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Advent 3C RCL December 16, 2018

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9, p. 86
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

This is the third Sunday in Advent, called Rejoice Sunday from the Latin Gaudete, meaning “rejoice” because of the call to rejoice in our epistle for today. We light the third candle on the Advent wreath, the rose colored candle, which symbolizes joy.

Our opening reading is from the prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah’s ministry took place in Judah during the time of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.) The first two books of Zephaniah’s book are full of doom and gloom. This was a dark time when Judah was under oppression by the Assyrians.

Scholars tell us that our reading for today, the last part of Zephaniah’s book, was added by other writers long after Zephaniah’s ministry, probably during the time of the Exile, or during the period when the exiles were returning home.

So, if we were to read the entire book, we would have two chapters of suffering and hopelessness and disaster, and then we would read this passage, which is full of deep joy and proclaims that God is in our midst. The passage tells us that God gives victory, that God deals with oppressors, saves the lame and the outcast, changes our shame into praise, and brings us home. It is fascinating to me that a scholar from the time of the Exile added this section to Zephaniah’s book, as if to say, “Don’t give up.  We speak to you from one of the darkest times in our history as God’s people. And we tell you that, with God, there is always hope.” As we know, the exiles returned home, rebuilt the temple, the city of Jerusalem, and their lives. Without this passage, Zephaniah’s book would be dark indeed.

Our canticle from Isaiah repeats this theme of hope and joy. “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in God and not be afraid.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing from prison. And what does he say? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say. Rejoice!” He is in prison and he is saying this to them and to us. What quality is he emphasizing? Gentleness. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul writes. What an idea. Imagine a headline: “The Church in Philippi is known for its gentleness.” Or “Grace Church is marked by a spirit of gentleness.” Which is true, by the way.  What a great headline.

Then Paul says the thing which made our liturgical scholars choose this reading for the third Sunday in Advent: “The Lord is near.” This can have several meanings. One is that Jesus is as near as our breath. The risen Lord is with us now, among us, leading us.  

Another meaning is that our Lord is near in the sense that he will come to complete the creation. He is building his shalom and we are a part of that process. A third meaning is that, when he came to be with us, he came as one of us. He is like us, He understands us. He is fully human as well as fully divine. He knows what it is to be human, with all our struggles, and he is with us in our dilemmas and challenges.

The Paul says something that may make us burst out in laughter: “Do not worry about anything,” he says. And he is writing from prison! We spend a lot of time worrying. And Paul is asking us to take that time and pray, with thanksgiving. To let our needs be known to God with thanksgiving. We all know that a spirit of thanksgiving, the attitude of gratitude, can cause a big shift in our outlook. If we do all this, “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.” Thanking God, trusting God to give us what we need, does bring that peace which is beyond our understanding.

And then, in our gospel, we meet John the Baptist. Crowds are coming out from the city into the wilderness to meet him. He is calling them to grow closer to God, and they ask, “What shall we do?” And he answers, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” God calls us to share some of what we have with those who have less than we do.

Tax collectors came, and he said, “Collect no more than what is prescribed,” Tax collectors would add a bonus for themselves. That was wrong. Soldiers came to John and he told them not to extort money from people. They were misusing their power to get money from  people. They should be satisfied with their wages. Through John, God is calling the people to live lives of compassion and justice. And that is what God is calling us to do today.

What are these readings saying to us? Our first reading, from Zephaniah, is calling us to be a people of hope, even in times of darkness and challenge. Our reading from Paul is a resounding call to rejoice, to give thanks, to turn our worries into prayers, and to abide in the peace of God. Our gospel calls us to repent, to turn fully toward God, to get back on track, make a course correction, get rooted and grounded in God, and be people of generosity, justice, and compassion.

John says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” and once again, we think of Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22): love joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness. and self-control.

Once again, in this season of Advent, we are in a time of self-examination and discernment. We are letting go of things that are not life-giving. We are turning toward the light and love of Christ. We are getting things in order, updating our wills, doing advanced directives, getting rid of clutter whether it be spiritual or physical, lightening our load so that we can be ready when he appears. We are choosing to grow closer and closer to God, Jesus, and the Spirit.

“The Lord is near.” We are on our way to Bethlehem. We are on our way to meet him. Let us make room for him in the inn of our hearts. Amen.

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