Third Sunday of Advent, Luke 3:17-18
Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, has been known as “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete, a Latin word, is an exhortation to rejoice. So, Gaudete Sunday is a day of rejoicing. This was significant in liturgical practice when Advent had a more penitential quality, more like Lent. In former practice, Advent was also a season for fasting and restraint. Except that on the Third Sunday, the more solemn was set aside briefly for rejoicing.
You may remember that the color for the season of Advent used to be purple, like Lent. And some at Resurrection have recalled to me the use of three purple candles for the Advent wreath, and one pink one, the pink being for Gaudete Sunday.
In current liturgical practice and understanding, Advent is less a season for penitence and more a season for hopefulness – hence the color of blue for this season, including the four Advent candles, blue being associated with hopefulness. Some of you have shared with me how much you like Advent blue.
All of this said, by way of liturgical history lesson, themes of rejoicing are retained in the lectionary appointed readings for today. So it is that we hear from the prophet Zephaniah in today’s first reading, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, and has turned away your enemies.” (Zephaniah 3:14-15a) And so the prophet continues with the good news of the promise of restoration for God’s people, all causes for rejoicing to be sure.
Then also, in today’s second reading, we hear from Paul, writing from prison, who exhorts the church at Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:4-5)
Then, in an abrupt reversal of mood, we have John the Baptizer remembered by Luke as having said to the crowds gathered about him for baptism: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance…. Even now the ax 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.” (Luke 3:7-8a, 9)
Where’s the rejoicing in that on Gaudete Sunday, a day for rejoicing? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Can you imagine if I began a sermon addressing you all as a brood of vipers? After such a sermon’s beginning, Council President, Glen Mason, might be directed by you all to call the Bishop’s office to have a word with her about your pastor’s behavior in the pulpit….
Luke concludes the passage appointed for today with these words: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” (Luke 3:18) What’s good about the news containing words that threaten judgment? Again, what’s there to rejoice at in that?
Well, there’s quite a lot of cause for rejoicing, actually, if we take a closer look at the passage. John’s threat of judgment provoked the crowds to ask John, “What then should we do?”
Luke reports that John gave some very specific answers. People who are blessed to have two coats are instructed to share one with another who has no coat. Likewise, people who have plenty of food are instructed to share their food with the hungry who have no food. Tax collectors, reviled and hated in ancient days, were instructed by John to “collect no more than the amount prescribed for [them].” For ancient tax collectors could extract from people any amount they could get away with. To the soldiers, John said, “Don’t engage in extortion by threatening or falsely accusing people.” Moreover, soldiers should be satisfied with their wages and thus not to resort to plundering and pillaging to gain the spoils of war.
What we have here in Luke is John giving instruction to the crowds that served to even out the playing field, thus fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah we heard invoked last Sunday describing John the Baptizer, “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.’” (Luke 3:4-6 and cf. Isaiah 40:3-5) John’s instructions serve to level the playing field for all.
This evening out, this restoration of balance, is good news indeed for those on the short ends of the sticks. Those in want will be clothed with warm clothing and have plenty to eat. And the victims of extorting tax collectors and pillaging soldiers will have their day of reckoning to be victims no more.
But when it’s all said and done, the restoration of balance, of commonwealth, is even good news for the rich, those who have more than enough, and the tax collectors and pillaging soldiers. For they, too, suffer from the systems of injustice in their own ways.
Isn’t true that underlying the greed that leads to injustices of hoarding, and pillaging, and extortion is a deep insecurity and fear? Surely such insecurities and fears are a burden which seeks release, a bondage and captivity that yearn for freedom.
Think about it. Even the rich, the tax collectors and soldiers followed John into the wilderness to hear his harsh proclamation and to receive the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that John offered in the River Jordan.
They may have discerned that the prophet John the Baptizer had good news for them, too – otherwise, why would they have been attracted enough to head in the wilderness to hear the word of judgment and to gain baptismal release from the bondage to their sins?
So it is that a harsh word of law spoken can have its own dimensions of good news – or certainly lead to the good news, which is the gospel of grace and forgiveness and freedom for burdened sinners that leads to restoration of justice for all people.
Which includes all of us (though I am not moved to refer to you all as a brood of vipers!). Rich and poor alike, all of us are sinners, yes – and that very much includes me.
The crowds wondered about John the Baptizer, and whether or not he was the Messiah. Luke reports that John made things clear that he was not the Messiah: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Think of the baptism of Jesus’ own death and then his resurrection which we symbolize with the new fire at the Easter Vigil, a fire usually larger than we’re accustomed to in worship, a little bit out of control, that lights the Paschal Candle, an eternal light, unquenchable fire that burns in the shadows of our nights.
Then John reports that the coming one will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Think of the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit entered the room and tongues as of flame descended on each of the apostles enabling and empowering them to proclaim in the languages of all the nations God’s deeds of power in raising Jesus from the dead.
Think of our own baptisms when after the water bath and anointing with oil and laying on of hands for the coming of the Holy Spirit, a lighted candle is given to the baptized reminding us of the unquenchable fire of the light of Christ in our lives.
Moreover, think of the baptismal life, our life of faith, as a life-long process of purgation when Christ through the Spirit working in word and sacraments in our assemblies burns our chaff and preserves the fruit of the wheat of our faith and good deeds for the sacred granaries.
This purgation is not about some people being damned and relegated to eternal, unquenchable fires and others being saved for God’s granaries in heaven. No, it’s that the old, sinful Adam in each of us is winnowed away by God’s grace in the Spirit over the course of a lifetime, even as our good fruit in the Spirit is made available to the world in our works of loving service, a granary for all people and all needs.
All of this is good news indeed!
As if we hear the words of the prophet Zephaniah echoing again in our graced, faith-filled lives: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, and has turned away your enemies. The Sovereign of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more…. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; the Lord will rejoice over you with gladness, and will renew you with love; the Lord will exult over you with oud singing as on a day of festival.” (Zephaniah 3:15, 17-18a)
And so it is that the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus,” (cf. Philippians 4:7) as we heard in today’s second reading.
So it is, rejoicing at the grace of God given in the good news, we leave this place with spirits uplifted to give coats to those who have none, and food to those who hunger, seeking justice and commonwealth in our wider society, restoring balance and well-being for all.
People of God, Gaudete, rejoice in Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty. Amen. (cf. Revelation 1:8)