Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Rejoice in the Lord Always"

Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)
Zephaniah 3.14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
Sunday, December 13, 2015 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

As we continue our journey through the season of Advent, and mark that journey by the lighting of successive candles on the Advent wreath, we see that today we have come to the third Sunday, for which a pink candle is lit. Why a different color from the otherwise blue candles of this liturgical season? Because the third Sunday of Advent has a decidedly different tone than the other Sundays of Advent. This Sunday is commonly known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for rejoice. So this is “Rejoice Sunday.” So, to distinguish the “lighter” tone, a different, more celebratory color is used.

Now the specific reason this is known as Gaudete Sunday is because the traditional opening words of the Mass on this day, setting the theme for the worship service, were taken from our reading from Philippians where Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice” (Phil 4.4). Or in Latin, “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.”

For Paul, there is cause for rejoicing at what he perceives as the nearness of the Lord. Written about 30 years after Jesus resurrection and ascension, Paul is undoubtedly rejoicing that Christ would be coming again – what we call the Second Coming. Of course, at that time, the prevailing thought was that Christ would be coming again at any time.

It is not just our reading from Philippians that contains the theme of rejoicing – this theme runs throughout all of our Scripture readings for today – rejoicing that the Lord’s coming is drawing ever nearer.

The Book of Zephaniah is largely a condemnation of corrupt practices and religious perversion, and the need for the people to alter their associated behavior. The last part of the book, however – the portion that we heard this morning – is a song of joy. It prophesize of the “Day of the Lord,” when God would come to his people, bringing the promise of salvation. This will include taking away judgment against the people, turning away the enemy, removing disaster, saving the lame, gathering the outcast, and bringing the people home. Throughout, the prophet echoes the refrain that the Lord is in the midst of the people. This will naturally be cause for great joy and rejoicing – “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zeph 3.14). But not only will the people have cause for rejoicing. Zephaniah tells us God will also rejoice on that glorious day. “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you  in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zeph 3.17b-18a).

Similarly, the response to this reading from Zephaniah is the First Song of Isaiah. In this song, the prophet Isaiah lifts up praises to God for his salvation and his defense of the people of Israel. In response, the people are to “Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things [that are] known in all the world. Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the mist of you is the Holy One of Israel” (Is 12.5-6).

Both these lessons are songs of rejoicing at the coming of the Lord. From our perspective, they are songs of praise at the coming of the long-awaited Messiah at Christmas. While not explicitly using the language of rejoicing, our Gospel lesson also ends on a note that should elicit cause for rejoicing. “So, with many other exhortations, [John the Baptist] proclaimed the good news to the people” (Lk 3.18).

But, wait a minute! Where is this good news John the Baptist is talking about? Where is the cause for rejoicing in his message and particularly in what we just heard? I mean, he starts off with “you brood of vipers!” He then proceeds to talk about fleeing from the “wrath to come.” And what about “the ax is lying at the root of the trees” and that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” – images of destruction? And then John finishes by likening those of us who fall short to the chaff from wheat that is winnowed, saying of the Messiah that “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” None of this seems particularly joyful on its surface. From “brood of vipers” to being burned in unquenchable fire is hardly cause for rejoicing.

Yet, to these metaphorical conditions, of the threat of condemnation that they imply, John provides a corrective. There is good news in that condemnation is not a foregone conclusion. John is letting the people know that their response to the impending judgment is to seek repentance. That judgment can be avoided by repentance. He talks about how they need to turn their lives and their actions around to be in alignment with God’s laws and commandments. How they should share from what they have, about how they should not cheat people, about how they should not extort others, about how they should not make threats or false accusations. Now granted, these seem like pretty reasonable things to ask, particularly of those who expectantly seek the Messiah. And what better news could there possibly be than that those who are in need of clothing are clothed, that those who are hungry are fed, that those who were treated unjustly are instead treated fairly and with respect? And what better news could there be to those who face judgment and condemnation for failing to follow the Law that there is indeed hope?

What this Gospel passage says, through the words and actions of John the Baptist, is that rejoicing is all well and good. We should rejoice. Rejoice that judgment and condemnation are not inevitable. We should rejoice that God gives us another chance. We should rejoice at the salvation that is given by God. We should rejoice at the coming of our savior into our midst. But even in the midst of rejoicing, we still have responsibilities.

What John is getting at is that we all fall short of the ideals set forth in God’s laws. Rejoicing at the coming of the Lord means that we also embrace all that he stands for. That we must therefore seek to live as he would have us do. That means we are all called to repent, to turn our lives around from any sinful ways. We are all called to act justly, particularly in our dealings with others. We are all called to care for others, particularly those in need. Our response in our rejoicing is to try to do better to follow more closely, to live more like, the One whose coming we rejoice. Our response in rejoicing in the compassion God has shown us in our salvation is to have compassion on others. This is not so much about what thou shalt or shalt not do, but about seeking to build community based on just and equitable relationship with others – the community that is the hallmark of the Kingdom of God. This, in and of itself, is cause for rejoicing.

John the Baptist warns that there can be a tendency to take God’s mercy and salvation for granted, without considering how we might do better. We see this in the reading from Luke, when those who come out to see what John is all about proclaim, “We have Abraham as our ancestor” (Lk 3.8b). In effect, they were saying, “We don’t need to listen to what are you preaching. We don’t need the baptism you are offering. We’re God’s Chosen and that’s enough.” This was a common statement among the people of the day, particularly the religious authorities, indicating that they are relying on their heritage and identity. That because they are children of Abraham, who first entered into covenant with God, that they are therefore automatically entitled to whatever good things God might provide. In short, they take their religious identity for granted and see no reason to go to any extraordinary lengths to actually live as if they believe what they profess. But John’s point is that is not necessarily the case. We are not to take our identity as children of God for granted.

For John, the significance of our identity as a child of God is exemplified through the act of baptism. How we intentionally embrace our identity as children of God is through baptism. For John, baptism is a great equalizer. All who come into the waters of baptism have their sins washed away. All who come into the waters of baptism are given a new life. Baptism is a welcoming into a new identity. To prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, Luke in his gospel calls us into a new identity. One that is marked by repenting of our sins, by seeking to bear good fruit that demonstrate in an outward way who we are and whose we are.

But there is still more to this new identity we have as followers of the One who is to come, as indicated by John himself. In John’s time, there was such a hunger for good news, such a desire for the Messiah to come, that people saw potential messiahs around every corner. Anyone who had a message to preach might possibly be “the one.” And there were many who thought John might actually be the long-awaited Messiah. But John is very clear that he is not the Messiah. He recognizes that he is but a man who is “not worthy to untie the thong of [the Messiah’s] sandal” (Luke 3:16c). Even so, he recognizes that he does have a role to play in preparing the way for the One who would come and change the face of humanity forever. That role is to proclaim a message of repentance of our sins and to seek right relationship with God and with others. The Messiah, when he does come, will take it from there.

In this Advent, we are all called to be as John the Baptist – to recognize that despite the fact that we are all just ordinary human beings, we have a part to play in preparing the way for Christ’s coming into the world. Yes, he has already been born. That happened 2,000 years ago. But in the wilderness in which we live, a world that can be dangerous and inhospitable and dark at times, we are called to point the way to the light of the world who came and continues to come to dispel that darkness. In our own day, the only way Christ’s light can shine in the darkness of the world is through us. In that, we prepare the world for his continual coming into our midst. As we echo in our lives the words of Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice” (Phil 4.4).

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