Sermon; Advent 3C
Advent is technically a penitential season as we prepare for the coming of the Messiah, and today is a respite from the generally somber tone of the season. Today is Gaudete Sunday, or Rose Sunday. Today we light the rose/pink candle and, if so inclined, wear rose/pink vestments. You will notice that I am not so inclined.
Traditionally the service began with the singing of a psalm and antiphon. On this day the antiphon began, “Gaudete in Domino semper,” or, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Which, if you remember, comes from the Philippians reading we heard earlier.
In this short penitential season of preparation and expectation, today is a day set aside for rejoicing. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say Rejoice. That theme of rejoicing is found in all of our readings today – yes, even the gospel.
The reading from Zephaniah is similar to last week's reading from Baruch in that it looks forward to the restoration of Israel. Rejoice and exult with all your heart, for I will bring you home and restore your fortunes.
But this just isn't about the restoration of fortunes. This just isn't about returning to the glory days of yesteryear, or of returning to some halcyon days of old that never really existed. Look at what almost gets missed in this passage: I will save the lame and gather the outcast, I will change their shame into praise and renown.
This is not simply rejoicing because things are going well. This is rejoicing because God's people have been restored. Think about a time when you have been restored – physically, emotionally, spiritually, or financially – and you begin to understand the joy behind this reading. For me, when I could sleep in my own bed, when I could feel my fingers, when I could begin to grasp things, when I could raise my shoulder above my head were all times of rejoicing. I'm sure there are other times in my life, and in yours, when we were able to rejoice.
Rejoice in the Lord always – Gaudete!
The Canticle is also a passage of rejoicing. Surely it is God who saves me, I will trust in him and not be afraid. You shall draw water with rejoicing. Ring out your joy.
Obviously the Philippians passage is joyful. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say Rejoice.
So we have these three readings that have a theme of rejoicing and/or joy. These three readings can be, and should be read, in such a way as to lead their hearers to a point of rejoicing.
And then there's the gospel: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? He will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Where's the joy in that? Where's the joyful expectation or rejoicing in the coming kingdom?
Last week I talked about the lowering of mountains and hills and the raising up of valleys as a leveling out of the social, political, and economic inequalities experienced in society. This leveling out is a result of loving our neighbors, seeking justice, and respecting the dignity of every human being. When we live into our baptismal covenant, when we work to make God's kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, there will be rejoicing.
But this will not happen overnight. It will take time. It will require each of us to do our part. This is what the gospel passage addresses, and this is the beginning of joy in today's passage.
To see the joy, however, we need to get past the opening sentence; we need to get past the blunt accusations of being a brood of vipers. We need to get past the cutting down of unfruitful trees or burning the chaff in an unquenchable fire. Look at the core of John's message today.
The core of his message is to instruct people on how to live now, on how to correct past errors. It is a message of repentance and new life.
“What should we do to avoid the coming judgment?” If you have two coats, share with anyone who has none. If you have extra food, share with anyone who has none. Do not collect exorbitant fees. Do not extort money through threats or false accusations.
John is giving practical examples of how we can level things out, of how we can lower mountains and hills, and raise valleys. If we were to live into this admonishment from John, if we could live into these ideals, think of the rejoicing that would ensue.
I read a story last week about a bank that mistakenly foreclosed on a home loan. Think of the rejoicing that would have happened had the bank been more focused on the people than on their system. I saw the story/video of a mother applying for assistance who had her child forcibly removed from her. There was another story . . . . and another story . . . . and another story. These continue to raise mountains and hills and lower valleys. These stories do nothing to bring about God's kingdom, let alone rejoicing.
But what if we took John's words to heart? What if we began treating people as we want to be treated, or as we want God to treat us? Then I believe there would be cause for rejoicing.
Those who are far off will be brought near. Those who are outcast will be welcomed. Those who are less than will be healed and made whole. So draw water with rejoicing. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say Rejoice!
This is the season of preparation. And today is the day of rejoicing. What in your life is worthy of rejoicing? And maybe more importantly, what have you done to help another person rejoice?
Because I think our greatest time of rejoicing is when we see God at work in the world and when we have an active role in establishing God's kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.