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Advent 3C RCL December 13, 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Our opening reading today is from the prophet Zephaniah. Scholars tell us that he was probably a descendant of King Hezekiah, who was one of the most highly respected kings of Judah. Zephaniah’s ministry took place during the reign of King Josiah, from 640 B. C. to 609 B. C.

Josiah was another one of Judah’s great kings. In 621 B.C., a book of the law was found in the temple, and Josiah led the people in great reforms. The period preceding his reign had been marked by corruption in public and private life, and by the worship of false gods.

Josiah brought the people back to following God’s law.

The theme of our reading is that God will bring comfort to those who repent and make the changes necessary to serve God faithfully.

Our epistle today is short but powerful.  Paul is writing from prison. He is writing to a beloved congregation which is suffering persecution. Yet he can encourage us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice!”

That is why this Sunday is called Laudate Sunday. Laudate is the Latin for “rejoice!” We also have lighted the rose candle today. This candle symbolizes joy and also reminds us of Mary, the mother of Christ.

So here is St. Paul, writing from prison, encouraging us to rejoice. Epaphroditus, a man from the congregation in Philippi, has just made a visit to Paul, a visit during which Epaphroditus fell ill. Now he is well and is returning to his home congregation. He has brought gifts and support from the Philippians to Paul. Even as they are facing persecution, they reach out to him and support him. Even as he is in prison, he tells them to rejoice. He has been through every trial that one could imagine, including arrest and threats to his life. From that cauldron of challenge and threat and adversity he writes to share his God-given strength and faith with them. What does he say?  Here they are facing adversity, possibly death. And Paul says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Gentleness is not weakness. Gentleness does not mean that we are wimpy. It does not mean that we fail to take care of ourselves. Compassion is the true strength. One observer of the early Church said, “See these Christians, how they love one another.”

Paul says, “The Lord is near.” This can mean at least two things. One, Christ is coming to complete and heal the creation and make it whole. Two, Christ is right beside you. Christ is in our midst. Do not worry about anything. Someone has said that ninety-nine percent of the things we worry about never happen. Whenever we begin to worry, we need to stop that thought and begin to pray. Let us tell God what we are concerned about and thank God for being near so that we can ask for help. And the peace from God will guard us and keep us in a state of faith and hope and cooperation with God. This is a wonderful passage.

In our gospel, once again we encounter John the Baptist. He is telling us that we all need to examine our consciences and make the changes that are necessary to bring us into harmony with God. John is not vague. People ask him what they should do, and he tells us. Share with others, Help those who have little or nothing. Be honest. Live your lives with integrity. Don’t abuse power. Don’t be a bully.

But then he says the thing that makes him such a towering example. John is such a holy example that people think he is the Messiah. So he tells them, “Someone is coming, and I am not worthy to untie his shoe. I baptize with water to help you cleanse yourselves and prepare, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John knows exactly who he is. He is not the messiah. He is very famous and he draws huge crowds, but he is not the messiah. And he knows that. He is not tempted to go for the fame and glory and power. He is not going to try to compete with Jesus. He is going to prepare the way.

Part of the work of Advent is for us to realize exactly who we are. We are all children of God, and this is one of the reasons that we can rejoice.

How can Paul write from prison to a congregation facing persecution and tell them to rejoice, let their gentleness be known to everyone, and not to worry? Because “The peace of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Because we have our Good Shepherd leading us into his peace and his victory, and because we are following him, we can actually stop worrying, trust him, and abide in his peace. In other words, we can turn our worrying into praying and trust that God is working to make all things right.

There is much to be concerned about in our world today, and each of us has personal concerns for family members and other people we love. We all have many things that we can worry about. I am not suggesting that we should all become complacent. What I am suggesting is that, when we begin to worry or fret, that we immediately pray about that matter, whatever it may be, and put it into God’s hands. If we start to worry about it again, we give it to God again. We may have to do this hundreds of times a day. But gradually God will work with that issue and we will be changed.

One way to do this is to say something like, “Dear Lord, I’m worrying about that again. It’s too big for me to handle. I offer it to you, I put it in your hands. Your will be done. Amen.

That is how Paul can say, “Do not worry about anything.” Because God calls us to turn our worries into prayers. May we trust God in all things. May our prayers increase our trust and faith in God.  Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.  Amen.

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