+ A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on December 16, 2018 +
Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul tells us. “Rejoice!”
“Sing aloud” and “shout!” the Prophet Zephaniah urges. “Rejoice and exalt with all your heart!”
As these readings may suggest, this Third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been named “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday.
A kind of pivot from the beginning of this season where we heard scriptures of Christ’s second coming and the urging of repentance into an attitude of joyful anticipation for Jesus’ birth among us.
And as the decorations that now beautify this space remind us, that festival day is close at hand!
Perhaps this transition into joy helps better align our Advent season with the holiday festivities that are happening around us.
The cookies and the parties, the singing and the decorations, the warm and cozy feelings that we are expected to have this time of year.
And these words from the prophet and the apostle may only heighten our sense that we are supposed to be happy.
But for many, this season of festive merriment and perhaps even saccharine goodwill may seem discordant with how we may be feeling inside.
With the gloomy gray weather, with the stress of Christmas preparations, with the crushing expectations of commercialism and long to-do lists, we may not be ready to rejoice just yet.
Or maybe with the news of children dying in government custody on our southern border, a climate that is changing around us, and continued discord between the world as it is and how we know it should be, it may be difficult to feel the holiday spirit that permeates our culture.
Or maybe there’s a sense of loss in our lives, an uncertainty about the future, or distance from loved ones that make this season feel a little emptier than what we see in the movies.
Whatever it may be, this season when the culture tells us to be joyful—when scripture urges us to rejoice—can be difficult for many.
I know there have been times this Advent that I have not felt like I am ready to celebrate the birth of Christ next week.
And perhaps there are times we feel a little more aligned to John the Baptist’s message today from Luke’s gospel.
The voice in the wilderness crying out, “You brood of vipers!”
And as we listen to John’s sermon, we hear a message of fire and brimstone, a message of judgment and repentance, a message announcing the Messiah and his coming reign.
A message that may sound prophetic and maybe even cathartic to those that are waiting for things to finally change.
A message we may comfortably assume is directed at someone else, harsh words at those other people who need to change their actions.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we see that John is not being narrow in his scope, that his words are as much for us as they are for the people crowded along the Jordan River.
That he is calling us to task, challenging us in strong language to bear good fruit because we cannot complacently rest on the laurels of our heritage or past deeds.
But somehow, Luke has the audacity to call this message gospel—good news.
And as Pastor Bill reminded us last week, crowds were flocking from Jerusalem to the Jordan River, making the long, treacherous, and steep trek clamoring to hear this message from this itinerant preacher, John the Baptizer.
Crowds of ordinary, everyday people. Not that much different than you and me.
People who are waiting for change, people who were looking for more, people who were desperate for a reason to rejoice.
Some of these people were living on the margins of society.
Some were in positions of power and authority. Some were tax collectors and mercenary soldiers, exploiting the people around them for their own gain.
And they travel miles on foot to hear John’s preaching, even though it may clang roughly on our ears.
Winnowing forks and fire, wheat and chaff.
This sounds like a lot of judgment and condemnation.
Yet Luke tells us that the crowd was all “filled with expectation.”
And what are they expecting? What is the good news they are so desperate to hear?
I think it may actually be those words that are clanging on our ears.
I think it’s that we have a God who is on the move and who is at work.
A God who knows us and loves us so deeply that God is willing to see the goodness in each of us.
Because I don’t think the winnowing fork and fire is about judgment and condemnation and the wheat and chaff aren’t about separating the righteous people from the unrighteous.
I think John is giving us a description of God’s deep and abiding love for us.
A love that sees us for who we truly are.
A love that sees through our faults and our sins.
A love that sees the kernel of wheat that the chaff tries so desperately to obscure and removes it to harvest that wheat.
A love that will do anything to bring out that wheat with what the Prophet Malachi calls a refiner’s fire that will burn off the chaff, burn off the dross, and bring out the prized gold and silver within.
A love that sees the saint that is within us despite the sinner that may veil it.
I think John is using the winnowing fork and fire to tell us that God is working to bring out the best of us, the parts of us that maybe even we can’t see but God sees.
