Joy and a Brood of Vipers: December 12, 2021

December 16, 2021

Advent 3, Year C                                  Zephaniah 3:14-20                                                     

I have been ordained for 16 years now and  it’s taken me about that long to grow accustomed to the lectionary readings that we read every Advent.  Despite the fact that I had been going to church every Sunday for my entire life, I remember looking at the readings assigned for the Sundays during Advent when I was first ordained and thinking, what in the world is going on here? These don’t make me feel good.  Why is there so much John the Baptist?  We need more feel good stuff, more joy because this is supposed to be a joyful season.  Isn’t that what they say, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”  Finally, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent we get a little joy in the first few readings.  But we are still stuck with John the Baptist calling us a “brood of vipers.”  So I will start with the other readings for now.

            Zephaniah…now that is an interesting one.  The Book of Zephaniah is only three chapters long.  We know little about the author.  Some believe that Zephaniah was writing and preaching right after the reign of a horrible king, which explains the first two chapters detailing how awful everything is. It might be hard to believe based on our reading for today, but Zephaniah is considered one of the gloomiest parts of the Bible.  In fact, the 2nd verse of this book is, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord.” That is how bad things are.  The prophet concluded that God’s only option for this land and these people was total destruction.  Remember, God promised never to do that after the great flood.  Things were so bad, Zephaniah thought complete destruction was the only option.  Just start over again.          

            The Book of Zephaniah was written after Israel and Judah split.  Israel had been conquered and Judah was on the cusp of being conquered.   Zephaniah seemed to have little hope.  But as is so often the case in the books of the Bible, something shifts dramatically in the middle of chapter three.  After the accusations, the judgment and the warnings, suddenly there is joy.  “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart; O daughter of Jerusalem!”

Christmas 2020–no inside service, but we still decorated.

This reading comes up every three years right at this time, but never has that line struck me so profoundly.  We went months without meeting in person and then several more months without being able to sing.  While we remain masked when we sing, I now realize what a gift we have been given for this Christmas.  We get to sing Christmas carols on Christmas.  Do you remember how much we longed for that last year? Sure, many of us look forward to Christmas carols every year, but it’s so much more meaningful when we know what it’s like to be deprived of them, when we know what it’s like not to be able to sing aloud and rejoice. 

Yet, it remains a little awkward.  We are still wearing masks and trying to be careful.  We are still in the middle of a pandemic that is supposed to be long over. How can we truly sing with joy? How can we shout in exultation when shouting is dangerous?

            That is what is so astonishingly appropriate about this reading from Zephaniah.  This joy that comes in chapter three is that much more incredible because it’s not supposed to be there.  Why? Because nothing seems to have changed.  Judah was conquered. The Hebrew people still struggled mightily.  But God decided to show up anyway.  God’s presence broke through the fear, the sadness and even the hate.  That is true joy—joy that is grounded in God’s presence. 

It’s the same in our reading from Philippians.  Paul was writing from prison.  He knew there was a good chance he would be executed. He had every reason to be sad, angry and anxious.  But he was able to tell the people to rejoice and not to worry.  Why?  Because, “The Lord is near.”  That is what Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians.  That is what Zephaniah also said 100’s of years before, “The Lord is in your midst…”  And while John the Baptist is kind of scary and intimidating, he was saying the same thing in our Gospel today, “God is coming and that is good news.” That doesn’t mean there won’t be hard times. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to prepare, repent, try to be better.  It means that God is coming no matter what.

Joshua has been talking a lot about Santa’s list and I confess we have as well.  But I finally said, “You know Joshua, I don’t know what Santa will do. But I can promise you that we will give you presents no matter what. Because that is what we do as parents. We love our children, no matter what.  That is the kind of love that God has shown us over and over again  over the course of human history. Unrelenting and completely unreasonable—love.

We have no idea if the people of Judah ever repented or changed their ways.  In the end, it wasn’t about them.  It was about God choosing to love them no matter what.  I read a quote in a commentary that I just loved. It said, “…true repentance bows in helpless submission in the face of this great forgiveness.”[1] 

Sometimes we have to know what it is to be forgiven before we can find the strength or courage to ask for that forgiveness, or even know that we need it.  Sometimes we have to experience utter desolation to understand joy. And sometimes, our voices have to be silenced to know what it truly means to sing.

[1] Andrew H. Bartelt, “Third Sunday in Advent,” in Concordia Journal 11:6 (Nov 1985), 227.