Let us pray:
Blessed Mother, teach us to say yes to God. Amen.
This is Joy Sunday. If we still spoke Latin as a Church, we’d know it as GaudeteSunday in part because before it tells us not to worry about anything, Philippians says: Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say, Rejoice! Gaudete (rejoice) in Domino (in the Lord – Domino’s pizza is not the Lord’s pizza)! Gaudete in Domino semper! (You may know Semper Fi.) Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always! Iterum dico gaudete. Again, I say, Rejoice! Never thought I’d use my Catholic school Latin as an Episcopal priest and I’m sure none of the nuns ever thought I’d be a priest. In addition to Gaudetein Philippians,
Philippians also says:Do not worry about anything. (4:6)
Zephaniah tells us: Fear not! (3:16)
Isaiah tells us: I will trust and will not be afraid!(2:12)
And in the Gospel of Luke John the Baptizer says: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (3:7) Or in other words, “Maybe you should be a little bit concerned.”
Our lectionary stitches together four disconnected passages to quilt a whole new image. We can see each distinct patch and recall its original setting and we can see the new image they craft when woven together.
Zephaniah is an image of the end of the world, its breaking and its remaking. It’s set in a time when things are actually going pretty well for the moment. The young king Josiah, buttressed by his Queen Mother who raised him and ruled for him when he was too young to rule on his own and the prophet Huldah who certified the first written collection of scripture as God’s word, was reforming the worship practices of the community. But Zephaniah knew the world doesn’t stand still and fidelity to God doesn’t shield you from hard times down the road. Rather fidelity to God–and more importantly God’s fidelity to us–ensures we are accompanied through hard times. God is with us and will be with us, whatever may come. Zephaniah knew the Babylonians were coming and that was going to look and feel and smell like the end of the world with the temple on fire, bodies rotting in the street, and the people taken into captivity or left behind with nothing. It would be the end of the kingdom of Judah, the last piece of Israel, as an independent nation. From then on one nation or another would hire and fire kings and governors to serve their own interests. It is in this context that Zephaniah preaches to Zion, Jerusalem, representing the people of God as God’s beloved daughter: Fear not Daughter Zion! The Holy One, your God is within your midst!When the worst happens–and it will happen–you are not alone. God is with you, in your very midst.
To respond to Zephaniah our lectionary uses Canticle 9 from Isaiah 12:
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Holy One of Old is my strength and my might;
God has become my salvation.
Now Isaiah is a century earlier than Zephaniah and the Babylonians weren’t a threat to anybody; rather it was the Assyrians in his time. It was the Assyrians who first broke the back of Israel, swarming the northern monarchy like locusts, deporting the survivors from nine out the twelve tribes all over their empire to be swallowed up, some tribes were never heard from again. In the face of one of the bloodiest regimes on the planet–their barbarism inspired Vlad the Impaler who took his name from their favorite form of execution–in the face of an unstoppable war machine, from the losing side Isaiah proclaimed the salvation of God. Not in some far-off future, not even the saving work of Jesus. Isaiah prophesied about his present moment. They needed God then and She was with them. Isaiah said: God has become my salvation. Here, now, among the survivors and refugees. Even in their defeat, God has saved God’s people from total destruction and annihilation.
In sequence or out of sequence these texts reveal the pattern of God’s presence with God’s people in times of trouble, whatever and whoever the cause. For two thousand years, Christians have read these texts through the story of Jesus and seen him in them to the exclusion of their original contexts. But it is those original stories that teach us God is trustworthy, God is with us, and God is our salvation. In this season of gift giving it is worthwhile to remember that the gift of scripture is truly the gift that keeps on giving. It speaks to us in each generation without losing the meanings it has held for previous generations, even when those meanings don’t fit our world or our circumstances.
This rich understanding of scripture is also our gift to the world as Anglicans and Episcopalians, but not everyone appreciates complexity and mystery. On this Joy Sunday, sitting in St. Mary’s Chapel, in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, I want to invite you into some of that mystery by asking you to imagine with me what these texts might have meant to her, for the reason we have these texts grouped together is that the lectionary framers thought they spoke to the Advent of Christ’s birth and the Advent of his return.
One of the traditions of this Sunday is to put a pink candle in the Advent wreath for the Blessed Mother, in whose womb lay the reason for our joy. (Some churches even have rose pink vestments for today. We’ll have to ask the next rector about that.) How might the young pregnant not-yet-married Mary have read these scriptures about God’s presence with Israel in times of trouble in light of the very real fear that she could be stoned for adultery?
