December 12, 2021
Today is the Sunday of joy. Like I was telling the kids, the third candle of Advent is the pink one, representing the joy of this season of waiting. That pink is a leftover from when Advent was a season that echoed Lent—and there is a Sunday in Lent that’s also meant to be a little bit of joy during the season. As the days are getting shorter around us, as the busyness of the holidays might be getting to us, and as we might be distracted by all the expectations of the holidays, it’s good to have a day in this season where we just take a moment to remember joy.
Like the joy Zephaniah prophesied about. Rejoice and sing Zion! Why? The great reunion is approaching! He insists on joy because the people of Israel have been in exile in Babylon for seventy years, and the day is fast approaching when they would have a joyful homecoming. These people had lived in a foreign land, unable to go home, for decades.
Many of us can relate to the feeling of being away from loved ones for a long time. This time last year, many of us had to celebrate the holidays remotely from our families in order to keep everyone safe. We didn’t have any way of gathering without the threat of the virus hanging over every family get-together. But this year—this year with so many of us vaccinated, with new medications coming out to combat the worst effects of it, we can actually gather safely. And that fills us with joy! Joy at seeing loved ones, joy at reunions so long delayed, joy at celebrating these holy days in a way that keeps us connected to our traditions. When we light that pink candle of joy, we can all feel the joy of what this season brings.
So it’s a bit of a jarring change when, in the midst of these joyful readings, John interrupts by calling us a brood of vipers. It certainly gets your attention though, doesn’t it? In fact, it was so effective for John’s audience that rather than getting offended at how blunt he was being, they asked him what they should do to repent! And John tells them.
If you have two coats, give to one who has none. If you have food, give to the one who has none. Share what you have with others who have less. And tax collectors and soldiers—the villains of first-century Palestine—what to do? Simple. Don’t extort people. Don’t abuse your authority. Basically: treat each other well, like you would want to be treated.
And I want y’all to pay attention to how the crowd reacts. John’s instructions, so straightforward and precise, are met not with worry or wringing hands, not with uncertainty about whether it’s something that can be accomplished, but with expectation. Joy, of a kind. These aren’t hard things to do: share what you have, and don’t take advantage of others. Repentance doesn’t mean you have to move heaven and earth; you just have to do better when you know better.
This is good news because repentance is doable! Preparing for the coming of the Lord isn’t an impossible task where we have to be perfect, but an ongoing calling to do what you literally are capable of doing: treat others like you want to be treated. We can find joy in that pretty easily. Just think about one of the things we do in this holiday season: gift giving.
Think about the joy you feel when you pick just the right gift for someone. It might not be the flashiest, or the most expensive, or whatever else, but you can see it on someone’s face when the gift you got them is really the right one. There is joy in sharing with others like this. We are made to find joy in sharing with others. We are happier when we are generous, because God has made us to be generous. John, in his crass way, is pointing that out to us.
Let’s take a minute to look at those words, though. John says some pretty tough things to the crowds. He calls them a brood of vipers. He tells them that the ax lies at the foot of the tree, and trees that don’t bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. It’s all very fire-and-brimstone preaching, and it makes John into an off-putting individual. But sometimes we need that kind of in-your-face language to be reminded of the simplicity of repentance.
Sometimes we need to hear where we’ve gone wrong—or even that we’ve gone wrong—before we can know how to change for the better. God sends prophets like John who might use jarring language to get us to pay attention to what we’re doing, to see how we’ve messed up, and show us the way to repentance as we prepare for the Lord. There’s joy in that, because it means that you are worth telling. You are worth correcting when you’ve gone wrong. You are worth reaching out to, being shown a different way, reminded how you were created to be generous and loving and justice-seeking, so that we can all be ready for the day when the Lord comes with joy.
It’s the purpose of creation, after all. We are created to find joy, and God gives us the road map to how we are called to find joy: when you have and you see your neighbor doesn’t, share in your abundance. When you find yourself in a position of authority, use it to build up others instead of getting more of what you want. And when prophets come along, calling us a brood of vipers, we’re called to look at ourselves and find out what we’ve been doing wrong, because repentance is as easy as admitting the wrong and changing the way we’ve been doing things.
So on the Sunday of joy, find it in the goodness of generosity. Find joy in knowing that God considers you worth it to tell you when you’re going wrong. Find joy in working for justice for others, whether in providing for their daily needs or in protecting them from abuses of those in power. Lift up one another, remembering that the beloved community looks like a bunch of people who love each other as they want to be loved, knowing that all love comes from God. Let the generosity God has put in you lead you to bear fruits worthy of repentance, because repentance is as easy as doing to others as you would have them do to you. That’s something to rejoice about.
Thanks be to God. Amen.