I want to begin this morning with an experiment. I will start the first line of song or hymn and you finish:
• I’ve got the Joy, Joy, Joy, – – Down in My Heart
• Rejoice! Rejoice! – – Emmanuel shall come to Thee O Israel.
• Good Christian friends – – rejoice in heart and soul and voice
• Joy to the world! —The Lord is Come
We sang about…. JOY! On the third Sunday of Advent, we are beginning to expect —- joy! If your family is like ours, you may be building traditions of joy. We have putting up our Christmas tree; we have been watching some of our favorite Christmas movies; and we have been enjoying Christmas music. All of these traditions draw our family together. Like your family may choose to make cookies, or look at Christmas lights, or hear the story of Christmas, you look for Christmas joy!
This morning, let us begin to unpack the expectation of joy. God through the prophets and the Holy Spirit, has promised us JOY! As we have been unpacking the expectations of peace and hope this season, let us continue to prepare for the coming of the Christ.
So, I can imagine that the words from John the Baptist were a bit jarring this morning. We heard him call those around him, “brood of vipers!” That title is not going to sit well with the crowds! That is not going to going to bring in thousands of pew sitters! That will not win him any awards. But John the Baptist is up to more than growing the church or just assuaging those who are next to him. He is preparing the way of Jesus! He is a prophet. John the Baptizer, known for wearing camel hair and eating locusts, does not have a job description filled with comforting the afflicted. He afflicts the comfortable! REPENT and turn around. Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Live out God’s ways. John calls those who have come to the Jordan for baptism to behave, not just to believe. Let their actions reflect a change in their lives.
And let’s remind ourselves who he is talking with – who are these crowds who have gathered around him? Sadducees, Pharisees, religious zealots, and temple administrators, along with ordinary folks who were urged to come by their neighbors. Why does the prophet proclaim them as a “brood of vipers?” They were actively taking advantage of poor and disadvantaged, widowed and orphaned. John is preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus who will turn the world upside down with a kingdom in which the first will be last and last will be first.
This group who has come for baptism is not left off the hook with not cheap grace and all will be well. The prophet’s call to reflect on their actions is powerful. He calls out three groups: the crowd at large, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. Each is given a different level of responsibility. The broadest group is encouraged to give from their excess, sharing with those in need. When you have more than your minimally need- where are you sharing with others? The tax collectors, a group who has more opportunity for corruption, are held to a standard of fairness and honesty. The soldiers, a surprising group, not often thought to be present, were encouraged to not use their power to take advantage of others, but to cultivate contentedness.
The brood of vipers are not without an opportunity to change and grow, but it is a hard road. “Thank God we can’t know the future, or we would never get out of bed,” the playwright Tracy Letts writes. In his play, August: Osage County, all of the challenges of humanity are revealed and unraveled with dysfunctional family at the occasion of a family funeral. Perhaps, there are moments in humanity’s larger drama where we may be tempted to stay in bed. It all feels too hard! But with joy, we give thanks to God, that prophets like we heard this morning with Zephaniah have known something of the God’s future.
The prophecy of Zephaniah, written in the seventh century before Jesus during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, who is called one of the greatest Kings, almost as great as King David. He laments a time of corruption and idolatry, injustice and pain. I begin to wonder if that begins to feel like 2018. Zephaniah proclaims the way of the Lord in contrast to the sinfulness and devastation of what was going on in the world around God’s people. God spoke through Zephaniah to say:
Do not be afraid.
Do not let your hands grow weak.
God is in your midst.
God will renew you.
God will restore you.
My friends, who are the “brood of vipers” today?
This is you. This is me.
Who needs to hear the message of turning around and facing towards the way of Jesus? Where have we seen opportunities to call our political representatives to account for where they have not been sharing with those in need? Is there sufficient low to moderate-income housing in our area so that our brothers and sisters across multiple incomes can live in our area? Our ministerium has begun to consider how we can lift our voices together on behalf of those most in need of rental housing?
Where have we seen the need to share our coats and our food? I give thanks to God for the generosity of our congregation in answering the call to the coat drive. We estimate that approximately 150 coats will be serving others in our community! Our joy comes from serving God and acting as God’s people now!
Have you heard the story about missionary in Africa who was walking when he heard the ominous noises of a lion behind him? He stopped to pray. “Oh Lord, I pray that the lion behind me is a good Christian lion”. And then in the silence that followed, the missionary heard, “Oh Lord, I thank thee, Lord for the food which I am about to receive.” Sometimes, you cannot just pray. You need to take some action, like RUN away or at least run while praying! I am not discouraging prayer. Prayer without prayerfully acting is an incomplete faith. A lion will not eat you, however, you lack the fullness who God has call you to be. In this fullness, do we find our joy!
On the third Sunday of Advent, we remember we expect joy as a part of preparing for the coming of Christ. Prepare the way for the coming of Christ who changes our world. Preparing the way for Christ who turns our world right side up! We light the pink candle to prepare. It is our visual reminder that there is something uniquely different about this Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for Joy. Joy is not supersized happiness. Joy is not happiness that feel deeper and longer. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, alongside love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Joy is a gift that God gives you and yet, we can expect joy. Re-joice is our musical call to expect JOY again!
Zephaniah reminds us that prophetic interruptions give us glimpses of our future as well as where Christ has already come, and our joy has been fully realized! It moves us from fear to rejoice! As we join our voices to sing the songs of joy, we expect joy in our lives, even in the midst of challenge. God’s kingdom is coming on Earth as it is in heaven. God will renew and restore using our actions, let us be available to God. The joy of the Lord is my strength.
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.