Both Isaiah and Zephaniah have the wonderful line: “God is in your midst.” And because of the way Hebrew works and because Zion, Jerusalem, is feminine, that “your” is feminine. Zephaniah says: The Everlasting God, your God (woman), is in your midst (daughter). Isaiah says: Great in your midst (daughter) is the Holy One of Israel. And if Mary knew these scriptures–and truly, we have no way of knowing what she knew though we do know that Elizabeth knows scripture, so maybe…so if she is one of the reasons Jesus knew so much scripture–and using my sanctified imagination I’d like to believe she was–then perhaps, in her hour of need she read or recited these texts to herself hearing in them God’s promise and presence not only to her, but within her. She could easily have read the text as speaking to her much like we do today.
Mary is not only a daughter of God, she is also a daughter of Zion; Jerusalem was her spiritual home. She was the daughter of Zion waiting for the first Advent of Christ and she could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s also why Paul could write from a jail cell: Gaudete! Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul, also God’s child waiting for the second Advent of Christ could say, “God is with me and within me because of the power of the Holy Spirit through baptism.”
And here’s where that wild-eyed locust eater from the desert, John the Baptizer, comes in. John had a vision of the world to come, its breaking and remaking, similar to that in parts of Zephaniah we did not read. He sees it coming soon and he is eager for it and for the people to get on board. And for whatever reason–it seems like we’re missing part of the story–John is impatient and frustrated with the people: Repent already. Let’s get this show on the road. I mean real repentance. This is not a performance for your benefit. There’s no playing along. In the prophets we read today, God’s presence was a comforting embrace; in the Baptizer’s sermon it is unquenchable fire burning away all that cannot stand in the presence of God.
What accounts for this difference? In all three texts the people of Israel are at the mercy one foreign oppressor or another. In the first two, God comforts the people in their affliction. But in Luke John calls out those who had power over others and were abusing it. Some of them were Israelites like the tax collectors and some were Gentiles like soldiers who could have been from anywhere in the Roman empire. He called them out for extortion and brutality and he called out those who had more than they could wear or eat while others were going without. For John you simply could not sign up to follow him or Jesus later and exploit God’s people. You can’t receive God’s abiding presence in baptism and continue being a crook, or greedy, or indifferent to needs of people around you. That abiding presence of God available to us through baptism is also what links these passages.
How do we read theses texts today, in our own time? What do they have to say to us about the things that matter? Who are the people of God to whom God is speaking I am with you, even in your midst? Who is God calling to rejoice? Who is God telling to get their ethics straight because you can’t live out your baptism and exploit other children of God? Is God offering us the tender assurance of salvation or is God bringing the fire?
On the one hand we have God’s faithfulness to her people and on the other the demand that we be faithful to the requirements of the gospel. The Baptizer gets in our collective face to tell us to get off our collective pews and do the work we were called to in baptism. We were not called to lay around and wait for Jesus to come back. We are to welcome him with the fruit of our labor and our repentance, that means putting an end to systems and practices that oppress God’s people.
If there’s anything that these lessons agree on it’s that no child of God is disposable in God’s sight and God’s presence with us is not just about us. But God is also with migrants in the desert, holding them in her arms as they die of thirst before they’ve ever really lived. God is in Yemen where starving children shelter in battered buildings bombed with ordinance stamped with USA. God is in prisons with the justly and wrongly convicted. God is in the street with gay and trans teens thrown out of homes and families because some folk can’t see God’s image in and presence with them.
I admit I was annoyed with John the Baptizer when I started to prepare this sermon. But when children are in tents and cages with numbers being written on their arms and dying of heat and exhaustion and thirst and taken from their parents and being told their parents don’t want them anymore, I want to stand in front of the churches where Christian folk defend those practices and blame desperate parents for being desperate and get up in their faces and yell: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’ [or Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior]; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [And by the way, Abraham’s children are not just Christians and Abraham’s children are not God’s only children.] 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John the Baptizer is an old school in-your-face prophet. He calls it like he sees it: I see what you’re doing to God’s children and I’m here to tell you God will chop your branch off of the family tree and set it on fire. That too is the work of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if John was so wild because he like Dr. King knew that he would be killed for preaching the gospel God gave him.
Our prophets teach us God is our salvation. They also teach us She is the salvation of those whom we exploit, those who are oppressed in our name, and those whose death, hunger, thirst, and starvation are paid for with our tax dollars. How can we rejoice in these days? We rejoice in the God who promises to deal with those who oppress in Zephaniah. We rejoice in those repented at the prophet’s preaching. And we rejoice in being God’s agents in the world, in Zephaniah’s words, gathering the outcast. Repent, then rejoice. Amen.