Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 12 December, 2021, The Third Sunday of Advent. Texts for this Sunday: Zeph 3:14-20, Canticle 3 (Isa 12:2-6); Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:7-18.
14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
Today I want to talk about joy and how it is, and should be, a major part of our relationship with God.
There are other things we should take joy in, of course: our families, our skills, our hobbies and crafts, and our friends, even those friends that we sometimes find annoying. You must have a few friends like that.
I met up with an old friend recently, someone who doesn’t seem like much of a believer, but who is fascinated by the fact that I’m a minister. “Have you preached any good fire and brimstone sermons lately?”, he asked me. “I like a good fire and brimstone sermon.”
I replied that fire and brimstone sermons weren’t really my style, and that as an Anglicans, we don’t go much for talk of God’s wrath and judgement. “Pity,” said my friend. “As a Scots Presbyterian, I like a good fire and brimstone sermon.”
Well, if my annoying friend could be here today, I’m not sure I could find much in our lessons to satisfy him, because there just aren’t the makings of a fire and brimstone sermon. I went through the lessons and highlighted what seemed to me to be the key words, as I often do. I noticed a lot of verbs, telling us what to do and feel as God’s people. Here’s what I found.
From the prophet Zephaniah, and you’d think an Old Testament prophet would be good for some wrath of God stuff, I found these verbs: “sing”, “rejoice”, “exult”, “renew”, “gather”, “save”, “praise”, “bring home, and “restore”.
From our canticle, from Isaiah, I highlighted “saves”, “trust”, “sure defence”, “give thanks”, “cry aloud” and “ring out your joy”. From our epistle, from Paul who is sometimes caricatured as being as dour as any Scot, we find “rejoice” (repeated twice), “do not worry”, and we are told to show our “gentleness”.
The closest we come today to a barnburning sermon is John the Baptist, frightening the heck out of the crowds in the wilderness with his talk of the axe at the tree and the coming fire. But here’s the thing about John as a preacher. His message is, fundamentally, optimistic. Luke says that John “proclaimed the good news to the people” (Lk 3.18). John preaches that if we repent, meaning if we turn our hearts and lives to the one who is coming, to Jesus, then we will bear good fruits (Lk 3.8).
In the dialogue between John and members of the crowd, we see what those good fruits might look like. We see glimpses of a world where those who have share with those who don’t. We see a world that isn’t run by corruption, fear, and brute power. In this respect, John is preaching from the same script that Israel’s prophets all preached from. In the short book of Zephaniah, which begins as a real fire and brimstone sermon, Zephaniah says that the doom of unfaithful Israel can be averted its people “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the lord, who do his commands, seek righteousness, seek humility” (Zeph 2.3).
The thing that the prophets all understood is that justice, hope, peace all come from answering the call of God’s kingdom. It’s the call of God’s kingdom that gives rise to our deepest joy and wellbeing. That’s why today, the Third Sunday of Advent, is still sometimes called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word “Gaudete”, meaning “be joyful”.
Sure, there are plenty of things to worry about. The word has plenty of messages that are, in effect, fire and brimstone sermons, using the “if you don’t do X, then terrible thing Y will happen” structure. You know them:
“If we don’t get Covid under control, more people will die.”
“If we don’t address the opiod crisis, more people will die.”
“If we don’t get global warming under control, the planet will die.”
Absolutely, there are lots of things we should care about and fight for. Indeed, as subjects of the kingdom of God, we should fight for the poor, we should feed the forgotten, we should do our part to save creation. But my friends, of all the things we should worry about, we should never, ever, fear an angry god. That’s not the god of Israel, or the God of Jesus.
Advent is about preparing for the coming of the God who dwells among us, who stands with us, and who dies for us. Advent is about opening our hearts to the one who loves us and rescues us.
Let me close with this wonderful quote from Martin Luther King, from his “Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day”. Dr. King said, For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine, then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart.
My friends, this Advent, let us make ready to go to the manger with nothing but laughter and joy in our hearts. Amen.