Sunday, December 17, 2006

Third Sunday in Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.

My mother taught me to never say never and to never say always because there are very few instances when something out of the ordinary might happen or might not happen. If we say that we will never do something, we quickly find ourselves in a position when we have no choice in the matter. If we say that something always happens, we discover that there are often exceptions to the rules. I suppose that is why it is so difficult to hear an instruction like this one from Paulís letter to the Philippians. It is hard, very hard to rejoice always.

I suppose it is particularly hard at this time of year because it is supposed to be such a happy time and yet our world is not really a place where we always find happiness. We canít be happy always when there is war and crime and poverty around the world. We canít be happy always when we or someone we love is suffering from disease or financial hardship. This is also the time of year when most people face the loss of someone they love Ė more deaths occur during the holidays than at any other time of year. There are many reasons why this is true. There is more infection in the winter and it is passed easily in close company. Some of the deaths come from overindulgence. Others are brought on by loneliness and stress. Even though it is the time when everyone is supposed to be happy, the reality is that most people are too busy and too stressed to really enjoy the season.

We put so much work into preparing for Christmas. We spend hours in shopping malls and drain our wallets to purchase the perfect gifts for our family and friends. We hang thousands of twinkling lights on our houses and on our trees to bring some light into the darkness of winter. We bake dozens of cookies to bring back memories of Christmases past and to create memories for our kids. We attend parties and events to celebrate the season, watching our children perform Christmas carols or tell the story of the Nativity with garland halos and robes made from old sheets.

These are all good and excellent ways to spend the holiday season. Presents, decorated houses and fresh baked cookies bring joy to others. We might find some of the performances cheesy or over-the-top, but it is wonderful to see the performers using their talents to bring a little joy to the lives of others. It is not that our busy schedules and hustle bustle of the season is a bad thing. Our problem is that we lose touch with the very reason we are doing all these things. We lose sight of God. We forget that He is the gift, that He is the joy.

Paul says, ďRejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.Ē Paul is not calling us to be happy all the time. He is calling us to rejoice in the Lord always. In everything we do, in everything we are, we are to live in the joy that is found in our relationship with God. During Christmas we recognize the coming of God in flesh, we honor and remember the child in the manger. However, we arenít waiting for God to come again. He is here now, dwelling amongst us, walking with us, guiding us, loving us with a tender and compassionate love. We can rejoice in the Lord always, because He is always with us. In good times and bad, we can trust God because He is always faithful to His promises.

Thatís what John the Baptist came to proclaim. He came to be a witness to the coming of the Light, to testify to the gracious mercy of God. Iím not so sure we think about mercy when we think about John the Baptist. After all, he is a man who is perceived to be wild, harsh and demanding. He was very unusual and acted counter to the culture in which he lived. He lived in the wilderness, wore clothing made from camelís hair and ate locusts for lunch. This description brings to mind an image of a rough and tumble man, unkempt and unclean. He has been compared to the smelly homeless man on the street corner preaching the end of the world to passers-by.

It would be understandable if he did fit that characterization. After all, he was born to elderly parents who must have died very early in his life. Though there may have been family willing to provide the care he needed to grow to maturity, he could have easily become independent at a very early age. Without a mother to teach him the social graces or a father to teach him about how to be a productive member of society, it is no wonder he went off to live in the desert to wear sacks and eat locusts. It is natural to assume that the circumstances of his life made him to be a wild, out of control man. We add to this assumption other characteristics that are not found in the scriptures Ė unkempt, unclean, angry, harsh and even violent.

Yet, we canít make these assumptions from what we read in the Bible. As a matter of fact, we know that John the Baptist is the firstborn son of a priest, so the likelihood is that John was raised within the culture of his fatherís people. He knew what it meant to be a Jew, most certainly knew the Law and was familiar with the scriptures. There was no law against wearing camelís hair clothing and no law against eating locusts. He simply defied the self-indulgent ways of the culture in which he lived. He did not wear silk or linen and he did not feast at great banquets. He chose a simple life, a life in which he could focus more clearly on His vocation as a prophet of God. He identified with the prophets of old and lived as they might have lived.

John was certainly not offensive in his appearance and he was taken seriously because he had a huge following. There was something about him that drew the people into his presence. Even the temple leaders came to hear him speak. The passion story of Jesus shows us a group of men who rejected Jesus and refused to believe that He was the fulfillment of Godís promises, but that does not mean that they were not seeking the Messiah. As a matter of fact, since they were the educated and the religious experts, they knew more about the signs of the coming and they were anxious to see it fulfilled. In the end Jesus did not meet their expectations, but early in the story we meet John in whom they saw possibilities. Was John the Messiah?

John had something, even Herod wanted to hear him speak. It is unlikely that Herod would have invited an unkempt, smelly wild man into his palace. It was not Johnís appearance that offended. It was his words.

