The third Sunday in Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday. The rose candle is lit – if one is used – and the readings rejoice in God our saviour. Gaudete! Rejoice always, as the letter to the Philippians commands.
And then there’s John the Baptist, speaking with a forked tongue of the wrath to come and good news for snakes. Rejoice.
Context may not be everything, but it might help to remember that John’s exhortations are all uttered against the backdrop of messianic expectation, that God will come imminently to judge and to save the world from judgement. Rejoice, then, vipers.
Zephaniah, even back in the seventh century before the Christian era, wrote of the same messianic expectation. The rest of his book reflects a much more immediate scenario, in which the world of the prophet is going to hell in a handbasket, and he fears that God will end up doing the very thing that God has promised never to do again: that God will repent of ever creating us and our world of sorrows and sin. It is against this backdrop that Zephaniah offers a new vision of a messianic age, one of a new heaven and a new earth, free from besetting sorrow and sin. Rejoice, survivors of the Flood.
As for Paul, writing to the Philippians from prison and in chains, he urges the Philippians, concerned for his fate and their own, to rejoice in the Lord always. They are embroiled in some kind of internal conflict: he urges them to agree in the Lord, to be gentle with one another; rejoice. Against these backdrops the message of John: good news for poisonous snakes; seems a little less incongruous. Rejoice, anyway!
So what should we do? the people ask John. First of all, he says, don’t make things worse. Don’t presume upon the privilege of your ancestry. Don’t act unethically. Don’t be greedy, stingy, or fraudulent. If you can manage these, then you might have a go even at making things better. Share what you have. Distribute your surplus to those who are running at a deficit. If you have two coats, give one to someone who is cold.
John is talking about cleaning house, preparing the way for the Christ who is to come. He wants the people coming to him to understand that their hearts will receive him more easily if they are clean, and open; if they have done an inventory of their dirt and cleared it out, repenting of sin and submitting to the cleansing ritual of baptism. As we clean and decorate our houses for Christmas, we might think of John’s exhortation to clean our hearts, clean up our acts, clean out our lives, make them ready for the Christ; not paying lip service to the rituals of Christmas, but preparing a place fit for Christ to come to our table and sit with us, Emmanuel, God with us.
Are we presuming upon our privilege, of race or of background, at the expense of others? Let’s see if we can’t air out some of that dirty laundry. Are we cheating ourselves or others out of the best parts of ourselves, out of greed or fear or denial of our need for one another? Let’s clean out that closet. Are we sharing as we should? Let’s count our coats. You know those moments of anxiety when a guest is invited and we are not ready? Instead, says John, rejoice to receive him. Be ready. He is coming. Rather than cover up the cracks with Christmas decorations, let’s do it right this time (I am preaching to myself here, you understand).
If John addresses our personal preparations, then Paul is all about our interpersonal arrangements. Let your gentleness be known, he says; let the peace of God, which passes all understanding, speak for you; keep your hearts and minds safe from unnecessary conflict, from disputes that do not matter, that distract from the good news of the gospel of Christ. Let go of envy, do not let insecurity provoke you to argument, or anxiety lead to irritation. Do not let difference divide you, when we are all made in the image of the same God. We are the image of God and of one another. Be at peace, says Paul. Pray for all that troubles you; pray for those folks who trouble you; be at peace.
And then Zephaniah goes beyond the personal, the interpersonal; he goes right to the political landscape, and the fallout from kings who defy God and depend instead upon their own power; people who worship at the altars of false idols and forget the one true God. In an age of war, confusion, and corruption of the character of religion and public life; in an age much like ours, you might think, Zephaniah exhorts the people to rejoice in God, whose way is salvation, whose will will be done, when all else is said and done.
He is coming, says John. Make ready yourselves so that you might receive him without fear, and rejoice.
He is coming, says Paul. Make ready your lives. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8). Be at peace with one another, so that you might receive him in peace, and rejoice.
He is coming, says Zephaniah. Make ready your world. Do not follow after idols or leaders whose will is opposed to God, and do not be afraid, for God is greater than any of these; rejoice.
When all else fails, rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice anyway. Christ will come.