Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 3rd Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Good morning, brood of vipers!
John the Baptist, you gotta love him. He doesn’t mince words. And Luke calls his message “good news!” How is that so, and how do we get from John to the other readings this morning where the predominant word was “rejoice?”
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” That’s the basic message. What is this repentance? It is more than feeling sorry. It is changing your life. Turning around. Facing a new direction. Doing a new thing. This, of course, with God as the object. Turning towards God.
The crowds were practical. “What then should we do?” John has very clear answers. All of them have to do with living justly. Share what you have with those in need. Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. Do not extort money.
Repentance is about turning toward the ways of justice. It is about adopting the ways of the Kingdom of God. Luke in his Gospel, which we will be reading over the next year, will drive home this point again and again and again.
Justice is how repentance becomes good news, and, despite his rough edge, John knew that people were capable of it or he wouldn’t have been preaching in the first place. He did believe that people had to be serious about this change of life he felt God demanded, though, because it was a real change of life.
It still is. It is neither a light nor easy thing to choose the way of the Kingdom of God, the path of Jesus. It requires a change of heart and mind time and time again. It is a constant struggle to turn away from the ways of self-reliance and self-salvation to dependence on and trust in God. It can be wrenching to leave behind participation in the subtle and not so subtle ways our society creates a socially acceptable system of injustice and to embrace God’s way of justice.
But it is in this very turning, it is in repentance, that real joy can be found. When I know I’ve given of myself to help another, especially one I do not know. When I am able to cast off the shackles of mistrust and allow myself to be embraced by the one who loves me. When I experience that I don’t need to be stuck in a way of life or a particular behavior that is damaging to me and others. When I can say I am forgiven, loved, and free.
Then will the prophecy of Zephaniah come true in my life.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst…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.
And too the prophecy of Isaiah.
Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid….Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.
And we will be capable of the seemingly impossible thing Paul asks.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.
And notice how this joy gets us to Christmas. Zephaniah says
The Lord, your God is in your midst…
For the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.
The Lord is near.
When we experience the reality of what we call the Incarnation—God taking on human flesh and being present in our midst, there is joy.
My friend Ed Bacon, the Rector of All Saints’ Church, Pasadena, California says that he believes that it is the presence of joy that is the chief mark of the Christian. You would think having listened to the preaching of John the Baptist that it would be fear that predominates, a good, healthy, biblical “fear of the Lord.” But no, it is joy. John’s message is vitally important and repentance is one of the key things we must practice to live the Christian life, but it results in joy, not fear.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
The only condition for joy is the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it, which means that it can erupt in a depressed economy, in the middle of a war, in an intensive care waiting room.
It is good to remind ourselves that Paul wrote the words “Rejoice always” from prison.
Joy is hard won, because it is the fruit of repentance, of endless conscious decisions to turn toward God, toward the Kingdom of God, toward justice.
There is a Shaker song that we don’t normally associate with Advent, but I’d like to close with it. It captures the relationship between repentance and joy (and in a much gentler spirit than John the Baptist!).
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn, will be our delight
‘Til be turning, turning we come ‘round right.
 “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit (October—December 1996), p. 16.
Shaker song, 18th century, The Hymnal 1982, 554