... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Advent 3 Year C
Message December 16, 2012

What is it that We Celebrate?

Text: Luke 3:7-18

We are gathered here this afternoon to celebrate our annual Christmas observance and the birth of our blessed redeemer. Although Christmas day is still 9 days away and we are as yet in the midst of Advent, this Sunday is traditionally known as the Sunday of joy. On this day in places where an advent wreath is used to mark the progress of the season a pink candle is lit. Pink is the colour of joy and amid the other candles of purple or blue stands out as a reprieve from the somberness of the rest of the Sundays.

Notwithstanding this sense of joy however, we are bidden by the Gospel message to search out the reason for celebration. This past Friday I was listening to the CBC program “As it Happens” and they were interviewing, Richard from Newtown CT, the father of one of the Grade 2 students at Sandy Hook school where a crazed 20 year old shot and killed 20 young people and 6 adults. Richard’s son had been among the lucky ones not to have been injured but the tale recounted by his father was a roller coaster of emotional horror and jubilation. He and his wife got the call from the police, a call perhaps one most dreaded by parents – a shooting has occurred can you come to the school. Filled with fear and trepidation Richard and his wife headed to the school where to their great relief they found their son. The elation and joy they felt was “over the top”, “the greatest Christian gift.” In no way to diminish the grief and sadness of the 26 families of those who were killed the sense of joy of the other points out that joy and celebration are really senseless unless put in the context of the harsh realities of the human situation. Celebrations just for the sense of partying or relief have very little to do with true joy. In fact birthday parties and birthday celebration are really just a time to get gifts and be with people. To be of a profound sense of joy we should perhaps instead of receiving gifts be giving gifts to our mothers in recognition of the suffering they endured and gave us life – that is a joy worth celebrating.

That is the joy and call to rejoice that Zephaniah speaks of in the Old Testament passage we hear today. It is a joy resulting from the realization that the Lord has delivered Israel and that true King of Israel, the Lord God, is in the midst of her. The exultation put into the context of Israel’s life would have us read the previous 2 chapters of Zephaniah where we would hear 8 oracles of doom and gloom, of despair and destruction, of death and decay all because of Judah’s slide into debauchery and evil under the reign of King Manasseh. During the 47 year reign of Manasseh idolatry corruption injustice greet lust avarice abounded and the true worship of God became something of a perfunctory ritual.

The realities of the day could only lead Zephaniah to conclude that Yahweh had no option but to destroy creation obliterating the evil that pervaded Judah. But then into this darkness of inevitability Zephaniah has another vision – an oracle in which God has changed the seemingly unchangeable course of events and brings hope. In this hope there is reason for exultation and joy for rejoicing and celebrating. Now even which Manasseh still sits on the throne, his reign is seen as ending and a new era approaches and approaches with none other than Yahweh himself being present. The immediate fulfillment of this would be the reign of Josiah and the return to a proper and meaningful understanding of the covenant and a resulting return to true worship.

That same joy and understanding lies behind the Gospel story of John the Baptist’s address to the people come to see him in the wilderness. We are told that in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, John received his call from God to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It was to be a ministry for preparing the people for a new deliverance by the Lord. And while this new deliverance would be joyous and a cause for celebration, the people had to understand the reason for the celebration. It could not be a senseless time for partying or realization as one might see at a TGIF gathering. No, the people had to understand the deepest level of what was to take place and what it would involve and imply for their future lives. It was to be a life-altering sense of being and thus a celebration of what God was to accomplish in them.

John’s first question to the people, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” was the 2x4 between the eyes. Why have you come here? Are you prepared to hear the words of God? Are you prepared to accept the charge and live from this point onward according to a new set of regulations and morals? These are the soul searching questions which people need to mirror to them the present non-chalant shallow existence of the mundane and ordinary. It is only in a true appreciation of the fallen nature of one’s present that a meaningful change can take seed, grow and mature. John wanted his audience to know and experience that right from the onset. Otherwise their baptism would be as meaningless as a routine bath or washing of one’s hands and feet.

Once the people understood the ramifications of John’s message and we surmise they did from the questions they asked, “What then should we do?” John was able to give them lessons for a proper way to live – a radical departure from the norm of the day.

This new radical lifestyle was to be a moral code of ethics wherein compassion honesty and justice would replace greed dishonesty and injustice. Those who had plenty were to share with those who had little; those in positions of authority were to have mercy on those in subordinate capacities; in business dealings honesty had to supplant dishonesty and greed; in work places integrity and faithfulness to job and fellow workers would replace subversion and discontent. Such a social justice system would alter the course of human existence. And indeed in the 2000 years since John’s call we have seen what such a radical change of human dynamics can bring into the lives of people.

Yet it wasn’t john’s words which would be the final swaying force. John was fully aware of his role as preparer and he would point to the one greater than himself, the Messiah, the one who would be able to evoke a permanency of change in human hearts. And for sure Jesus did that – he succeeded where millennia had never resulted in any great change in the human dynamic. Some might say we still haven’t changed. However, we have changed – perhaps not as much as we ought – but we have seen giant steps. There is so much to be thankful for and in response thereto to be doers and purveyors of still greater things.

We pray that we will never have to face the situation that those in Newtown faced, but maybe we can appreciate both the loss and sadness as well as the relief and joy experienced by those people; and in empathy experience our own great sense of relief and in that truly understand what it is that we celebrate.