John tells the people who come to hear him speak, ďYou brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?Ē Again we ask, ďWhere is the mercy in Johnís message?Ē We often joke that John was the first Baptist because he was the first hellfire and brimstone preacher. But is this really a sermon damning those who have come to him? Is the wrath of God something to be avoided? John wonders why they are fleeing. Perhaps facing the wrath of God is not destructive and unmerciful experience we think it might be.

The wrath of God is often described like fire, but when we think of the references of fire relating to God, we realize that it is not something that will necessarily destroy everything in its path. When Moses met God it was at the foot of a bush that was on fire but did not burn. The people of Israel were lead through the desert at night by a pillar of fire that did not destroy anything in its path. The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in the upper room like tongues of fire.

Last week we heard that God is like a refinerís fire Ė He burns the impurity out of the precious metal leaving behind something pure and perfect. Godís wrath is not necessarily meant to destroy, but to refine. Godís wrath does not necessarily bring an end, but cleanses to a new beginning. Thatís why John the Baptist wondered who told them to flee the coming wrath Ė the coming wrath would not destroy Godís people, but would destroy all that kept them separate from God. This is grace. John preached the mercy of God and then called the people to live in that grace in a way that manifest their repentance.

John said, ďBear fruits worthy of repentance.Ē As the people asked him what they should do, he told them to share their abundance, to live honorably and be satisfied. Prosperity often leads to dissatisfaction and greed. When we have enough we want more. When we have more we think we need even more. To keep up such a lifestyle it becomes necessary to keep more than we need and to do anything to get more. Thatís why John told the people to give away their second tunic, to collect only the right amount of taxes and to take only their due wages. Be satisfied with what you have Ė and John could speak this message to the people because he was satisfied with camelís hair clothing and locusts for lunch. He lived a simple life and called the people to live that kind of life also.

Of course, many of those who had come to hear him preach thought that Godís grace and mercy depended on their history, their family line, their heritage. John told them, ďDo not think that Abraham will save you. God can make children out of stones.Ē He does make children out of Ďstonesí when He offers His salvation to the Gentiles.

Later in this story we see yet another reference to fire Ė it is the promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The One for whom they are waiting will not baptism with water, but will send the Holy Spirit to make everything new. The wrath that comes will fall upon the Messiah and through Him all who believe will be saved. Luke ends this passage with, ďWith many other exhortations therefore preached he good tidings unto the people.Ē These exhortations were good news Ė God is calling His people to a fruitful life, a life that begins with fire but continues with holiness and love.

It was not until I saw John the Baptist as this gentle and merciful preacher that I could understand the connection the Gospel has with the other lessons for today. Zephaniah and Isaiah call the people to lives of joy. Paul confronts us with this charge to rejoice always. He assures us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Iím not so sure that I have ever felt so totally at peace that I can rejoice always. Iím not so sure I have ever been able to rejoice always to know the peace of God. This is especially true at this time of year when we are so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays. We are expected to be so happy during the Christmas season, enjoying all the good things in life. Yet we face stress, disease and even death, leaving us at times empty, lonely and exhausted.

Perhaps instead of seeing John the Baptist as confrontive and offensive, we should be looking at him as an example of the way to prepare for the coming of the Lord. He lived simply and preached the good news. He called people to live simply, to share their blessings and to do what is right.

Does this mean we have to give up our tinsel and the lights decorating our homes? Does it mean we have to stop attending parties or stop buying gifts for those we love? Not necessarily. We are to stop being anxious about everything. If it causes stress on our bodies and our wallets to put up Christmas lights, then we need not do so. If it causes hardship or discomfort to eat so much fine food, then we should learn to partake in moderation. If we are going to worry about the bills that will come in January, then we should scale down the number or type of presents we buy. We can prepare for Christmas with all that finery without suffering from fear, worry or exhaustion. We can enjoy the holidays without all the fluff and glitz.

Whatever we do this Christmas season, we are called to rejoice in the Lord always. While it is nice to be happy, to enjoy ourselves during the festivities of the holidays, Paul reminds us that it is not about laughter and satisfaction. It is about living in the Lord, dwelling in His presence even as He dwells in ours. When we rejoice in the Lord always, we live the life that manifests Godís grace to the world even in our times of difficulty. It means we recognize Godís presence with us at all times, even when we feel like the world around us is coming to an end, knowing that God can do a good work through suffering by burning away all those things that keep us from fully living in our relationship with Him.

I suppose our greatest problem is that we think all the glitz and glamour of this world will be our salvation. If only we make a few more dollars or own two tunics we might survive. We think this will make us happy. At this time of year we are reminded that nothing can save us except the love of God. He is our salvation and our hope. In Him we find true peace. That is the peace that passes all human understanding. That is the peace that keeps our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. And for that we can rejoice. Thanks be to God.

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