Zephaniah 3:14-20 & Luke 3:7-18
Through the centuries of the Church, this 3rd Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, has had one resounding theme...a theme traditionally reflected in a lightening of the seasonal solemnity as in some churches the vestments and here our Advent candle changes from penitential purple to pink for just one day as a reminder that, no matter what, we are to REJOICE!
That's the overwhelming message of our Scriptures this morning, from Zephaniah “Sing aloud...Rejoice and exult with all your heart”
through the psalm “shout aloud and sing for joy” to Paul's letter to the Philippians
“Rejoice in the Lord always”
Rejoice...or, in Latin, Gaudete.
You might, of course, be forgiven for failing to notice it as you heard John the Baptist's opening salvo
“You brood of vipers!”
Hardly the most encouraging greeting with which to woo your listeners – but nonetheless, Luke is able to sum up all of John's preaching as GOOD news...something to rejoice in.
But I'm very conscious that today joy seems far away...that families who were immersed in the cheerful preparations for Christmas together are now planning funerals instead...that the darkness of the world's sin seems deeper, more pervasive than ever. The massacre of the innocents in Newtown Connecticut is the harshest reminder of our need for someone to save us from ourselves and só our premature carolling switches to a minor key...
On Mothering Sunday 1996 in the wake of the Dunblane shootings I found myself preaching to the All Age congregation in our village church. Struggling for words that could connect the expected joy of the day with the unbearable pain that we felt for those families broken by the death of só many children, I spoke of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, and longing to gather her as a hen gathers her chicks. Today Zephaniah gives us a different picture – of a God whose love for us is só strong, só overwhelming, that even in the face of judgement and disaster it reaches our ears like glad singing. Surely God IS a loving parent, for he both weeps and rejoices over his children, as he gathers them to himself...and sometimes those two extremes of grief and joy are closer than we can imagine.
That doesn't mean that we can turn away from the world's pain, bury our heads and deny its reality by singing ever louder and allowing the Christmas tree lights to blind us to the events that happen in the shadows. Our readings this morning acknowledge all the darkness of the world too...
Zephaniah speaks to a people destroyed by their enemies, a people in exile with only dreams of their homeland to sustain them – and indeed, as Jane Williams points out, to hear of Jerusalem as “home” today is almost unbearably ironic, as that holy city remains at the centre of an apparently insoluable conflict. Who has the right to call Jerusalem home?
Our psalmist speaks of trusting God in the face of his fears, Paul of rejoicing in EVERYTHING – both good and bad...and John the Baptist, - well he makes it abundantly clear that there's too much wrong with our world, that nobody is exempt from the need to repent and be made new – but he promises, too, that the Messiah is on the way, the Lord is at hand.
Só perhaps we can still find joy, even as we weep with the families of Sandy Hook school – and all those others for whom there is little good news this morning. This world remains a place of insecurity, and we remain a people capable of appalling acts, who too often put our faith in the wrong things. But there is something to hold onto...good news for the oppressed, the lame, the outcast...those with empty hands and aching hearts.
As John points out, we do not need to seek security in our family history, or in our material props – two coats, abundant food in the cupboard, more money than we need to survive. We need to let go of those and to find our home and security somewhere else – in the presence of God.
The God who weeps over Jerusalem and longs to gather his children in loving arms, the God who through Zephaniah promises to gather us and bring us home, is the God who comes into our world as the homeless Jesus, the joy of his coming soon clouded by the lament of Rachel weeping for her children as the innocents are slaughtered in Jerusalem.
Joy and grief walk side by side at every turn in his ministry til the grief and pain of all time, the destructive cruelty and selfishness of all people is carried to the cross and redeemed for ever.
The one who clears the threshing floor and gathers the wheat into his granary has, through his death and resurrection, cleared a pathway for all of us to reach home safely.
So here and now may be harsh, disturbing, full of sadness but as we wait for the light of Christ to dawn, let us rejoice that we have a home to go to – and in that place the Lord will renew us with his love and exult over us with loud singing.
Rejoice in the Lord aways. Again I will say, rejoice!