Sermon: Birthing Joy

Sunday, December 12, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (readings start around 15:05; sermon starts around 21:10)

This morning, we light the rose-colored candle in our Advent wreath – because today is known in our liturgical calendar as “Gaudete” Sunday.  Gaudete comes from the Latin word for “rejoice”; today is the Sunday of joy!  Historically in the church, Advent was once considered a kind of mini-Lent, a season of solemnity and fasting and penitence.  In fact, many of you, like me, might remember growing up with an Advent wreath full of purple candles.  The change to the blue and pink is meant to be a recognition that Advent is really more of a season of expectation and hopefulness and preparation.  And the pink candle in our wreath reminds us that what we are waiting for is actually something deeply joyful: the coming of the kingdom of God, Christ’s reign of justice, peace, and love on earth.

Fittingly, there is a lot of joy to be found in the texts that we read this morning.  Although, you have probably noticed that 🎵 “one of these texts is not like the others…” 🎵  We’ll get to that a little later on.

Our first reading is from the prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah gets to preach the kind of joyous sermon to his people that I think preachers would love to preach all the time!  He declares to his people that their suffering will end, that God has seen their repentance and forgiven them.  He gives us this wonderful image of God rejoicing over the people; Zephaniah writes: “he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”  

What a great image!  Just imagine God singing loudly, with great joy, over you!  And God – through Zephaniah – goes on to say, “I will deal with all your oppressors”; “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.  At that time, I will bring you home.”  Imagine the joy of God gathering us home, changing our shame into praise!  It’s a beautiful image.

In our canticle for today, the prophet Isaiah urges his people to “sing praises to the Lord, for the Lord has done gloriously”; to “shout aloud and sing for joy”! Isaiah rejoices that God is his salvation, his strength and his might.  And he uses the image of a well, a well full of water to speak of salvation.  This image might not have quite the same impact on us as it did on the original hearers.  Not only do we live right next to a river, we can easily turn on a tap at any time and have access to clean water.  But for people living in the deserts of ancient Israel, water was precious and often rare.  Finding a functioning well was a literal, physical kind of salvation.  That’s the image Isaiah is painting of salvation.  Isaiah rejoices in God’s salvation, not just as a vague, distant, disembodied hope, but as something immediate and tangible and real: salvation as refreshing and as necessary for life as finding water in the desert.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in all of scripture.  He instructs the Philippians – and, by extension, us – to rejoice in the Lord. In fact, Paul sees this as such an important instruction that he says it twice: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”  The Lord is near to us and hears our prayers.  Christ fills our hearts and minds with peace that passes human understanding. Rejoicing in the Lord brings us the peace we need, especially in the midst of this season of busy-ness and stress.

All this brings us to our gospel reading from Luke.  Reading this particular passage, it kind of sounds like John the Baptist maybe missed the memo that this is supposed to be the Sunday of *joy*.  While our other three writers rejoice in God’s saving works with images like loud singing and exultation and life-giving water, John goes in a bit of a different direction.  Nothing says “holiday spirit” quite like unquenchable fire and axes.  At the beginning of this passage, John starts off by calling the crowds “you brood of vipers” and things kind of seem to go downhill from there.  Based only on this passage, it seems kind of weird that Luke sums it up by saying that, with these and “many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” (If this is the good news, I’d hate to hear the bad news!)

But, in fairness to John, what we read today is only the back half of this story. We actually read the first half of this story for our gospel reading last Sunday. Right before today’s reading, John had been quoting some much more hopeful-sounding words from the prophet Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Isaiah 40

There’s the joy!  This is the hopeful message that is at the heart of what John is saying, and, indeed, at the heart of all of our readings for today.  Like the other prophets who came before him, John is announcing with joy: the kingdom of God is coming!  Rejoice!

But in the same breath, John also more than hints that the coming of this kingdom is going to be marked by turmoil and strife.  Even in this passage from Isaiah, John is talking about some serious reordering of things: every valley will be filled, every mountain brought low.  Can you imagine? (The whole world made to look like western Kansas!) If nothing else, that is some seriously intense landscaping!  It brings to mind the words of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we’ll read next Sunday – she sings about the mighty being cast down from their thrones, while the lowly are lifted up.  

In that same vein, John exhorts that everyone who has two coats or plenty of food should share what they have with those who don’t have any.  It’s more of that leveling of hills and valleys, redistributing the good gifts that God has given so that they may be enjoyed by everyone.  Likewise, John tells the people not to get too comfortable relying on their pedigree as children of Abraham for salvation – especially as they will one day share this kingdom with their adopted siblings in Christ.  Even the soldiers and the tax collectors, who worked as agents of Rome, John admonishes; he tells them not to abuse their power, not to take more for themselves than what they need, but instead to be satisfied with what they have and to live harmoniously with those around them.  

In God’s coming kingdom, power and dominion will belong to God alone. The gifts of creation that God gave for the good of all will be distributed to all, and everyone will live in peace and safety and prosperity. This beautiful vision is what we hope for – and it’s very different from what the world we live in is like. Our world, by contrast, is marked by extreme inequality and insecurity. You can see it in the long lines that form at the food pantry, in the way that the stock market can soar while workers struggle to make ends meet, in the way that new Covid variants keep emerging from the global South because of a lack of access to vaccines and adequate healthcare.

The world we live in is very different from the world as God intends it to be.  And as God’s Spirit moves in us and among us to transform and change this world, that process of transformation is bound to be uncomfortable, even painful.  And I think that this is what John is getting at with his intense language, preparing his hearers for what is coming: joy and peace, but also struggle in the journey to get there.

But even though this good news sometimes feels a bit like bad news, the joy of what God is bringing into being is undeniable.  God’s kingdom is for all: rich or poor, Gentile or Jew, mighty or lowly, powerful or powerless – God’s kingdom is for all, because God’s love is for all.  And the pains of this kingdom coming into being are like birth pangs, like the pains of labor, as we read in Mark a few weeks back.  The process of birth is excruciatingly painful – but it’s a sign for us that even in the midst of what can feel like death, God is actually at work bringing new things to life.  

I find this image of birth really hopeful in times like these.  Life has become acutely chaotic and painful in the last two years.  So many things we once took for granted have changed, and I find myself wondering if the dust will ever settle.  The church as we’ve known it is struggling and changing and even dying.  But even as I feel sadness for the things that have gone and some anxiety for the things that are going, I am still deeply, joyfully, irrepressibly hopeful.  I find hope in wondering what is being born out of these labor pains – hope in wondering what God is bringing to new life in the world, in the church, and in each of us gathered here. What will be born from these labor pains?

Today is the Sunday of joy – of real, true, lasting joy – joy that isn’t lost in the pain and the chaos, but born in it.  It’s the joy of hope for all that God is bringing into being.

So rejoice in the Lord always, my friends; again I will say it: rejoice. 

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