Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
The Rev. Dr. Mary Abrams
December 28, 2018
If you know this little song please sing it with me. I’ve got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy down in my heart. Thanks for humoring me. That song has been on my mind since I started preparing this homily. This is the third Sunday of Advent and the theme of this day is Joy. Today we begin to anticipate the joy of Christmas.
In our first reading the prophet Zephaniah tells us to “rejoice and exult with all our heart.” Zephaniah lived during troubled times. The people have turned away from God. Spiritual leaders were either corrupt or not listened to, there was little concern for proper and holy worship, no one was caring for the poor and there was little if any respect for God’s laws. Zephaniah was sent by God to tell the people of God’s judgement. He tells them that Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed and the people will be carried away to Babylonia into exile. God’s people would no longer be in the presence of God who dwelt in the Temple of Jerusalem. But Zephaniah doesn’t stop there. He also told them, “Sing aloud O daughter of Zion” the Lord will one day take away this judgment and redeem God’s people”. Zephaniah reminds them of their close relationship to God and that God will continue to call them back into covenant time and time again. One day they will be freed from exile and allowed to return to Jerusalem. Even with their sins, they are God's people and God will continue to walk with them.
In our second reading Paul is telling the Phillipians to "Rejoice in the Lord always" It may seem strange to hear these words of Joy coming from Paul. We know Paul’s story, He experienced great personal tragedy. He has been beaten, persecuted, and thrown in jail for his faith. And yet he continues to reach out to those he has encounter on his journeys and sends them messages from his prison, telling them to rejoice. Like the Judeans in Zephaniah’s time the Phillipians are experiencing troubles from with in their own community and from without. They are arguing among themselves about who should be their leaders. They have problems with other Christian communities who oppose Paul’s messages about inclusivity. And as if that were not enough Phillipi is now controlled by the Romans and being a Christian in the Roman Empire puts them in danger of persecution.
Paul’s message of joy is not simply encouragement. He is calling the people’s focus back to God. He knows that faith is their greatest resource. They trust in a God who walks with them. They have experienced the great love of God. God is a part of their daily lives. So he tells them to rejoice always because God will always be with them.
As we prepare for Christmas this year we also find ourselves in a world of chaos: conflicts among the nations of the world, hatred and mistrust among ethnic groups, violence in our nation's streets, environmental crises, dysfunction in our government, and abuse in our places of work and in our homes. It can become overwhelming, the issues are so many and so big and we are so small. We may struggle to find the joy.
Today on this third Sunday of Advent, Joy Sunday, we hear the message of Zephaniah, Rejoice, sing and shout with Joy. Be glad and rejoice with all your heart. Don’t be afraid. In spite of our sins God is with us. God will always be with us and will save us. God will calm us with God’s love. Today we get to hear the words of Paul who says, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” St. Paul also tells us not to fear, not to have anxiety because “The Lord is near!” And this Lord will bring a peace, God’s peace, which surpasses anything that we have ever known. So let us rejoice and be glad.
But wait before we get too excited and too joyous we need to remember that this is still Advent. Advent is a time for reflection and self examination. The mood is supposed to be slightly subdued. We take a little break from the solemn mode on this Joy Sunday but it is nonetheless still Advent. That may be why this particular Gospel reading was chosen for today. John the Baptist brings us back to the business of Advent.
The business of Advent, our self reflection, can be like a tune up. My car was in the shop this week. They first had to run a diagnostic test to see what was wrong then they had to make the necessary corrections. Advent is a time for us to do a tune-up. We can take a self inventory, our diagnostic test, to see what may need to be corrected. We look for our attitudes and behaviors that we may want tweak a bit. What can we change, eliminate or add to, that will help us follow in the foot steps of Jesus. Today’s reading about John the Baptist gives us some suggestions on how to do our tune-up.
Now let me ask you, if a family came to Father Tom, a family with a couple of young children and maybe even a baby and asked him to baptize them all. What do you think he would say to them? Do you think he would say “You snakes, who do you think you are? What do you think you are doing?“ No, of course, we would not expect Fr, Tom say that, instead he would welcome them warmly and explore with them what baptism means. But this is exactly what John the Baptist said to those who followed him into the wilderness to be baptized for the repentance for their sins. John said “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come” John, being a true prophet, rough and grizzly, says it like he sees it. John fears that those in crowd have come for the wrong reasons. That they have come out of curiosity maybe, not for true repentance. John fears that because the Jews know themselves to be children of Abraham they feel they are special to God and will be exempt from God’s judgment. John quickly corrects their thinking.
Their membership in the Jewish community will not exempt them from judgment, and their salvation depends on their sincere repentance. He warns us also that God requires us to go beyond lip service, but to honestly repent, and when we are baptized we are to transform our lives, we are to be fruitful. We too may to tempted to trust in who we are or what group we belong to rather than trust that the fruits we produce will be our salvation. For example, we may prize our membership in a particular congregation or a particular denomination. I know many of us have been very proud to be Episcopalians lately, as the Episcopal Church and its Presiding Bishop have been predominate in the news several times over the last year. We may take pride in our place on the vestry or other leadership positions, in our faithful church attendance, our service in the choir, our generous donations, our baptism or our ordination! Some of us put our faith in racial or national roots our accomplishments, our family, wealth or social standing, our position in the community, our degree from the right school.
John warns us that none of these has any value if we do not genuinely repent, which will be characterized by how we follow in the path of Christ. Following Baptism we are called to make changes in our lives, to be transformed by our baptism. For the world to become a better place and to truly be the Kingdom of God, we need to act and to be fruitful. Will your self examination reveal that you have you been transformed by your baptism? Will it reveal that you have been truly repentant of your sins?
John’s followers included Tax collectors and even Roman soldiers. Neither of these groups were know for their honesty and just dealings with the people. They abused their power and extorted the people in their communities. They didn’t understand what John was saying. They asked him what they needed to do to be saved.
We know what we have been called to do. Micah told us what the Lord requires: To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. Jesus put it another way. He commanded us to love God and to love one another. Love. It is not passive. Love is an action word. We are to do love.
We can use John’s answers to the questions of his followers for our own diagnostic test when examining ourselves. John’s first answer was to love by sharing with those who have less than we have. Sharing with others was already part of the jewish law. Farmers were required by law to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so the poor could get food. It was required by law to support one's relatives who needed help. Prophets always spoke about caring for the poor, widows and orphans.
While most of us don’t consider ourselves to be rich, the epidemic of obesity tells us that we enjoy more food than we need. Most of us have closets that are stuffed full, some even have rooms in their homes that are designated as closets, indicating that we have much more clothing than we really need. Supersize is every where, restaurant meals, drinks, SUVs, grand bathrooms, and mansions. Is this a place where we can tweak? Can we share more with those who have need?
John tells us to be honest in ALL of our dealings, in our relationships, our businesses, and in our homes? Think about how our actions and words affect others. Does our honesty with others need some tweaking?
And finally, John tells us not to abuse our power. How do we handle our power at work and at home? Most of us don’t think of ourselves as having power but we do. We have the power of privilege; white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, privilege of wealth or of health. Are you even aware of your power and how it affects others? Do we only use our power to benefit ourselves? Can we tweak our lives by using our power differently: to help empower others, to advocate for others , to be a voice for those who need our help, to help put into positions people and systems that will protect and provide for the less fortunate?
We have a couple of weeks left in Advent to continue our reflection and our tune up. We are preparing ourselves, with God’s help, to transform our fears and concerns into joy, the chaos and turmoil of our world into peace by learning to love the way Christ taught us to love. And then on Christmas morning we will truly experience the fullness of joy when we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.