Gifts of Love and Joy: Advent 3

Gifts of Love and Joy: Advent 3

Advent 3: December 12, 2021
The Third Sunday in Advent

Year C: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

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This Sunday is known as “Rose Sunday” or “Gaudete Sunday”. “Gaudete” can be broadly translated as “rejoice” or “delight” and refers to the importance of the theme of Christian joy, which is reflected in the readings for today. In a homily on joy, Pope Francis writes: “joy is a gift from God. It fills us from within…it is a gift that walks on the path of life that walks with Jesus: proclaiming Jesus, proclaiming joy, lengthens and widens that path.

Anything that lengthens and widens our path to Jesus is good, and we hear that today in our readings. In writing to the church in Philippi, Paul thanks them for the gifts they sent. It is not explicitly clear, but Paul wrote that letter to them while himself confined to a Roman prison cell under the sentence of death because of his faith. And despite his privations and imprisonment, Paul rejoices. Listen as he praises God, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.”[1]

Paul wasn’t kidding when he commanded, “Rejoice in the Lord, always rejoice.” Joy is a must, and the stakes are high. The Bible is clear: I need to rejoice.

I get it. Indeed, I want to rejoice.

But it is hard.

It seems each time that I come to Gaudete Sunday, and I prepare to preach a message of joy, something comes along that makes such a message difficult.

Nine years ago, it was Superstorm Sandy and shootings in Sandy Hook. Today, we grieve the deaths of upwards of 100 people after storms unleashed devastating tornadoes late Friday and early yesterday across parts of the central and southern United States. We see widespread abuse of the vulnerable, both the very young and the very old. We see anger, hatred and crime.

When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he understood the kind of world I just described. He knew that his friends in Philippi would soon face, and even then were facing, persecutions and rejection because of their faith. He knew about bad times.

The reality is that there comes a time, especially when we are challenged that change is needed. At times like this, the words of Zephaniah, Paul, and even John the Baptist call on us to be hopeful even in the face of adversity.

Think about the people who heard John’s preaching. Something about his message of change, preparation, and repentance took root in them. His message is one that we, too, must understand: in our lives in and our world, we cannot continue in the same old ways as we prepare for the coming of Christ. That message was enough to draw the crowds out to John, and it is John’s message to us today.

The crowd has heard the message from John the Baptist that all is not well in their life and world. But, it is also a word of hope and rejoicing, a word of God, that says all can be well.

John knows that real change, real transformation, does not begin with the world around us but the world within us.

One of the things that often makes change difficult is our propensity to justify our every action. We blame others. We list how hard we’ve worked and what we deserve. We deny our need for others. We refuse to accept responsibility for ourselves.

John understands this about us. He expresses his understanding directly and bluntly:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to feel from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I take John’s message in the 21st century as this: if we are going to be in as Christians, if we are going to call ourselves Christian, then we need to be all in. Repentance, changing the direction of our lives, means that inner change, a change in the way of being, must be our goal. Our actions and our words must be aligned.

Now, there are certainly moments when my actions and words don’t align, and that is true for all of us. There are moments when I don’t feel at peace with the world around me. But that shouldn’t keep us from always seeking to repent and change direction.

And we can experience joy and have joy, even amid pain. It’s clear from Scripture that joy and sadness often mix. The writers of the Psalms never hide their pain:

“To you, O LORD, I call; my rock, do not refuse to hear me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit. (Psalm 28:1)

“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes waste away from grief, my soul and body also. (Psalm 31:9)

Notice the honesty. The psalmists are not trying to fake it until they make it. And, yet, their grief is always accompanied by a reliance on a trustworthy God. In Psalm 28, David may be burdened by the reality that God seems deaf to him, yet he calls God his rock in his pain. When his circumstances nearly crush him, David calls others to trust his faithful God: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. (Psalm 31:24)

Joy is a gift from God that “is ours today because Christ is here; it’s our tomorrow because Christ will be there, and it’s ours forever because Christ will never leave us.”[2] When Paul commands us to rejoice, he’s fundamentally telling us to place our confidence in who God is and what he’s done.

Perhaps the key to finding joy is to stop looking for it. Keep your eyes on Christ instead. Then watch and wait. Joy will come.

There’s no silver bullet in the fight for joy because keeping our eyes on Christ isn’t easy. But with God’s help, it is possible.

Maybe you feel hopeless right now. You want to look to Christ but aren’t sure how.

As we continue with our observance of Advent, I ask you to focus on Christ. There is nothing more important than wrapping your mind around who Jesus is and what’s he’s done. And remember that Jesus, through John the Baptist, calls us to a new way of being, one that sees the other as a person with needs, hopes, fears, dreams, and lives as real and as valid as our own. That is the ultimate act of repentance: to see others as persons, as holy, as created and loved by the same God who created and loves us.

At the deepest level, Advent calls us to joy in the coming of the birth of a baby who will be born soon and bring to us great joy. Despite his imprisonment, Paul said in confidence that everything should be taken in joy and thanksgiving to God. John the Baptist called everyone to repentance so that their lives and behavior could be appropriately aligned with the joy and love God has been giving them.

Ask yourself: are you bearing the good fruit of Jesus Christ, and are you living as faithful disciples? Have you been changed from the inside out by your baptism?

The most profound mystery of Advent is that we can somehow reflect the light of Christ’s love and joy amid our brokenness. The world needs inadequate people – people like us who are doubting, afraid, and struggling. I invite each of us to reflect on this call to live out the source of true joy – our relationship of love with God and our (God’s and our) relationship of love with others – in our broken, hurting world and to be bearers of joy, in the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.

And remember that joy is a gift from God and that the fruits of repentance are ultimately generosity, thankfulness, and joy.

[1] Philippians 4:4, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[2] Randy Alcorn, Happiness (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2015), viii.

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