3 Advent, Year C
December 16, 2012
Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Philippians 4: 4-7
Luke 3: 7-18
+ In the name of the God who creates us, who redeems us, and who will never leave us alone. Amen.
Today is the Third Sunday in Advent, otherwise known as Gaudete Sunday. The word “gaudete” is the Latin word for “rejoice,” the word that began our Epistle reading today. We note this Sunday of rejoicing in an otherwise solemn season by lighting a pink candle. Sometimes the Third Sunday in Advent is also referred to as “stir up Sunday,” from the first words of the collect for today: “Stir up your power, O Lord.” Today’s lessons give us both cause to rejoice and to stir up our own hearts. Let’s see what these lessons might have to tell us today.
Our reading from Zephaniah is meant to comfort and encourage the early Hebrews living in exile, to reassure them that God won’t let the time in Babylon last forever. All of this reading’s phrases speak of joy and comfort. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.” Likewise, “The LORD, your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.”
The first song of Isaiah reinforces the sense that God loves us, that God offers us care and protection rather than judgment. “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.” If you’re not feeling loved and protected by now, Philippians will surely reassure you with some of the most comforting words scripture has to offer: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
All of these readings are wonderful for us to hear on this Third Sunday of Advent. It’s hard for us, in our time, to feel such assurance. We’re worried about our jobs and our access to healthcare. We’re worried about our environment and the likelihood that there will be a livable earth for our children and grandchildren. At home we lock our doors and turn on burglar alarms, and far away, our thoughts turn uneasily to the political tinderbox that is the Middle East. Most disturbing at all, not even forty-eight hours ago, twenty schoolchildren and six adults lost their lives in a mass shooting in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. When children aren’t even safe in a place dedicated to their nurture, we have to wonder if there’s any safety for any of us anywhere at all.
If we listen to Zephaniah, Isaiah, and St. Paul, we get to escape from our daily worries into a world where God takes care of us, where life is safe and secure on many levels. These readings give us the same warm feeling that we might feel on a chilly night when we’re snug in a warm house with our nearest and dearest, with a fire crackling in the fireplace, and some fragrant gingerbread in the oven. It’s very comfortable in this emotional space, and we’d like to enjoy it forever and ever.
But we’re not done with today’s readings. What do we do about Luke’s account of John the Baptist? John blows through our door like a very unwelcome cold wind. You might wonder what he’s doing here. You might wonder exactly what the makers of the lectionary were thinking when they assigned this Gospel to the same Sunday as the other readings. John’s not very hospitable, to put it mildly. Crowds have come to be baptized by him, and the greeting they get from him is, “You brood of vipers!” These words didn’t sound any friendlier two thousand years ago than they sound to us now. John has more to say that’s uncomfortable for us to hear. John talks about judgment. He talks about cutting down trees with an ax and throwing branches into the fire. Why should we even listen to him? It’s very tempting to tell him to just go away.
But John isn’t going anywhere. He makes us awfully uncomfortable, but we need to hear him. John has something important to tell us today. He’s announcing Jesus’ coming, and he’s telling us something else as well. John is telling us about the way God works in the world. God is well known for working in mysterious ways. God tends to send messengers who may seem quite inappropriate. God tends to send messengers who shock us out of our complacency. And, God sends messengers whose news doesn’t necessarily sound like good news to us. John is one of those messengers.
John’s message is a rather blunt way of telling us to get ready for the coming of Jesus. Getting ready means doing some serious spiritual housecleaning and reorienting. Getting ready means repenting. The word “repent” literally means “to turn.” Part of repenting is leading our lives differently and caring for our neighbor: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” If we have a position of power, as the tax collectors and soldiers in our reading do, repenting means not abusing our authority to oppress those who are powerless. John cautions that it’s not enough just to be one of God’s chosen people. It’s not enough just to be a descendant of Abraham. John tells us to clean our spiritual house and prune our spiritual orchard. Whatever isn’t bearing good fruit needs to be cut down and burned. John announces that one who is more powerful than he is—Jesus—is coming after him. Jesus will sort out the chaff from the wheat and throw the chaff into the fire.
This talk of fire is very unsettling. When we hear about fire, we tend to think about hell-fire. We twenty-first century Episcopalians don’t like to think very much about hell. If pressed, most of us would say it doesn’t exist, or if it does exist, that nobody’s there. We don’t even much like talk about judgment. So, how then do we reconcile today’s Gospel with our other readings from scripture? There seem to be two opposing views of reality here. Which is the right one, and how do we figure that out?
It’s possible, likely even, that both of these views are right. We may not need to choose between them. It’s not an either/or situation, but a case of both/and. The first thing to keep in mind here is that God operates in ways that to us are hard to fathom. We can’t say this often enough. We’re so used to the story of Jesus that it’s easy to forget how strange it is that God would choose to take on the flesh of a baby born to a poor Jewish girl in Nazareth. But God does exactly that. It’s even stranger that God’s saving act in Jesus would involve being executed by the Roman government. But God does exactly that. God defies conventional wisdom over and over again. So as strange as John the Baptist might appear to us, his strangeness and his harshness don’t his behavior a departure from God’s way of acting in the world.
John’s words are strange. They’re frightening. This is the time to remember that God is a God of mercy and not of wrath. If you look at our collect for today, you’ll notice that it contains the petition, “let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.” In a little while, we’ll all say the Nicene Creed and the words, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven. For us and for our salvation. FOR us. God’s purpose for us is a saving purpose. God isn’t against us. God is for us. Not only is God for us, but God has a dream for us. God’s dream for us is that we’ll live in a reordered creation, where we will care for our neighbor in need. Those who have material goods in abundance will share with those who have none. God’s dream for us envisions a world where those of us in positions of power will refrain from exploiting and oppressing those who have no power. And, I think, God’s dream for us envisions a world in which small children sent off to school in the morning come home safely to us in the afternoon.
So there is room for all the viewpoints in today’s lessons. ALL of their points of view are the gift of God. God so wants us to draw near that God is willing to shake us up in order to make sure that we are ready to welcome Jesus and to attain God’s kingdom. Zephaniah, Isaiah, and St. Paul give us the vision to keep before us. Luke’s John the Baptist gives us the wake-up call that will make sure we don’t lose sight of that vision. God loves us enough to rouse our spirits out of sleep, to stir up our hearts, so that we don’t miss out on God’s promise incarnate in Jesus. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven. Let us rejoice and prepare to welcome Jesus into our midst. Amen.