Sunday, December 13, 2009

First Repentance, Then Rejoicing

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 13, 2009

Year C: The Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
(Philippians 4:4-7)
Luke 3:7-18

First Repentance, Then Rejoicing

How is it possible that we’ve already reached the third Sunday of Advent? The weeks are just flying by and it feels like we are hurtling towards Christmas. We had a little debate about it at the other day at the Men’s Breakfast, but I checked – Christmas is just a week from Friday. Wow. Advent is supposed to be this season of quiet waiting, reflection and anticipation, yet I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling the anxiety of time running out.

Anyway, here we are, ready or not, the Third Sunday of Advent. And, as you’ve probably noticed by now, this is the Sunday we set aside the blue Advent vestments and bring out the beautiful rose vestments.

Traditionally today is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word meaning “rejoice.” As Lauren mentioned in last week’s sermon, in the past there was a pretty heavy penitential aspect to Advent - it was considered by many to be a little Lent. The third Sunday was set aside as a time to take a little break from all that penitence, to inject a little joy into Advent, recognizing that we were getting close to Christmas.

Although in modern times the Church has softened the penitential side of Advent, we’ve held onto Gaudete Sunday, this Advent Sunday to rejoice. So out come the rose vestments and maybe some of you use a pink candle in your Advent wreath at home.

Maybe you noticed, however, there is however a little problem with Gaudete Sunday.

In the readings from Zephaniah and in the First Song of Isaiah (and the Epistle to the Philippians) the theme is clearly rejoicing. So far so good. In the words of Isaiah, “Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world.”

But the gospel lesson seems to be off-message. Here we have what seems to be a very different theme: repentance. We heard the familiar story of John the Baptist preaching repentance to those he calls a “brood of vipers” – otherwise known as his congregation. John’s preaching is so tough that Luke’s last line is almost comical, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Um, where exactly is the good news that John was proclaiming? Where is the rejoicing in this gospel for Gaudete Sunday?

Well, I puzzled over this question for quite a while. Finally I realized that if we rearrange the order of today’s lessons, we really can find the good news, we can really find the joy in Gaudete Sunday.

Here’s the good news: first repentance, then rejoicing.

First repentance.

In today’s gospel we once again find John preaching repentance and baptizing the crowds in the River Jordan. Hearing John’s harsh message we might wonder why in the world people came to this prophet in the river.

John himself seems skeptical that the crowd is there for the right reasons. He warns them they need to drop their sense of spiritual entitlement – being a descendant of Abraham doesn’t get you far with John. And John tells them being a descendant of Abraham won’t get you anywhere with God, either.

John tells them to drop their sense of spiritual entitlement because we are all going to be judged on if we bear good fruit. John tells them we will be judged on the way we live our lives.

John gives them a tough message and yet they still come to him. Maybe part of the reason people came to John despite his harsh message was because he offered very clear, concrete instructions on how to lead a life “worthy of repentance.” Have two coats? Give one away. Have food? Give some of it away. If you’re a tax collector, don’t take more than you’re supposed to. If you’re a soldier, don’t shake down anyone for money.

John is very clear and concrete. By the way, it’s no surprise that Luke includes these examples that challenge economic inequality and oppression. Remember this is the same gospel in which the Virgin Mary sings that God “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich has sent away empty.”

Ultimately, though, maybe the people came to John despite his harsh message because in their hearts they knew they needed repentance. They knew that their lives were headed in the wrong direction. They were burdened by the knowledge that they were not living the kind of lives that God intended for them.

Luke tells us that the people were “filled with expectation.” What were they expecting? They were expecting, desperately hoping, that John would be the messiah. They were expecting, desperately hoping, that John would be the one who would free them, who would lead them from repentance to rejoicing.

First repentance, then rejoicing.

John is an important and interesting character, but, really, he is the last in a long line of prophets calling the people to repentance, to change their ways, to turn back to God.

In our Old Testament lesson we heard from another of those prophets. We don’t know much about the Prophet Zephaniah. He apparently lived in Jerusalem in the 6th Century BC. This seems to have been one of those times when the people of Israel had gone astray. They were worshipping idols, acting in unethical and immoral ways, and in general just not paying any attention to God. You know, the usual.

In response to this misbehavior, the Book of Zephaniah contains a series of prophesies about the Day of the Lord – the day when God was going to issue judgment on this unfaithful people.

Most of the Book of Zephaniah is gloom and doom. It would seem that the Day of the Lord is not exactly good news. Here’s how God describes the Day of the Lord, according to Zephaniah:

“I will bring distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” (1:17)

You can check it out at home if you’d like, but that’s a fair example of what most of the Book of Zephaniah is like – most, but not all. Today we heard the conclusion of Zephaniah where the prophet offers a very different vision – a vision of salvation and rejoicing.

Zephaniah says that some faithful people will repent – and that repentance will be the gateway to joy. Just before the passage we heard today, Zephaniah offers this vision of these faithful, penitent, transformed and joyful people:
“They shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. They will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.”
First repentance, then rejoicing.

So, what does all this have to do with us?

Can we relate to the people of Israel in Zephaniah’s time? Can we relate to those people who had gone astray, who were worshipping idols, who were acting in unethical or even immoral ways, who in general were just not paying any attention to God?
Can we relate to those people who came to see John the Baptist? Do we carry around a sense of entitlement? Do we know in our hearts that we need repentance? Do we know in our hearts that our lives are headed in the wrong direction? Do we know that we are not living the kind of life that God intends for us?

Are we expecting, desperately hoping, for the One who will free us, the One who will lead us from repentance to joy?

Well, if so, we have some very good news. This really is Gaudete Sunday – this really is a day to rejoice.

First repentance, then rejoicing.

Our lessons may have been a little out of order today, but the rest of the service is in perfect order. In just a little bit we will kneel and say the familiar words of the confession. Just before that we always have a few moments of quiet. Today, let’s really use that time. Let’s really take a moment think of how we need to repent. Today, let’s really pay attention to the familiar words.

And if we really repent, if we really say sorry and promise to try to live in a more faithful way, then we have created just enough room for God to lead us into rejoicing.

And the order of the service captures this perfectly, doesn’t it?

After we hear the words of forgiveness we move on to the rejoicing that is the peace and the rejoicing that we receive the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Finally, we leave this place rejoicing in God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s gift of himself in Jesus.

On this Gaudete Sunday, we have one very clear theme: first repentance, then rejoicing.

Thanks be to God.