Zephaniah 3:14-18a

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:10-18

You will notice the difference as soon as the Liturgy begins.  Gone will be the purple vestments that connote somberness and can hint of penitence, and in their place the priest and deacon will be clad in rose colored vestments.  The entrance hymn ought to be joyful urging that response from us as we enter into worship.  The church seems to be encouraging the faithful to hang on.  The dark days won’t last forever.  We’re half way there.  The anticipated feast is nearer than when we entered the Advent Season.  The celebration of the Lord’s birth is near.  And so is the Day of the Lord closer than when we first believed.

In former times, when the Liturgy was in Latin, this Third Sunday of Advent was called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for rejoice. Zephaniah’s opening words in the first reading are: Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! / Sing joyfully, O Israel. Paul, in the second reading will urge us: Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again: rejoice! It might not be as obvious, but John the Baptist has the same theme in Luke’s Gospel.  It may not be obvious, but it will become apparent as we consider the implications of his message.

We don’t hear from the prophet Zephaniah very often – only twice in the cycle of Sunday readings.  Historically, he precedes Jeremiah and prophesies to a Jerusalem in which many of the Jews have given themselves over to pagan practices and have wandered from the strict monotheism announced by Moses.  The majority of his writing is harsh and foretells dire consequences for the people’s infidelity.  God’s wrath will surely follow.  Today’s reading comes from near the end of the short book.  What do you make of it?  With some knowledge of what came before these lines we must infer that Zephaniah is proclaiming God’s love for the people and the desire to forgive and restore that goes beyond the ability of the people to repent.  God forgives even before sorrow for sin is expressed.  No one is able to plumb the depths of that love.  No one can comprehend the love that is unconditional and eternal.  But struggling to grasp the wonder and accept that it applies to us, how can we not rejoice?

A sage once said that we ought to work as though everything depended upon us and pray as though we knew that it all depended upon God.  Who can argue with that?  Paul seems to be saying something akin to that in the second reading to the Philippians as he urges us to rejoice in the Lord always.  Having urged us to love one another with a love that gives testimony to our faith in Christ last week, he now tells us that the kindness with which we deal with others should redound when people think of us.  That is a pretty tall order.  Some of us may wonder if we have the strength and the fortitude to live out the faith-life that Paul envisions us doing.  What’s the secret to success?  Remember that the Lord is near.  Perhaps Paul is reminding us of the Lord’s promise: Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world. It is that presence we celebrate in the Liturgy of the Word.  It is that presence we celebrate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  In Baptism, we put on Christ and from that moment live in Christ.  We need to remember.

If we focus too much on our weaknesses and ourselves when we consider the tasks before us as we walk in The Way, don’t we become anxious?   And anxiety paralyzes.   Focusing on the negative does the same thing.  And we haven’t even mentioned worrying about the world’s ending in 2012.  Hear Paul’s advice.  Doesn’t he say in effect, turn it all over to God?  If we believe that God has enveloped us in the love that comes to us in Christ, if we believe that we have been redeemed in Christ’s blood, then we ought to be able to let go, as they say, and let God.  In that letting go there is peace.  You remember the definition of peace, don’t you?  Peace is the confident assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God that comes to us through Christ Jesus.  That’s probably what the martyrs remembered as they prepared for the axe’s fall.  Certainly something of that must have been at work in those heroic acts of service and sacrifice carried out by many of those in the collapsing towers in New York.  Didn’t you wonder as you heard the stories where people find that kind of courage?  Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. That’s where they find the courage.

The figure of John the Baptist is a dominant one in the season of Advent.  Last week we met the Voice crying in the wilderness urging all to make straight the way of the Lord.  As a result of his preaching a gospel of repentance, people came in huge crowds to receive his baptism of repentance.  This week people ask about the practical implications of what they have done.  A casual listening might delude us into thinking that John is saying that people should just try to be good.  But a more accurate hearing tells us that John is calling for conversion of life.  There is no room for selfishness here. Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. Those who have food are obliged to feed the hungry.  Notice what he tells the hated tax collectors who ask John what they should do.  He doesn’t tell them to stop being tax collectors.  He tells them not to add to the tax bill.  That sounds easy enough until you realize that it is from the addition to the bills that the collector makes his living.

Did you notice that even some pagans came to hear John’s message and were won over by it.  The soldiers that ask him what they should do would be Romans, not Jews.  And John tells them to continue as soldiers but do so with integrity.  No extortion.  No false arrests.  Be satisfied with you wages.  What we are to learn from all of this is that people of faith can make their livelihood in many worldly occupations.  There is nothing wrong with that as long as they work with honesty and fidelity to their calling in faith.

The final part of John’s message today is somewhat problematic, it seems to me.  Notice the imagery he uses in describing the One who is coming after him, the One whose sandals he is unworthy to untie.  That sounds like one who is coming in majesty to be served by his subjects.  John’s baptism will be replaced by a baptism of the Spirit and of fire.  His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. John is preaching the coming of the mighty Messiah, the one who will set up Israel as an invincible kingdom, the one who will drive out the Romans and all other foreigners that would dominate the Jews.  This would be a source of great conflict of John after he is arrested and put into prison.  There was no evidence of that kind of Messiah in the stories John heard about Jesus’ message and ministry.  He will send delegates to ask Jesus: Are you he who is to come?  Or, should we look for another?

We shouldn’t be scandalized by these thoughts.  John was a man of faith who was faithful to God’s call.  But, as is true for everyone who begins to believe, the rest of the faith walk involves the ongoing realization that the mystery is constantly unfolding and almost never what you thought it was when you began to believe.  John had to let go of his preconceptions regarding the Messiah and accept as Lord the Suffering Servant, who restored sight to the blind, enabled the lame to walk, cleansed the lepers, and preached the Good news to the poor.

If we are going to rejoice in the Lord always, to what preconceptions will we have to die?  What changes in attitude will have to become evident in our parish if all are to recognize the kindness that we practice?  How will our lives have to change in order to give evidence that we are convinced that the Incarnation has happened and that the Day of the Lord is near?



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