12/12/21 – More Than a Teaspoon of Joy

December 12, 2021
Third Sunday in Advent
Zeph. 3:14-20; Isa.12:1v-6; Phil. 4:1-13; Lk. 3:7-18
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

The twentieth-century concert pianist and stand-up comedian, Victor Borge, once quipped “Santa Claus has the right idea – visit people only once a year.” I don’t generally agree with that sentiment, but in the case of John the Baptizer, I might make an exception. Particularly, when it comes to a passage like the one we just read from Luke, which began: “You brood of vipers!” In Matthew’s gospel, John is addressing Sadducees and Pharisees, but in Luke, he is addressing “the crowd,” the ordinary religious folk like us. Ouch! This demonstration of John’s preaching style and the message doesn’t make an obvious connection with the theme of joy that runs through the rest of the scripture texts for today. This is “Gaudate Sunday,” for heaven’s sakes! Gaudate means “rejoice” in Latin. This day in Advent is named after the first word of the Latin translation of our epistle reading from Philippians 4:4″Rejoice in the Lord always! After all the talk about the end times for the first two Sundays of Advent, isn’t it time for the joy to begin?

Putting John the Baptizer aside for a moment, our other readings for today do have a theme of joy.  Zephaniah’s beautiful description of Israel redeemed and restored certainly gives the people a reason to be joyful. However, it is important to note that this concluding proclamation of hope and restoration for the people of Israel comes after a series of prophecies of doom and destruction as the consequence of God’s judgment against them. The people had turned away from God, ignoring God’s guidance and failing to trust God’s assurances. Though they had felt abandoned by God, it was the people who had strayed. What we miss in this passage of joyful news about what God will do, is the repentance needed in preparation for God’s saving acts, which Zephaniah provides in the previous chapters.

In this conclusion to Zephaniah’s prophecies, the people are in almost-but-not-yet time. The pain of their current circumstances exists, but Zephaniah invites hope, telling the people their grief can be accompanied by joy because God is ‘in their midst.’ Isn’t that the way of grief? Joy does not replace the pain but weaves its way through it. Zephaniah assures the people that, renewed by God’s love, they can trust in God’s promise that Israel’s enemies and oppressors will be dispatched, the lame and the outcast will be welcomed into the community, and their sins will be forgiven and forgotten. The people are to sing and rejoice because God is right there with them, singing and rejoicing too.

We heard this call to joy echoed in the canticle from Isaiah: 6Shout aloud and sing for joy… for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” The oxygen joy needs to breathe is mutuality – true joy is shared. Zephaniah tells us we are never alone in our pain or our joy. God is with us, but to experience God’s presence we must be expectant and attentive. We hear the imperative form of “rejoice” in our scripture texts for today, which tells us we need to be actively seeking joy to find it.

In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul addresses a people who were losing hope that Christ would come again soon. They were wearied by the persecution they were experiencing. The Jewish Christians among them were beginning to think they should just go back to the temple because, maybe, they had been mistaken that Jesus was the Messiah. Paul echoes the voices of the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah – ‘rejoice, God is with you in your midst, do not be afraid.’ Paul himself was not in a place we would expect to find joy. He was sitting in prison. Despite his immediate circumstances, he speaks of seeking and finding joy.

Paul tells his beleaguered congregation that they can actively seek joy by focusing more deliberately on their relationship with God. For Paul, being in conversation with God in prayer was an important means of nurturing the relationship. Paul doesn’t mean just the “gimme” prayers that come so easily to our lips, he includes prayers of thanksgiving. In thanking God, we focus on joy rather than despair. Prayer, then, is a means of becoming receptive to joy by recognizing God “in our midst.”

It is difficult to feel joy when you are fearful or angry. Paul interrupts the conclusion of his letter to the Philippian congregation to address a conflict between two members, Euodia and Syntyche. Paul understood that the congregation would be weakened, and their mission jeopardized, by conflict. Paul adds to his guidance for finding joy: Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The Greek-English lexicon defines the Greek word for gentleness found in this verse as “not insisting on every right or letter of law or wisdom; and “yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant.”  In other words, keep on imitating Christ in your daily lives, let Christ be known to others by what they see in you. Paul did not advocate for uniformity in thought, he encouraged unity in seeking the common good for the members of a community with the common goal of following the way of Christ.

This is the challenge we face in our current political, social, and religious environment. We are bombarded with reasons, both real and fictional, we should be very afraid and very angry. How do we hold onto what is good in this climate of warring sides, insistence on domination and insidious greed? How do we find joy when there are factions in our society determined to elevate their own status, while inflicting pain and suffering on others?  Paul joins Zephaniah and Isaiah in encouraging us to focus on all God has done, is doing and promises to continue doing, despite the headlines announcing destruction and doom. Their message is not to passively wait for God’s salvific, redeeming hand, but to join with God to bring joy to the world. We are to have an active hope and to be intentional in our pursuit of sharing joy.

Paul’s imperative, “Rejoice,” is a liberating word. We miss out on the abundant life God wants to share with us, if we deny ourselves joy. The contemporary poet, Mary Oliver advises: “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate … Joy is not made to be a crumb.” We are not to measure out our joy with teaspoons, calculating how much we should have. Joy is multiplied by sharing it, until the supply overflows.

The prophet John the Baptist delivers a similar message, but with a less gentle approach. He has announced that God is coming to be with us and demands our active participation in the preparation for the arrival. He addresses his audience: “You brood of vipers,” in the plural – he doesn’t single out one viper or group of vipers, he judges them all. These were people who had come to hear John preach and, possibly, to be baptized. These were insiders not expecting to be ‘called out.’

They beseech John: ““What then should we do?” Here is where the good news begins. What John tells them to do is not impossible! Difficult maybe, but not impossible. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.” This does not mean that we are to accept poverty-level wages, it means that the Roman soldiers should not enhance their own wealth by stealing from others by force. God isn’t asking us to make ourselves poor, God is just asking us to be fair, to be compassionate, to give from our abundance. God desires that we live justly – no extra profits at the expense of someone else. Radical Capitalists sneer at such ideas as sappy sentimentality – the greater the profit the greater the joy is their mantra. But that isn’t the Christian way and no amount of self-justification or twisting of the gospel can make it so.

John the Baptizer tells us it makes a difference what we do in our own little piece of the world. What it would it look like if we went out from church looking for opportunities to bring joy where there is suffering and hardship? John is saying to us that what God requires of us affects every aspect of our lives, including how we regard each other and our ethical obligations to one another and the world. God’s kingdom doesn’t reveal itself only in grand actions or heroic deeds; but, in the simple acts of sharing what we have, being honest with each other, and resisting the urge to dominate or control others. It seems to me that John is telling us that the most significant way we can witness God’s coming kingdom is to actually live like it’s here like we believe it’s really coming like we think it matters. This is the way we prepare to experience God to be in our midst.

Amen. May it be so!


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
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