Sermon, December 13, 2015

St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort

Zephaniah 3.14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

Our opening hymn called us to “rejoice”. Today’s readings are about joy! It is Gaudete Sunday – Joy Sunday! What is all this joy about? And for that matter, what is joy? How does one experience joy? Some have facetiously said, “Joy is a blue-eyed blonde!” Maybe. Maybe not.


Merriam-Webster defines “joy” as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires” ( Couldn’t that definition also apply to happiness? Yet, I suspect most of us would agree that happiness and joy are two different things. To get a better sense of the meaning of joy, listen to these quotations:


Rumi, the Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic said, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a revered Christian mystic, said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian, Hindu poet and mystical writer, said: ““I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Mother Teresa, a Christian mystic, said: “A joyful heart is the normal result of a heart burning with love. She gives most who gives with joy.”

Mark Twain, who had a lesser opinion of religion than the above, said: “To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.”


Unlike most other emotions, it appears that joy is spiritually grounded. One who pursues joy for the sake of joy will likely find that joy eludes her grasp. Like happiness, joy appears to be a byproduct of some other activity – doubly reflected activity in that it reflects the best of the human spirit, which in turn is a reflection of God’s Spirit – of God’s light shining forth from within us. Those who know God should be privy to an awareness of this double-reflection; those who do not know God may experience joy, but may not be aware of its doubly reflected nature.


How do our readings reflect joy? Zephaniah was a prophet during the reign of King Josiah in Jerusalem. Like Amos, he prophesied the coming of the “Day of the LORD,” the day when God would judge the nations. The book of Zephaniah is only three chapters; the portion we read today is the good news portion. The rest of the book is pretty grim.


The advent of God’s presence is cause for rejoicing. Despite God’s judgment, God promises to leave a remnant – “a people humble and lowly” (Zeph. 3.12; NRSV). It is they who will sing aloud and shout; it is they who will “rejoice and exult with all” their heart, for God has taken away their judgment. God rejoices over them with gladness and renews them in God’s love (Zeph. 3.14-17; NRSV).


In Canticle 9, from Isaiah 12, we read a psalm of praise for God’s deliverance. As a result of this deliverance, the people “shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation” (Isaiah 12.3) The people will sing praises for the great things God has done; the inhabitants of Zion will “ring out” their joy (Isaiah 12.5-6).


In Philippians 4, St. Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again…Rejoice.” Gaudete Sunday is so named on the basis of this reading. Paul assures us “the Lord is near.” Consequently, we are not to worry. We are to make our requests known to God in prayer with thanksgiving and supplication. In doing so, we are given the peace of God which surpasses all understanding and we are assured that God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.


And in Luke, John the Baptist takes the people to task: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” From this statement, it is apparent that John believed Jesus was coming into the world to judge the world and usher in the Messianic reign. When this did not happen, John sent word from prison asking Jesus if he was the Messiah. John was expecting a very different Messiah from the sort Jesus turned out to be.


John further told the crowd to bear fruit worthy of repentance, that is, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, etc.; he further warned that every tree which does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.


Three groups come to John: the common people, tax collectors, and soldiers. The people asked, “What then should we do” (Luke 3. 10; NRSV). The message is clear! “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3.11; NRSV).


Luke then tells us the tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked, “Teacher, what should we do” (Luke 3. 12; NRSV). Imagine that! John’s preaching must have had quite an impact! The tax collectors were Jews hired by the Roman Empire; they had to pay the taxes up front, then collect taxes from the people. This means they were very wealthy. If the tax collectors could collect more than was required, they could pocket the surplus. “Teacher, what must we do? … “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (Luke 3.13; NRSV).


And the soldiers asked, “And we, what should we do” (Luke 3. 14; NRSV). And John tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3.14; NRSV). In other words, do not abuse your power for personal gain.


John called the people to repentance that righteousness and peace might abound. What is the message for us? If we have more than we need, we are to share that others may have what they need. And if we are in positions of power, as were the tax collectors and the soldiers, we are not to use our power in ways that create poverty. If we believe, and if we repent, we must act as though we believe and have repented – we must bear good fruit.


As John was aware the people were wondering if he was the Messiah, he told them, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” (Luke 3. 16; NRSV). In other words, “I am not even worthy to be his slave.” John continues, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3. 16-17; NRSV). Then Luke ends the passage with this statement: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3. 18; NRSV).


Being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire may be good news, but what about that “unquenchable fire” bit? The fire of the Spirit is unquenchable. This is good news! Our chaff is burned away that we may be pure wheat.


I love the way John Foley, S.J. comments on the nature of joy in relation to this passage:


God’s gladness sings out joyfully at every instant, and his song is the earth, the galaxies, the people and plants and chemicals and soaring hawks and encircling planets, droplets of dew and heavy black holes, youthful beauties, ancient wisdoms, and everything else that exists.


We are God’s song. … People in long rows gather to be baptized in expectation of the Savior who is to come. Each segment (the crowd, the tax collectors, the soldiers) ask John the Baptist the exact same question: “Teacher, what should we do?”


“Let your life sing,” he answers.


Let it sing.


Let your life be what it is: God’s joyous, interleaved and always consonant melody, sounding outwards in deepest joy. Share your cloak and your food, collect only what is owed, do not extort, do these things and you will be sounding the true melody of your life.




When you sing from your soul, you feel God’s presence in you, and you experience joy – deep and wondrous joy. Advent is a reason to sing for joy.



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