12 December 2021 – Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-18

12 December 2021 – Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-18

Introduction

John’s images are the opposite of what many expect to hear on the Third Sunday in Advent.

This is traditionally Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin, “Rejoice!” taken from Philippians 4:4”

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

John the Baptizer in Luke 3 sounds more like he is raging and not rejoicing. John is raging to punctuate the importance of his message of repentance, the importance of seeking and returning to God. John baptizes with water. The Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John preaches that Jesus’ baptism will have the two-fold benefit of purification and refinement.

Repentance in John’s mind resembles the actions in Luke 3:11: share your coat, do not overcharge, do not extort money, and do not bring threats or false accusations.

In other words, do share but do not swindle, strong-arm, or support scare-tactics.

John’s words invite the crowd to examine their personal actions that stand in the way

of a deeper relationship with God and humanity.

Let us pray…

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you,

O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Imagine a young girl, third grade, maybe fourth. Her parents have signed her up for piano lessons. Each week they cart her back and forth and wait outside in the car. They wonder if this is time and money well spent. Then comes the time for her first recital. They buy her a new dress. They remind her that no one will laugh if she makes a mistake. Her parents tell her not to worry about all the people watching.

The night of the recital arrives. She waits; then her name is called. Some of you had music lessons when you were a child. Can you sense her anxiety? But add this bit of information:

her demanding parents both have doctorates in music and expect nothing but the best from their little girl. Now, how do you think she feels?

The prophet Zephaniah portrays Israel as God’s daughter, a people who never could live up to God’s standards. The prophets challenged them for years, and for years Israel failed to make the grade. So, when Israel is invaded by a powerful army and its people taken off into exile to a foreign land, they had feelings of failure and guilt; a shadow of despair came over them. That’s the feeling Israel knows when the prophet Zephaniah comes on the scene.

Despair! That’s something of the feeling the little girl experiences who is about to play at her first recital.

But what if her parents, the consummate musicians, were completely supportive?

Another girl, Emily, grew up in a musical home. She took violin lessons from her earliest days. Emily’s parents are highly gifted; they play in the symphony orchestra. Emily is gifted too, but she will never be a concert violinist. She was asked if she ever felt the pressure to perform to their level. She replied, “Oh, no! Never. My parents delight in me!”

Israel never quite figured it out that while God expects much, God loves even more.

Zephaniah declares, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”

This is Joy Sunday in the season of advent. Writer and theologian, C.S. Lewis wrote,

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” Joy is a serious business.

It’s serious because it’s important, but sometimes doesn’t come easily or naturally.

Circumstances erect barriers to joy; sometimes other people make it hard to feel joy.

Then again, sometimes we, ourselves, put up barriers to joy. Joy doesn’t always come easily or readily. Sometimes it takes serious, hard work, faithful attention, to find joy; to develop a joyful attitude.

The question, though, in this time so close to Christmas, is where do we find joy?

Where we’d like to find joy is – as the children’s song says – “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart.”

But just because Christmas is coming doesn’t mean that necessarily we’ll find heartfelt joy.

The sobering fact is that the way we celebrate Christmas can often be more of a joy-killer than a joy-maker.

Just to venture out shopping is a case in point. You intend a modest shopping trip:

modest in length – just two hours or so; modest in intent (just a few items). You know exactly what you want and where you will go to find what you want.

Five hours later you return home. You come home with half the items you’d hoped to buy; the rest of the stuff you bought is not what you had in mind. By the end, you are inclined to agree with the perverse Ebenezer Scrooge by uttering your own ‘bah-humbug’ at Christmas.

Sometimes the hectic pace; the pressures and expectations of it all get in the way of joy.

At other times, though, life itself seems to conspire to kill joy. With a presumption of togetherness displayed at office parties and family gatherings, the holidays are often a time when we are most aware of our loneliness, particularly if we’ve lost a loved one. Sometimes sickness rears its ugly head. Or we sense our separation from loved ones – family or marital tensions conspire to kill joy.

