful image: “You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.”

The salvation God brings is like this endless, abundant spring of water. And we just get to come and scoop it up. We can drink it when we’re thirsty. We can bathe in it. We can splash it all around. There’s so much that God wants to give us.

And maybe this rejoicing is so rich and so plentiful because it’s not just our joy, but God’s joy. Maybe the reason the spring of salvation is so deep is that it is also the well of God’s own joy in God’s beloved creation.

Paul knows the depth of this joy too. In the letter to the Philippian church, Paul says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” In good times and in troubled times, there is joy to be found in God’s love for us and our love for each other. We can be grounded in that deep joy that we share together with our creator and redeemer.

And this doesn’t mean pretending things are okay when they’re not; but it can mean that even in grief, even in fear, even in stress, we sometimes find ourselves grounded in the peace of God which passes all understanding.

Rejoicing in the Lord always doesn’t mean we deny painful realities or hide our own struggles, but it might mean that we move through suffering differently. It can mean that even when we’re hurting, we carry the grace of knowing that we are loved, that we are not alone, that our God sings over us wherever we go.

And rejoicing in the Lord can feed our compassion for others as well as for ourselves. The very next thing Paul says after “Rejoice in the Lord always” is “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” In this season of advent when the Lord is so near and we rejoice at Jesus’ approach, we are called to gentleness that is rooted in joy. The Lord is near. And the Lord rejoices in each one of us and in all people.

Taking that to heart can make a difference in how we speak to one another, how we touch each other, how we listen to one another. Many of us are under extra stress right now. But maybe if we take a breath and remember God’s deep delight in us and in our neighbors, we can interrupt that spiral of self-criticism or reconsider that harsh comment to a family member.

If we take a breath and remember how God sings over all people with great joy, maybe we can be patient with a server or a cashier who’s having a bad day or even a person who is being wrong on the internet. Maybe we can practice a gentleness that is rooted in joy this season.

Today we hear good news of great joy for all people ringing out clearly from the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah and from St. Paul. We brush up against this great mystery: That the joy at the heart of this season is not only our joy, but God’s joy in coming near us.

We hear that the springs of salvation give life abundantly like water, and we rejoice in that life. We hear about rejoicing in the Lord always, and practicing a gentleness rooted in joy. We’re hearing good news of great joy for all people over and over this morning.

And then we get to our Gospel story. And here comes John the Baptist talking about “You brood of vipers” and “unquenchable fire.” Welp. Harsh, John. It kind of looks like John is a Grinch amid all this holiday cheer.

It kind of looks like somebody did not get the memo about this Sunday’s theme of rejoicing. There’s a lot going on here. John seems pretty angry at times. John’s message doesn’t sound like great joy to me right off the bat, and it certainly doesn’t sound gentle.

But at the end of our Gospel reading, we get this little summary line: “So with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” And that makes me wonder how we might find what’s good news for us in John’s preaching too.

Some context might help us do that. Last week we read the first part of the story of John the Baptist, and that was about preparing the way for the Lord. Luke quotes Isaiah to describe what John is doing.

John is “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” and what he’s saying is “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every hill shall be made low… And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

So John’s message will be about getting ready for Jesus to come (which is why we’re reading it now in Advent). And John’s message will be about getting ready for the salvation God brings. When John calls for repentance, it’s not just about getting rid of what’s bad; it’s about making way for the good that’s on the way. It’s about how we get to help clear the way forward for the good news of great joy for all people that Jesus embodies.

With that in mind, let’s look at what John calls on folks to do. John says to repent—which means to turn around and try something different. John says that claiming a great heritage of faith isn’t enough; we actually have to do something about it—we have to bear the fruit of repentance in the real world.

And when the people ask John what that looks like, he says that people in positions of power need to be gentle and not use the power they have to exploit other people for their own gain. He says people who have enough food need to share with people who don’t, and he says people with two coats need to share with people who don’t have a coat at all.

