Did today’s lessons leave you a little confused? Did it maybe sound a little schizophrenic to you?
First, we heard from the Old Testament book of the prophet Zephaniah, ‘Sing aloud, Daughter Zion; shout, o Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, o daughter Jerusalem! God is in your midst!’ Rejoice!
In today’s psalmody, Mary’s song of praise, the ‘Magnificat’, has a very similar tone: ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.’ Here we have it again: The Lord is near – rejoice!
And the Apostle Paul, although he is in prison, writes to the congregation in Philippi, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice! The Lord is near!’
What wonderful and fitting lessons on this 3rd Sunday in Advent, the Sunday that traditionally has been observed as the Sunday of joy. Rejoice, rejoice, believers! The Lord is near! What a great message to lift our hearts! That’s what we want to hear, this is what we need to hear.
And then we get to the gospel and encounter a grinch-like figure, someone raining onto our parade, every year during the Advent season: John, the Baptist. After all the talk of rejoicing, John’s message is like a slap in the face. “And John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance!’” And I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to not somehow hear these words as if they were spoken to me. The Lord is near! Repent!
And I’m wondering why the people who put together our lectionary put these lessons together. Must have been a committee, don’t you think? We are getting mixed messages here. What now: is it rejoice – or repent?
The short answer is: yes.
And now the longer and more complicated answer:
As human beings, we tend to think in a quite polarized fashion: yes or no, good or bad, in or out, right or wrong, happy or serious, rejoice or repent. We tend to like neat categories. And we live in a current political and societal climate where these opposites are emphasized, and consequently we as people are extremely polarized – and we categorize each other in often not so well-meaning terms – we like to paint each other in a corner.
As if it was that easy.
But, as all of you probably can attest, people are complicated, circumstances are complicated. Life often is not so clear and easy, but rather ambiguous, sometimes even downright messy. Take any relationship for that matter, think about your spouse or your child or your grandchild: do you love them? I assume the answer is ‘yes’. But, talking for myself, there are moments when, to put it mildly, my patience is wearing thin when I deal with my husband or my kids. And I’m certain they feel the same way about dealing with me. Can you relate to that?
We may wish everything was uncomplicated and easy to categorize – love, hate, wonderful, awful -but it’s not. And that’s life – life in all its fullness. It’s complicated.
Why should it be any different for the Advent season and today’s Bible lessons? Why should our relationship to God be any different?
Joy and repentance may sound like opposites, but they don’t exclude each other. This becomes quite clear in today’s lessons.
The prophet Zephaniah calls out to God’s chosen people: Rejoice! For God has forgiven you and will not punish you the way you deserve it. But at the same time Zephaniah warns the people: be careful not to mess up again in the future!
Mary rejoices and is ecstatic about the child she carries – the child who will redeem all humankind. But her song of praise also contains a warning: all who are lowly, all those who have nothing to rejoice about, shall be lifted up, and all those who are mighty and proud shall be cast down. So we better not be proud or abuse our power, right?
The Apostle Paul encourages the congregation in Philippi to rejoice always – but at the same time admonishes the people, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone.’ Everyone – not only those we like or agree with. And the lessons for today just stops short of all those verses, in which Paul tells people very precisely how they are to conduct themselves as Christians.
Joy is good. Joy is important. But this joy is something that goes way beyond ourselves. In German, there is a saying, ‘Geteilte Freude ist doppelte Freude,’, ‘Shared joy is joy doubled,’ and Mark Twain echoes this when he says, ‘To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.’
Joy has consequences: a life lived in gratitude. A life, which is not just about me, me, me, but about my neighbor, about community, about the welfare of all. In that sense, joy helps us with repentance. Now we may think of repentance as self-denial and maybe have images of self-flagellation in our head, but the Greek word that is used in in today’s gospel and other passages for that matter is ‘metanoia’, and literally this means a change of thought – more liberally it could be translated as a change of heart. Repentance is about questioning the old and being open for something else, something better.
And even the word ‘repentance’, which comes from the Latin, quite literally means ‘to be sorry’ – and when we are sorry, we know something went wrong, and we want to do better the next time, right?
On the flipside: when we have a change of heart, when things get better for ourselves, our neighbor and the world, there is more joy. It’s quite logical, isn’t it?
So if you think about it, joy and repentance are in quite a complex relationship. One doesn’t really work without the other.
And even today’s gospel lesson is clear about that. Now John doesn’t seem to be especially friendly or joyful as he preaches to those in the wilderness; on the contrary, his message sounds threatening: you better repent, or else!
But we also read that the people who make the pilgrimage to be baptized by John and who are greeted with an insult – you brood of vipers! – nevertheless is filled with expectation. And the Greek word that is used here means ‘joyful expectation’. This expectation can be compared to the expectation children have on Christmas Eve. We are waiting for the Messiah – this is a reason to be joyful for all of creation, and not a reason to fear.
And so the last sentence of today’s gospel makes a lot of sense after all: ‘So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.’
This is the gospel, this is the good news. The Lord, God Immanuel, is near!
This is a reason to rethink our direction and our actions. This is a reason to rejoice.
Picture by Robert Collins on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German