3rd Sunday of Advent 12-16-2018
Zephaniah 3: 14-18a, Isaiah 12: 2-6, Philippians 4: 4-7, Luke 3: 10-16, year C
Today’s readings work together unusually well to give us reasons to experience Joy. We start with one of the Minor Prophets, Zephaniah. The book is only 3 chapters long, and most of it is dire warnings of disaster: “Woe to you”, it says, “who have turned away from God; a day of wrath, of distress, anguish, ruin and darkness is near.” But we read from the very end of the book, when God forgives the people for their disobedience. God’s presence returns to them and God rejoices over the people, God sings joyfully because of his people. God saves them from their enemies and makes them famous among the nations for their good fortune. That’s interesting, isn’t it? Generally it’s the people who sing joyfully about God!
Speaking of unusual, our Psalm today is actually from the very end of the first section of the book of Isaiah. The Assyrians have destroyed much of Israel, and all of King David’s descendents appear to be dead. But Isaiah writes of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse”. Jesse was the father of King David, and one descendent is eventually found alive. So Isaiah gives us the prophecy of the Messiah. Our reading today is parts of two songs of praise for the promise of the Messiah and that God has preserved the future of Israel. “My strength and my courage is the Lord, and (God) has been my savior…Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously.” Coincidentally, these songs of praise echo the song of Moses’ sister Miriam, as the Israelites escape from Egypt, “The Lord is my strength and my song, for he has triumphed gloriously.” (Ex15:1-2) This time the people do sing joyfully about God.
Our 2nd reading likewise is a song of joy from the end of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He writes from prison, awaiting execution. But Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. The Lord is near.” So, all three of these readings tell us that at the end of painful, difficult times, God makes joy out of fear and sorrow.
In our Gospel, the pattern changes slightly. We read from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, signaling something new is happening. John the Baptist has baptized people in the River Jordan, and God has forgiven their sins. The people have experienced a real change of heart, and are anxious to change their ways. They ask “What should we do!?” John tells them to share their clothing, share their food. He tells the tax collectors not to over charge people and tells the soldiers not to falsely accuse the innocent or extort money from them. John the Baptist ties all this up neatly by saying that the Messiah is coming.
So, we have an encouraging message, filled with forgiveness, the good news of a bright future, and lots of singing and joy. But, what do we do with it? Well, I promised you to look at the nativity story during Advent in some new ways, and I think our readings today lead us to the characters of the Angels and the Shepherds.
The shepherds had little to rejoice about. For the most part, they were uneducated, poor men who had a dangerous job of fighting off large predatory animals who might kill the sheep. They worked 24/7 shifts, outside, and slept on the ground. Temperatures near freezing are common in Jerusalem this time of year. A boy scout might find that fun, but I wouldn’t. Shepherds had all the fun of modern-day garbage collectors, very low social status, and a distinctively bad smell clung to them. They bring a very humble and “earthy” aroma to the Nativity Scene.
Luke tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to- of all people- them. If you read scripture carefully, you find most angels appear not as winged creatures, but as strangers, which is why Luke tells us the shepherds were “filled with fear”. Can anyone here tell me how many times we find the expression “Be not afraid” in all its various forms in the Bible? Well, this is one of the 365 times. Then we hear those words of joy: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people (even shepherds): to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord” (2:10-11). Then a “host” or “army” (the idea is so many you can’t count) of angels sing Glory to God.
I wonder how long it took for those shepherds to breath normally again. But it didn’t take them long to decide what to do. Luke makes it sound like immediately they agreed to go to Bethlehem and see for themselves what had happened. And they didn’t have to think about who to tell or what to say. Once they had seen the infant in the manger, they “made know” the saying which had been told them. That means they told everybody. They “returned (to the fields), glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…” They, like the people baptized by John, were changed.
So here is the pattern. Life is hard, daily living is difficult. Then God appears; in some way we see the hand of God in our lives, or we hear God’s words, and something shifts within us, and joy appears. The joy is real, and stirs us to some action, and things in our lives change. The change is clear to people around us, for our behaviors change and our thinking is altered. In a moment of despair, I once cried out loud to God, “I don’t even know what to pray for!” And the response came back to me, “Pray for Joy.” So today, I say to you all, “Pray for Joy”. You will find God when you find joy, for God is the source of real rejoicing.