The third Sunday of Advent, Joy! We get to light the pink candle, sing
cheerful songs of rejoicing and think of what is bright and light. I approached this weeks texts thinking of joy. What brings you joy, what delights you? Fluffy kittens and gurgling babies. Oh how the lectionary likes to surprise us with curve balls. I read the first few texts and heard “sing praise”, rejoicing, “sing aloud and shout for joy, rejoice always and don’t worry.
And then I read Luke. This text picks up right where we left off last week and it hit me, oao! Judgment. If you don’t bear fruit you will be cut down, the chaff will be burned. Wait a minute, this is joy Sunday, we must be confused! But there it is at the end of the Luke text, people filled with expectation as they hear the Good News. So this week we delve into Joy and judgment to see what is being offered here. Is John speaking only judgment and are these other passages just joy?
Some of you may hear these texts, and music pops into your heads of songs you have learned with the words from today’s lectionary. It happens a lot this time of year with familiar text and for anyone who knows the Messiah we can hardly stop ourselves from singing along. When I hear this passage of John’s preaching captured in Luke’s gospel, I am taken back to the Cotton Patch Gospel “You sons of snakes! Tell me, who put the heat under you to run from the fury about to bust over your heads? You got to reshape your lives, because God’s new order of the Spirit is confronting you.”
As a child I watched this retelling of the Gospel set in the south, down in 1
John is laying down some condemnation here and people were flocking to hear him. Normally when someone is condemning me or criticizing my way of life I want to turn around and run away. But these folks wanted to be baptized by John. So he stands by the Jordan River proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John doesn’t want to just symbolically wash people, he wants to see transformation in their hearts, lives and actions. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” John calls out. Then he goes on, adapted for our Mennonite ears, You can’t just get in on the coat tails of your grandparents and your heritage – you can’t say my Grandfather was a CO and my parents did MCC. God could make Mennonites of the rocks sitting around us in the parking lot. John doesn’t mince his words at all. Any tree not bearing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire, as the Cotton Patch Gospel puts it, a chainsaw is set at the trunk of the tree.
We may ask like the crowds gathered around John, What action is he calling for, “what should we do?” And we get the straightforward reply – whoever has two coats, share one with someone who doesn’t have one. Whoever has food share it with people who don’t have any. Oh no, I have 4 coats and a whole closet worth of clothing. I have a pantry full of canned and dried goods and a well- stocked fridge. I can almost hear the chainsaw revving its motor at my roots. Is this literal, do we take it that way?
If we look at the larger books of Isaiah and Zephaniah around the text we read today there is a lot of condemnation and judgment. John is in line with these prophets and their words. But the texts today are a small reprieve from all the judgment, they are the happy bits.
In all of these prophetic words, Where is this joy coming from? “The Lord has taken away the judgment against you” “God is in your midst and will renew you with love”
“I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise”
“Surely, God is my salvation”
God, is saving! There it is – the reason for the joy. God’s divine compassion winning over God’s divine judgment. An author I read this week told of a “fascinating exchange recorded in the Talmud – a collection of writings that covers Jewish law and tradition. A question is raised as to whether God prays. “What does God pray?” According to (Rav (Abba Arika) in the portion of) the Talmud (called "Berakhot,)" the Lord prays, “May my mercy overcome my wrath!” (b. Berakhot 7a). In other words, God prays that divine desire for compassion be greater than divine demand for justice.”
( http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3916 )
God is not just saving us...this salvation is for the outcast and down
trodden, the fringe dwellers and those who have been silenced with their power striped.
Last week as I reflected on peace with the MYF we talked some about the idea of Shalom wholeness peace. Part of what strikes me about Shalom is that if this is true wholeness, I can’t have wholeness if you don’t.
I can’t be at peace unless you are also at peace. I wonder if this pairing of texts is inviting us to make that same connection with joy. Can I truly have joy while another suffers?
Let me tell you a few of the spaces I’ve encountered joy in my life recently. What has brought me Joy – someone willing to work on organizing more
small groups here at church. This is something that I know we need and have needed for a while but didn’t know who had the time or energy to do it. And someone volunteered – Joy!
Joy number 2: Middle schoolers at Kids Club arriving early and staying late to help set up and clean up. I thought we would loose this group of kids once middle school rolled around but they still keep coming. We decided to get them to help and have made them Jr leaders. We got t-shirts for them, similar to the ones that the adults leaders wear. When they were given their shirts they proudly put them on and then said “ok if I’m a leader, how can I help?” My heart did a joyful leap.
Joy story three: Sitting at the Christmas parade with some of my little people yelling Merry Christmas and affirmations to every passer by. One parade participant told us that we were the most joyful group in the crowd.
Why did these things bring me joy? They were an answer to prayer for something we need. It was seeing love and community grow and young people drawn to something that is life giving, something they are willing to work for. And being together – my middle school nieces not caring as much about what others think (we were in the middle of many of their school friends) but enjoying the rush of the moment, giving way to joy.
So much of this joy is around the community of God’s people – gathering, loving each other, being together. My joy is not really about me. Where are your joy moments and why were they joyful?
When we hear calls to give away our second or third coat or to share our food with the hungry we don’t often picture God’s salvation or feel bursts of joy. I end up feeling guilty, like I haven’t done enough. For those of us with power and monetary privilege this stuff can hit pretty hard. But I don’t think John’s intention was to change us into puddles of guilt. Guilt shuts us down as we collapse in on ourselves.
If we look and listen again to these texts there is another theme that runs throughout, one that should be familiar to your Advent ears. “I will trust, and will not be afraid.” From Isaiah “Do not fear” from Zephaniah. “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything” in Philippians. This message that the angels often bring to announce God’s presence – Do not be afraid!
Those hearing these words for the first time had good reasons to be afraid. There were political power plays, religious shifts, clashes between cultural groups. Sounds kind of familiar to the litany of fears we rehears today.
Again we ask – what do we do? And we hear the reply. We are able to rejoice because, God has taken away the judgment against you, removed disaster and reproach. This comes alongside God’s judgment and is part of our Advent hope. Because God doesn’t leave us in our fear and guilt. A path of repentance and forgiveness is stretched out before us.
“When repentance and forgiveness are available, judgement is good news. The primary aim is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff.”
(Interpretation – Luke, page 49)
We are here in Advent making our hearts ready. I think of John as a stellar 5
John reminds us that baptism doesn’t save us but is a sign of our repentance and commitment to lead a changed life. Isaiah echoes this idea “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord”
Yet I’m left asking: Is this changing us enough? Are there too many problems out there that seem far away and not our problem? This past week a friend of mine visited those from the migrant caravan who are waiting for processing in Tijuana. When I told her that I’d like to hear about the trip she replied “I'm glad to talk about the trip. They need some fierce clergy there ;-) And I would be glad to serve as your interpreter, if needed!”
This reminded me of stories I’ve heard from South Africa in the time of apartheid, where churches started committing part of their church budgets to getting pastors out of jail when they would get arrested for protesting and standing up for justice for the least of these,
I wonder what this church would do if I was arrest in similar circumstances? Are we willing to do bold and simple acts of giving coats away and sharing food? Do we need to hear more the words directed at the tax collectors and soldiers – don’t exploit your power, don’t use the poor for your economic gain.
Can we have the hope to not respond with fear but to seek the joy for all? I pray that God will come and take us – move and shake us. But more than anything I believe that God can make us anew – showing us the paths of Kingdom living, divine compassion and joy. Amen, let it be so!
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