I think that John is telling us that no matter what we may think of ourselves, no matter how the world may judge us, no matter our shortcomings, our God sees us as something worthy of being purified and prized.
That our God has not given up on us but is willing to do the work.
I think John is telling us that even when we are in the depths of despair, even when we are mired in sin, even when we know things should and could be better, we can still rejoice in a God who is interested in righting us and recreating the world.
And perhaps that’s why this reading is matched with those verses about rejoicing.
Because when Paul writes the church in Philippi to rejoice in the Lord always, he is writing his letter from a prison cell, uncertain of when or if he will be released.
And while the entire Book of the Prophet Zephaniah condemns the people for their iniquity and sins, while he spends so much time foretelling doom and destruction because of the people’s evil deeds, he ends his book with the passage we heard today urging his people to rejoice because “the Lord has taken away the judgments against” them and is bringing them deliverance.
Just as the Lord has forgiven our sins this morning.
I don’t know about you, but this is some rejoicing I can get onboard with.
This isn’t about sentimental Christmas spirit or warm holiday feelings, this is finding joy in a God who is with us when we would otherwise feel abandoned, who sees us at our lowest point and still loves us, who is still working to reform us and through us the entire world.
And while his language may be grating to our ears, I think John is trying to show us the awesome gift we have been given—the love of God that knows no bounds.
And I think he is challenging us to live lives of gratitude, bearing fruits worthy of the gift we have received.
And so with the crowd we may ask, “What then should we do?”
How can we transform our lives into what John is calling us to?
How can we bear these worthy fruits?
So John tells them; he tells us.
And really, it’s nothing complex or even especially spiritual.
We don’t have to follow John into the wilderness.
We don’t have to cast off all earthly pleasures and live an ascetic life.
It’s so much simpler than that.
To the crowd of ordinary people, share whatever you have.
To the tax collectors, be fair and don’t gouge the people.
To the mercenary soldiers, don’t extort the people you should be protecting.
In some ways, this is one of those all I needed to know I learned in kindergarten situations: Share, be fair, don’t bully.
Or as Jesus would teach us, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Now obviously, this isn’t always an easy ask.
With as much as we possess, we don’t want to give it all away.
With as much as we benefit from the labor of others, we like the system as it is.
With as much as our culture values strength, we feel a need to be a superpower.
With as much as we already do give to our neighbors, we resist the call that we can and must still do more.
But John is calling to us, pleading with us, to see that the Reign of God is near.
So near that we can experience it in our lives.
So close that we can actually help bring it forth in our life and actions and see it in the loving actions of those around us.
So at hand that we have a role to play, here and now.
God’s reign is not some distant dream or some far off heaven, but is waiting to burst forth in our homes, in our jobs, in the streets.
What then should we do?
We should see how God is already present in our lives, in the mundane aspects, in our jobs, in our relationships, in our deepest secrets.
Instead of waiting for some distant and holy day when everything will be fixed we should live into the reign of God here and now.
Be merciful now.
Do justice now.
We should see how simple actions can proclaim the love of God and be open to seeing that proclamation in the lives and actions of those around us.
As beloved children of a God who is at work to bring out the best of us, who forgives our sins, and who is working to refine us into the precious treasures God sees us to be, as a people who have received such a gift as this, it is our joy and responsibility to partner with God in bringing forth the reign that will transform the entire world starting in our homes, starting right here in Factoria, starting right here in this orchard garden where God has planted us to bear fruits of thanksgiving worthy of the gift we have been given.
This Advent season, we are anxiously awaiting God’s coming again among us.
But John is reminding us that we don’t have to wait for Christmas to see this promises’ fruition.
That we can find joy in a God who is here with us now, who is working to restore us and transform our lives.
Who is present in our everyday lives.
Who truly sees us and yet still loves us more deeply than we can ever understand.
We can see this God who is working to burn away the sins of this world until it shines with the love that only God can bring.
And while this work is certainly incomplete right now, John tells us how we can live into God’s reign of life and love in the meantime as he still points to the one who is coming who will bring its fulfillment and joy.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…The Lord is near.”