Now there is a lot of stuff in the Bible where it’s really complicated to figure out how and if it applies today, but I think this part is pretty easy to understand.

I’m not sure if you’ve checked your closets lately, but I definitely have two coats in there. And five jackets. And don’t even ask Brian how many sweaters. My needs are met in this way.

So I think the message is clear for those of us here who have our basic needs met and then some. It looks like for those of us in that group, our first step to repentance will be sharing what we have with folks who don’t yet have what they need.

And there is more to it—our repentance is a long process. And I also think helping our neighbors who are hungry and cold involves both shifting resources around and transforming deeper systems. But what John says, sharing what we have, is a really doable first step.

Those of us who have more than enough can share what we have with neighbors who don’t yet have what they need. And many of us in this community are already doing that. We are on the right track according to John. We’ve already started to follow this call.

And that’s really good news. It’s good news that there’s an answer to the question, “What should we do?” It’s good news that there’s clarity about what’s wrong. It’s good news that we have a call to show up for neighbors whose needs aren’t met.

It’s good news that Jesus is coming to bring salvation, and that we get to help prepare a way by sharing, by using our power and money differently, by leveling some mountains and filling some valleys right here where we are. It’s good news that we are called to do that, and we can do it.

But maybe even if we can get on board with what John the Baptist is asking us to do here, his harshness trips us up. We might wish that he’d asked more nicely, or that he didn’t sound so angry and threatening.

This is a challenge for me. It might be a challenge for many of us here who have been hurt by the idea that God is angry with us when we fall short of the goal. How is it good news of great joy for all people to see John out here in the desert yelling at people?

It’s hard to hear, but I think, strangely, we can understand John’s anger better when we remember God’s joy, what we heard about from Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul. Our God rejoices over us and all God’s beloved people with singing. Our God longs for all people to know the joy of homecoming, to draw water with rejoicing from springs of salvation.

And when we are rooted in God’s own joy, we practice gentleness and compassion with ourselves and with all people. God’s vision is a world where all people have enough, all people are free, all people are celebrated, all people can rejoice in love of God and neighbor. But that’s not always the world we see out there.

So yes, there’s a reason to be angry when some of the people God loves and sings over with joy don’t have a coat to wear when they’re cold or enough food to eat when they’re hungry. Yes, there’s reason to be angry when people who have power forget gentleness, and they go and hurt other beloved children of God for their own ego or their own greed.

Yes, there is reason to be angry when Jesus wants all people to be free and yet people are incarcerated, people are enslaved by debt, people are stuck in a cycle of generational poverty.

If God takes such great joy in all of God’s creation, there’s reason to be angry when we have collectively taken a path that harms God’s creation. There’s reason to be angry when the world is set up so that the people God rejoices over suffer more than they’d have to. And so maybe we can understand John’s anger.

Maybe some of us have even felt that kind of anger ourselves and wanted to chop down some trees and throw some chaff in the fire. And maybe we can learn from John to accept the good news within our own anger, that our anger might sometimes be leading us toward change that is good. And maybe we can learn from John to hear good news even from people who sound angry or make us feel bad. Maybe there is good news to be heard in those calls for change.

And friends, it is such good news that Jesus is coming near to us in love. It is such good news that we can help prepare the way by doing justice now and sharing with our neighbors now. It is such good news that we have prophets, both joyful ones and angry ones, to help us learn to do it, to show us the way.

It is such good news that the world doesn’t have to stay the way it is, that God’s salvation is coming, and that we get to be part of this transformation toward joy.

Even when we’re facing the discomfort of deep change, of repentance, of having to do differently, we can draw from a deep well of joy. We can know that God rejoices over us with singing even when we still have a lot of repenting left to do. We catch glimpses of God’s own joy in creation. We can share good news of great joy for all people.

And as we do this together this season may the peace of God and the joy of God, passing all understanding, guard our hearts and minds as we await Christ’s coming.