Rejoicing in the Dark

Preached on 16 December 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The third Sunday of Advent, Year C

“Rejoice in the Lord, always!  Again, I say, rejoice!”

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart.”

“Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy!”

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy; Rejoicing.  In some churches, they use a pink or rose candle in the Advent wreath to represent the Joy of this week.

At the end of our gospel lesson today, we read, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the Good News to the people.”

You can hear that recurrent theme of rejoicing throughout the readings this morning.  But there is another common thread, in the background of each of these readings: Darkness.

When Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord, always,” to the church in Philippi, a community that is very dear to his heart, he is in prison.  He doesn’t know what awaits him.  But even in this darkness, he knows hope and can rejoice in the Lord and encourage others to do so as well.

Zephania is prophesying in Judah, not long before the people of Israel are taken into captivity in Babylon.  Most of the book is pronouncing judgement and ruin to a people who have turned their back on God.  Yet, at the end, the part we hear today, he offers the hope of restoration even as they are in the darkness of violence and corruption.

Then, there’s our canticle from Isaiah.  Again, the prophet is living in the time before the exile, warning the people of the coming judgement of the Lord, yet offering the hope and promise of salvation, one day.

The chapter begins, “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away and you comforted me.” And then he continues with what we sang in our canticle this morning, “Surely God is my salvation, I will trust and will not be afraid.”

When we hear John the Baptist call the people a Brood of Vipers, and go on to talk about the winnowing fork in the hand of the one who is coming, who will clear the threshing floor, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, we don’t exactly take comfort.  How do the people, how do we, hear Good News in all that judgement language?

It’s been said that those with power, those who live in comfort, hope that God is merciful and that those with little power or money or comfort hope that God is just.

Judgement is Good News to people who suffer from unjust systems and policies.  For victims, judgement is Good News.  For people stuck in patterns of behavior that harm themselves or others, judgement is Good News.  Because, you see, Judgement is not simply about punishing wrong-doing.  Judgement is bringing about right order and right relationships.  It’s refining and purifying.  Judgement is about liberation and redemption.

So, when John preaches to a people suffering in poverty or from the extortion and abuse of power and authority, and tells them the Lord is coming to judge the world, that the winnowing fork is in his hand, that is Good News.

When he tells them that it is not their lineage that matters but their behavior, the fruit that they bear, they ask, “then what should we do?”  And his responses are very reasonable and doable.  When we truly repent, turn back to God, it shows in our lives; we bear the fruit of repentance.

He tells them what we all learned at our parents’ knee:  Share, be fair, and don’t bully.  Care for the needs of others.  Don’t abuse your authority or power.  Don’t exploit other people.

John doesn’t tell them they have to quit their jobs or join him in the wilderness.  He points to the reality that they can bear the fruit of repentance right where they are in their own lives: in their homes and families, in their work, in their communities.

It’s not to earn salvation, mind you, but to do their part to create a more trustworthy society.  We are to do what we can to embody God’s love and justice and righteousness in whatever way we can, right where we are.  God is at work through us for the sake of the world.

It seems so incredibly simple, doesn’t it?  Except, apparently, it isn’t.  I know that I have a closet full of coats, and to be honest, I don’t plan to give them away.  Just as an example.  What about you?  The truth is, if we all shared what we have with those in need; if we made sure our systems were fair, there wouldn’t be people who don’t have housing or enough food or work or health care or education or… you get the picture: There wouldn’t be people in need.

How are you already living your faith right now?  What would it look like for you to bear the fruit of repentance; of aligning your life more closely with God?

Here’s the Good News, borrowing and paraphrasing from  David Lose,

Because Christ has already saved the world, we can devote ourselves to care for our little corner of it to bring about a more just, a more generous, a more compassionate world right where we are.

And because Christ is coming and will judge with righteousness, we don’t need to judge others, but rather we can proclaim the mercy we ourselves have experienced. And, perhaps in this way, and through our lives, we, like John, will proclaim the Good News. Even when the world seems dark, we can Rejoice in the Lord, always.