Let There Be Joy!
Although, there’s somberness attached to Advent, and it traditionally carries a penitential flavor, but that’s not the whole story. Yes, it’s true that John has been called to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus’ ministry by calling on the people to repent and to change the way they’re living. Advent, however, isn’t Lent. It may have that somber feel, especially in the hymns, which may be one reason why congregations prefer the carols to the Advent hymns, but Advent also exudes expectation and hope. On the third Sunday of this brief season we light the candle of joy, and it’s appropriate to sing a hymn like Joy to the World, even if Christmas hasn’t yet arrived. As we looking forward in anticipation, we can call out the words: “Let there be Joy!” Or, to pick up on Paul’s words: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!”
There are calls for repentance to be found within our texts for the week, but they also speak of joy and expectation. A new day is coming when God will reign. So lift up your hearts, rejoice and be glad. But as you prepare for that moment, prepare yourself for the anticipated event. Clean up – or better yet, let God clean you up. There’s need for baptism – both the water that cleanses and the Holy Spirit and refining fire. Yes, there is hope for tomorrow, and with that hope comes joy.
The prophet Zephaniah calls out to us from the midst of the exile, inviting us to rejoice and give thanks to God with all of our hearts. In context, the message is that the time of judgment is over and a new future is present for Israel. They may have experienced the suffering of the exile, but a new day dawns, and they needn’t feel alone, because God is in their midst. Not only that, but God is at work rectifying unjust situations. God is like a warrior king – it’s an image that many of us might find uncomfortable, but in context it’s understandable. The people are experiencing marginalization. They’re exiles and outcastes. Their homeland has been devoured and occupied. What will change the situation? Who will turn things around? Into the situation rides the warrior king, who defeats the enemy and restores the land to its proper owners. For the recipients of this word, the good news is that God will set aside the oppressors and deliver those who are lame, who are outcasts, and God will “change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth” (vs. 19). God is about to regather the folks so that they might dwell in peace and in hope, and the world will know that God is at work. This is a word that will fill the people with hope and expectation. And as we prepare for the coming of the Lord’s Christ, the one who reveals God’s reality to us, we can wait with expectation. And so there is great and exceeding joy in our midst.
A second word of joy is found in this brief passage from Paul’s Philippian letter. Whereas Zephaniah writes to the exiles, offering them the promise of deliverance, Paul writes from a jail cell. We don’t know where he resides, but his freedom to move about is severely restricted. But in spite of his situation Paul finds joy in the Lord. The reading from the Common English Bible begins: “Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say be glad.” I know that this translation carries the meaning of the verse, but it’s not nearly as melodic as the more traditional –“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say rejoice!” How do we manage this – whether we use the words be glad or rejoice, how do we find continuous and unrelenting joy present in our lives? Look around, how many people can say that they find reason in life to be glad? How many smiling faces do you see? When I look out into the community, even the church community, I see a lot of anger and a lot of pain. I see anxiety and fear. Just this week there’s been another seemingly random shooting in a public space. We see people are stocking up on weapons to “protect themselves,” though from whom they seek protection we’re not told. Immigrants and migrants are cast aside out of fear that they might “take our jobs.” People are anxious about tomorrow.
Into this mix comes Paul, who offers a different word, one of joy and hope. In place of anxiety he offers expectation. He invites us to live prayerfully, offering our requests to God rather than living with fear and anxiety. Perhaps this is required if we’re to let our “gentleness show in [our] treatment of all people.” The life of hope that is rooted in prayer is focused on the promise that God is near. We could take this eschatologically and look for Christ’s quick return in person, or with Zephaniah live in the knowledge that God is our midst – already. When we do this, when we live with the understanding that God is with us (Emmanuel), then we will live with a sense of peace that surpasses all understanding, so that our “hearts and minds will be kept safe in Christ Jesus.” With a promise like this, then we can live expectantly and with joy!
There is some of the penitential in Luke’s gospel reading. John is at work down at the Jordan – preaching and baptizing. John has choice words for the gathering crowd. Although the Common English Bible has the sufficiently descriptive “You children of snakes,” nothing carries the meaning of John’s message better than the NRSV’s “You brood of vipers.” This rendering makes it clear that he’s not referring to harmless garter snakes, but poisonous vipers. He tells them to change their lives and their hearts – produce fruit to accompany your words of repentance. Mouthing confessions isn’t sufficient. You have to actually change your life – because God is coming and God will take an axe to the roots. You can call yourself children of Abraham, all you want, but God can raise up children from the stones. So make sure your words of repentance are real. I expect that there were those who came to watch the show and walked away in disgust at this self-proclaimed prophet of God who insulted the people with his claims that they’re vipers. But many turned and asked for help.
What then should we do in response to John’s call for repentance? John answers in a way that would make Jesus proud. If you have two shirts, give one away. If you have food, then share it with those who are hungry. The tax collectors asked what they should do, and he told them not to collect any more than authorized (and remember their “pay” came from skimming off the top, so what does this mean? How can a tax collector make an honest wage?). There are even soldiers who come to him, asking what they need to do. Are these Roman soldiers? Or Herod’s? John tells them – don’t cheat or harass the people, don’t exert your power in destructive ways. Keep the peace, but don’t bully the people. These are hard words to hear, but the people seem ready for them. But are we?
For those who heard this message, Luke suggests that they were “filled with expectation.” They were ready. They weren’t sure whether John was the Christ, but they were ready to go. Lead on, they were saying. If God is ready, then so are we. John has to temper their enthusiasm – but only for a moment. I’m not the one, he says, but the one you’re looking for is nearby. He’s coming – so be ready. I baptize you with water to prepare you for that day, but he will come baptizing with fire and the Holy Spirit. I think we understand the idea of the Holy Spirit – the indwelling of God in our midst, but what of the fire? What is this about? The image of fire has various nuances, but here it seems to be a word of judgment. The one who is coming after John will separate the wheat from the chaff. That which is useful – fruit – will be stored in the barn. That which is useless – the chaff – will be thrown into the fire. Yes, there is expectation, but also some introspection. Where is the fruit? And with this, John continued to preach the good news – and so may we.
Let there be joy!