Life is difficult, and even more so if the expectation is that we’re to be filled with the spirit of the season when on the inside we know that things aren’t quite right.

So, where do we find joy? How do we find joy?

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for I will come and dwell in your midst, announces God through the prophet Zephaniah.

When the magi come from the east to visit Jesus, it says that when the star came to rest over the child’s house, the magi were overwhelmed with joy. And when the angel greets the shepherds in the field outside Bethlehem, the angel says, do not be afraid – I bring you good news of great joy for all people. But how does joy flow from these words of scripture to here, to the heart?

Joy is a curious thing. It has no life of its own. Joy is not something manufactured at will.

Joy is something that flows out of other things. Joy is the natural by-product of certain sorts of events and experiences in our lives. Joy can flow from so many sources; from something as mundane as mere relief, or, in its most exquisite form, tap into our deepest longings. Some of the most joyful times in our lives happen when we experience relief.

You and I know when stress and pressures build, when expectations are high, when performance is expected – then life can weigh heavy. The joy gets squeezed out of life

in the pressure of the moment. When the reason for heaviness disappears, then life is light and lilting: when the dreaded piano recital is done; when your blood test came back negative; when the thesis is written and ready to be handed in.

Sometimes heaviness in life comes from anxiety produced by danger. When safety returns, joy sets in.

Now some of these joys I have mentioned may be quite transitory; a joy that disappears as quickly as it arises. Next year there will be more exams; another project to complete;

there’s always another mountain to climb.

Still, let’s not miss this form of joy at advent time, or dismiss it as being insignificant.

God delights in us and wants us to experience joy in the moment flowing from events, persons, circumstances as they arise.

There is, however, a deeper and abiding form of joy available. Joy in advent, I believe,

has something to do with our longing for something more. Our waiting for the Christ child

signifies our waiting for something to arrive that strengthens us, encourages us, gives us a measure of the advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. And oddly enough, it’s not only the fulfillment of the longing that brings joy, but also the longing itself is a kind of joy.

C.S. Lewis, the same person who wrote that, “Joy is the serious business of heaven,” also wrote a book entitled “Surprised by Joy.” He points out rightly so, that at the heart of the Christian life is a longing for something more. He points out that sensing that desire within us and cherishing that desire is a wonderful joy in itself.

I have seen this deeper and abiding joy in those suffering sickness, grief, sadness, troubles, tragedy. I have witnessed that longing for something more, a longing often expressed in prayer, for something special, something valuable, something holy – perhaps it is a longing for an experience of the divine in whatever we are going through.

Sometimes it is simply a joy in trusting God’s presence with us in times of trouble; sometimes it is a recognition of how we are loved and cared for in the midst of our troubles – and that brings joy.

Joy is something buried deep within and longing of the right kind taps into that joy.

A woman I once knew suffered some sort of brain bleed and spent several weeks in a coma. Eventually she awoke, but faced many months of arduous rehabilitation to be able to speak and walk again. Part way through her time of healing she sat on her porch enjoying a cup of coffee and looking through the porch screen at her back yard.

She said, “I never really noticed before just how beautiful the life is that God has given us.

Now, I spend hours just delighting in my backyard: the flowers, the trees, the birds, the squirrels. I imagine that God watches us. I hope God finds delight in us too.”

Zephaniah makes it clear that God does, indeed, find delight in us. God delights in each and every one of you. God expects much, but God loves so much more.

On this Gaudete Sunday, as we wait and prepare, we are also called to rejoice.

John the Baptizer invites all who seek a deeper relationship with God to examine what stands in the way of that relationship. Perhaps the joy or rejoicing in John the Baptizer’s rhetoric is that our present condition does not have to be our future reality.

John admonishes the crowd not to rely on their status or smugness of salvation but to repent.

Repentance is sharing, being honest, and exhorting or encouraging others in John’s eyes.

Listen to God’s call to examine our lives. John’s delivery is deafening. His message is clear.

Be open to God’s Spirit of transformation and await the coming of Jesus Christ.

Amen.