St. John's, Centreville
December 16, 2018
3 Advent C
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, which is sometimes called "Gaudete" Sunday, which in Latin means "rejoice". This sense of hope and trust in God is the theme that runs through our readings this morning.
In the Letter of Paul to the Philippians, he says, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything." They are to renounce anxiety and refrain from worrying as they offer their prayers to God. He teaches them about how to live as they await Christ's return. "Let your gentleness be known to everyone," Paul says.
In our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Zephaniah also conveys a sense of hopefulness and joy. "Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem. The Lord God is in your midst." Writing in the seventh century BC, Zephaniah is chastising Israel for their idolatry and corruption. But in these final verses, he offers the people hope and describes what a restored Israel will look like. God will rejoice over you with gladness, God will renew you in God's love. God will remove all disasters and deal with the oppressors. There will be rejoicing as at a festival when God will save the lame and the outcast and bring the exiles back home.
Our canticle today also shares the theme of rejoicing. The prophet Isaiah expresses joyful gratitude and praise as the people of Israel proclaim their trust in God. "Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things and this is known in all the world."
Rejoice in God and God's love for us. Rejoice in the fact that God sent his Son Jesus Christ to save us from our sins.
It's a bit harder to find the theme of rejoicing in our gospel lesson, but it is there. After we get past John the Baptist saying to the crowds, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" and "every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire," he gets into a hopeful dialogue with the people in the crowd.
Someone asks John, "What then should we do?" And John replies, "whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Act with compassion toward the less fortunate. Do what you can to ease their suffering. It's a reminder to all of us that there is enough for everyone if resources are distributed equally, and not hoarded by a few at the top of the power chain.
Even tax collectors are coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. They are one of the most hated groups because they could collect as much tax as they wanted to, give to the Roman government what was due them, and pocket the rest. It was a corrupt system. Tax collectors represented the oppression of the Roman government, and in the Jewish community they were considered to be ritually unclean because they associated with Gentiles.
The tax collectors, too, ask John the Baptist what they should do. And he responds, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." In other words, be fair. Don't take advantage of others for your own personal gain. That speaks to us today as well.
Then the soldiers ask the same question - what should we do? Jews were not ordinarily required to serve in the Roman army, so these were most likely foreign soldiers. As an occupational force, they were despised by the people. John tells them they must be content with their wages and not abuse their power by resorting to threats and extortion.
John the Baptist calls people to repent of their sins and live in a way that reflects their change of heart. Some people begin to think that maybe he is the Messiah, the one they have been waiting for. Maybe he is the one to throw out the Roman oppressors and save Israel. That's what they hoped the coming Messiah would do. But John makes it quite clear that he is NOT the Messiah, but the Messiah is coming and they should be ready. John baptizes with water, but the coming Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
And there is the good news. There is the cause for rejoicing - that the Messiah is coming soon and will be in their midst. That is cause for celebration. As they await the coming of the Messiah, they are to live as John has described to the people who have gathered to hear him - take care of the poor with compassion, don't give in to the corruption of the day, and don't abuse the power you have been given. Live in such a way as to reflect your conversion, your baptism.
The teachings of John the Baptist are as relevant now as they were then. We, too, are awaiting the coming of the Messiah, remembering his birth at Christmas, and waiting for him to come again. So we, too, should live as John the Baptist described - taking care of the poor, not living by the ways of the world but by the way of Christ, and not abusing any earthly power that has been given to us. Those same principles apply to us today as we strive to live into our baptismal covenant.
What John is preaching, and what we need to hear, is at the heart of the commandments to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do good works, to work for justice and peace, and against corruption.
Christ has come and is coming again. We need to live as though we really believe that, and we believe that Christ could come again at any time - maybe this afternoon, maybe next week or next year. Will Christ find us living the way he has called us to live? Will he find us taking care of each other, taking care of this earth and all creation, taking care of our souls to joyfully receive him when he comes again?
How will Christ find us when he returns? In this Advent season, may we search our souls so we may joyfully receive the Savior when he comes. Amen.