Zechariah 3:14-20 & Advent 3
Rejoice! Shout! Exult with all your heart!
These are the words that set the stage for us on this third Sunday of Advent, as the count-down to Christmas races on. It’s no wonder that these are the words we hear on this Sunday, a day known as “Gaudete Sunday”, Gaudete being the Latin word for “rejoice.” And our biblical texts this day all reflect this theme*. Rejoice! Shout! Exult!
This exhortation represents a shift in our Advent journey from the messages of judgement and the warnings that we have heard delivered by the prophets through scripture the past couple of weeks.
In our worship, the shift in tone reflects the excitement that is building as Christmas approaches and the time draws ever nearer for the coming of the Christ child, the embodiment of God’s love and mercy for all this broken world.
And yet, even as these words ring out, Rejoice! Shout! Exult! I know that some of us struggle to feel cause for rejoicing.
This has been a tough year. There have been major challenges in our individual lives and in our world. We are faced with the knowledge of our imperfection, our culpability in the pain and suffering of the world, in the prejudice and bigotry that resides deep within, in our failure to value every human life as Jesus does.
A number of you, like me, have lost loved ones. Some have suffered serious illness, or undergone grueling medical treatments; others have undergone surgical procedures and rehabilitation. Physical, emotional and spiritual challenges have been faced and are perhaps still linger.
There may have been broken or changed relationships and families.
Even if things in your own life have been spared difficulties like these this year, it is likely that you have walked and are still walking beside a friend or loved one who was going through a difficult time.
For these reasons and more, some of us may feel may feel ill-equipped to rejoice, exult, and shout for joy, or to even face the festive season or the future.
Yet still we hear the words from Zephaniah, Rejoice! Sing aloud! Shout! Exult! And then assurance of Isaiah: Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.
An article published in the New York Times this week reported that fear is at its highest level since the months immediately following 9/11/2001.
A continuing onslaught of terror attacks around the world have set people on edge. Public confidence in our leaders to protect us is shaken.
Even the most mundane of our plans has suddenly taken on a new dimension of doubt, planning, second-guessing and challenge. Should we travel? Should we fly in an airplane? Are trains safe? Is it wise to gather in any large venue? Who do we let in and who do we keep out? What are the limits of what we will do remain safe?
How do we face this Christmas season with the buoyancy required to do as the prophets tell us to do, rejoice, shout and exult, when the reality of our lives is that we are stressed, struggling, and surrounded by fear?
And then we hear it: another Word of God comes to us in each of our scripture readings:
“You shall fear no more;”
“I will trust, and will not be afraid;”
“Do not worry about anything,….”
And finally, even as he has pointed out the hypocrisy of those who claim to be followers, John the Baptist “…. proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Placed side by side, these exhortations and proclamation invite us to hear and trust in God’s promise that God, who sees us just as we are – broken, sad, struggling, fearful, reactive, and full of sin – loves us still. God promises that through Jesus, he will remove the chaff from us – the outer, imperfect sheath of the perfect people God created us to be.
This Sunday, three-quarters of the way through Advent, there is a burst of pink – the candle on our Advent wreath which was lit today – which signals the welcome hope and attendant joy that our sorrows, worries and the fear that plague us will not define us – because God will fulfill our hope that it does not.
Rather, through the coming of the anointed one, God, defines us and will define us as God’s beloved children, worthy of redemption and washed from sin in the waters of Baptism.
This Sunday of rejoicing alerts us that something better is coming – that as the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption is at hand – this Word begins to prepare us for the rejoicing to come with the arrival of God-with-us.
Rejoice! Shout! Exult with all your heart! Have no fear!
God will lift up the lowly,
the suffering ones,
and the oppressed,
and will enfold them
in unending, ultimate joy and protection.
Our worship today reflects the hope that abides within us, inspired by God’s Word, and plants the seeds for true joy that persists deplete all that assails us. Advent is traditionally a season of somber reflection and penitence, a counterpart to Lent. That’s why until this week our worship space has been devoid of festive markings and decorations.
Fasting, repentance and spiritual preparation place our focus on this anticipation of the coming of the Lord.
Right about this time in the season, we often hear the lament – and perhaps share in it that, for whatever reason – whether in our planning and busywork or by the placement of our hearts and emotions, we are just not ready for Christmas.
Our lament, it seems, has a lot to do with the stuff we need to do, and little to do with what God has done and is doing in our midst.
Such is the way of sin. Such is the way of the world. Such is the way of a humanity which calls out to be saved from all that frightens us – even from ourselves, but which steadfastly turns away from the mercy and love of God, is never quite prepared for God to come among us, is never quite ready to welcome God’s desire for us.
But look around us today. There are signs of life springing forth all around us. As Zephaniah assured the people that their penance was over and God’s salvation was near, there are signs that God is at work here, today, not only in the greening of the church, but in the people who surround us, in the prayers that unite us, in the meal that feeds us, in the light of the candle of joy that shines before us.
God will have the last word. On this day God’s Word to us reminds us that God is already in our midst as we prepare for the incarnation of God to come, bringing needed transformation to our hearts.
Because of God’s love and even because of God’s judgement, even as we sit with the reality of a world gone wrong, even while we still sit with illness, pain, brokenness as our companions on earth, we CAN rejoice, we CAN shout AND exult, because God’s abiding presence with us gives voice to the hope and the acknowledgement that the joy God brings is not the claim that, for now, there is no suffering. God’s promise today and the prophets’ invitation to rejoice, shout and exult in the Lord does not mean that God is blind to the ways in which we continue to hurt, continue to sin, continue to oppress others, continue to fail to acknowledge with our lives the reality of the dawn of God which breaks upon us. Rather, the light that shines in the darkness, the light that breaks the bonds of our sorrow and hopelessness, is the light of Christ that assures us that new life is coming to live among us in the form of a savior who will show us the way to live.
The same God who intimately knows us and who knows our fears and failures sends us abundant hope and promise:
“Do not fear…The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” ….”
Do not fear” is not a plea, but a declaration.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah,”
“Do not be afraid, Mary.”
Later, on a night not long from now, in the story that the evangelist Luke tells of a night of fear and pain and dis-ease, we will hear the words, “do not be afraid…I am bringing you good news of great joy.”
And then, another Gospel proclaims at its end, “Do not be afraid…he is not here, for he has been raised.” (Matt 28:5-6)
Zephaniah and Luke join all of the voices speaking throughout the scriptures in a persistent, insistent biblical refrain. “Do not fear” is repeated over and over again because human beings are afraid of many things. But by God’s Spirit, they invite us to have faith; to believe that God is with us and for us, and God is preparing us for a new reality of living as God’s faithful people. God declares that we shall fear no longer, because God will not only bring victory over the enemies all around us, but also those deep within. God will join us in rejoicing and song. God will join together a wide variety of people in singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
We can rejoice this day because we can trust that God will restore the broken, destroy the fear, and bring to rights the cosmos and all that inhabit it, all the creatures God so dearly loves.
And so, by the power and promise of God, we are confident as we listen again with the words of the apostle Paul:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
*Additional texts this Sunday are Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, & Luke 3:7-18.