Sermon: Rejoicing and repenting, or vice versa

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Third Sunday of Advent, 12th of December 2021

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Luke 3:7-18

If, like me, you feel that most of this year disappeared in a locked-down haze you may, also like me, be shocked that today is the third Sunday of Advent. It feels as though 2021 never really got started, yet here we are approaching the end of it. At least this Sunday is one to celebrate; it is ‘Gaudete’ Sunday – Joy Sunday, the only Sunday in the entire liturgical year whose colour is pink. The name comes from a line in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In Latin, ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4:4) is Gaudete in Domino semper. As we journey through Advent, with its sombre admonitions that we should be prepared at every moment for the Second Coming of the Son of Man, today offers us joy.

And yet, as on the previous two Sundays of Advent, the Scriptures give us awful warnings. It is true that the readings from the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah are warmly reassuring, but the prophets are providing comfort amid lamentation and condemnation. Today we hear the only reading the lectionary gives us from the prophecies of Zephaniah, for which I think we can be grateful because most of the three chapters of this tiny book are made up of judgement oracles. Zephaniah not only condemns all the nations who have ever attacked Judah, he also issues a judgement on the city of Jerusalem because: ‘The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.’ (Zephaniah 3:3-4) It is only after Zephaniah has completely vented his spleen against his own nation that he then offers them the Lord’s reassurance.

The same is true of the passage from the prophecies of First Isaiah that we hear today instead of a psalm. ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,’ says Isaiah, which is beautiful, but he only says that after warning:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain? For all this, his anger has not turned away; his hand is stretched out still. (Isaiah 10:1-4)

Even if we turn to the gospel, seeking the comfort than comes from a religion of love rather than one of law,[1] we find John the Baptist proclaiming: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ and warning the crowds that: ‘Even now the axe 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.’ Today’s gospel reading does not come across as particularly joyful. But it does resonate with the warnings that Zephaniah and Isaiah gave before they told the people to ‘rejoice and exult with all your heart’.

Do we, even on this day of joy, need to be reminded that there is no joy without repentance? John the Baptist, when calling those around him to repent, is very specific in what he says that will mean. None of the other gospels has the practical details that John gives in the gospel according to Luke. John tells the crowd to share their clothes and their food; the tax-collectors are not to collect more money than is owed and so make themselves rich through corruption; the soldiers are not to use their licenced violence to extort or threaten people. John’s call to repentance is incredibly pragmatic. Do not take more than your fair share; share what you have.

John is inviting the people he baptises into the same sort of community that Zephaniah promises will come, one in which the last and least need fear disaster no more. At the coming of the Lord the lame will be saved, and outcasts gathered, and their shame will be changed into praise and renown in all the earth, Zephaniah predicts. In its own way this is as pragmatic as John’s advice. We know that people often feel ashamed if poverty and disaster mean that they need to ask for help. This might be especially true in Australia. There is a joke in an Agatha Christie story that makes me laugh every time I read it. A wealthy young man disowned by his uncle asks his uncle’s butler whether he should leave for Australia.

Rogers coughed discreetly.
‘Well, sir, I’ve certainly heard it said that there’s room out there for anyone who really wants to work.’
Mr Rowland gazed at him with interest and admiration.
‘Very neatly put, Rogers. Just what I was thinking myself. I shan’t go to Australia – not today, at any rate.’[2]

This is still the way Australia sees itself, as the land in which those who have a go will get a go, which means that poverty in Australia is often thought to be the fault of the poor. And so when people experience poverty, they often also feel unjustified shame.

This will end, Zephaniah says, when God removes disaster from God’s people so that they will no longer bear reproach for it. Instead, God will rejoice over them with gladness, God will renew them in love, God will exult over them with loud singing as on a day of festival. If this is what God intends, then we want to be among those who will say on that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. We certainly do not want to be among those who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, who turn aside the needy from justice and rob the poor of God’s people! If we want to participate in joy, we may need to repent. That, certainly, is the message of John the Baptist.

But maybe the relationship between rejoicing and repentance should be reversed. There is no joy without repentance, the prophets warn, but there is also no repentance without joy. John calls the people who stream to see him a brood of vipers, which is the sort of evangelical strategy that could backfire, but, still, they have come to be baptized. They know that John has something they need. What John has is the good news. He may share it in rather terrifying terms, ‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire,’ but it is still the gospel. The Messiah is coming! The kingdom of God has drawn near.

Throughout the gospel according to Luke we are shown that the kingdom the Messiah will inaugurate is going to be different from the kingdoms of the world. It is a kingdom that will be open to everyone. Even here, in John the Baptist’s terrifying preaching we see a kingdom in which soldiers and tax-collectors will have a place. It is not a kingdom in which those who can say ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’ are more worthy than those who do not. Everyone is worthy; everyone is welcome. Tax-collectors; soldiers; even us. The kingdom is open to us, too.

Trust, and do not be afraid, for the Lord God is your strength and your might; he will become your salvation. Jesus is coming to welcome us to his kingdom, to make a place for us at his banqueting table. We do not need to worry about anything; Jesus was born to show us that we are known by God and loved by God. This is the source of our joy. John tells the crowds around him to bear fruits worthy of repentance as though it is a command, but bearing the fruits of repentance that John describes is the natural outflowing of our joy. We are loved by God; we belong to God; we have a place in God’s kingdom so of course we can confess when we have done the wrong thing, knowing that nothing we have done will mean that we are excluded. We are loved by God; we belong to God; we have a place in God’s kingdom so of course we do not need to worry and hoard and spend too much in a vain quest to be happy. We can share our coats and our food.

Today, Gaudete Sunday, reminds us that there is no joy without repentance, and there is no repentance without joy. Advent is a time to rejoice and repent, because both rejoicing and repenting come from knowing that God loves us. God loves us so much that God came to be one of us. Sing aloud, shout, rejoice and exult with all your heart! God loves us! Thanks be to God.

[1] Of course, to say this is to dreadfully stereotype both Judaism and Christianity, both of which are religions of the Law and of love.

[2] Agatha Christie, ‘The Girl in the Train,’ in The Listerdale Mystery (1934).

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1 Response to Sermon: Rejoicing and repenting, or vice versa

  1. Pingback: Sermon: Two brothers | Rev Doc Geek

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