The Adventurous Lectionary – The Third Sunday of Advent – December 13, 2015
This Sunday we celebrate joy. Yet, this joy must come in the waiting. As I contemplate the scriptures from the Third Sunday of Advent, it is the Sunday of Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ (November 22), and I am still reeling from the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris. I feel under threat and am tempted to let the reptilian brain take over. I ask myself: How can we celebrate a day of wholeness that has not yet arrived? How can we sing of restoration when whole nations grieve and our own nation is on high alert? Is it possible to see the larger arc of divine providence, gently and non-coercively moving through the ambiguities of our personal and planetary history?
Zephaniah celebrates the dawn of a new day, a day of restoration in which God is even singing. The captives of Israel are free; and the exiled are returning home. The prophet celebrates the joy of homecoming, and the celebration of a people’s healing. Yet, this homecoming celebration involves the painful awareness of what has been and the tragic losses the exile’s families experienced. Past pain can’t be denied, but a new day is upon us. As we read Zephaniah’s celebration, what in us needs to be healed and restored? Where do we need to hear the divine lullaby of reassurance or the divine shout of celebration? What promises will sustain us as we share in the hard work of personal and planetary transformation?
Isaiah promises that “with joy you will draw from the waters of salvation.” The prophet experiences joy at God’s presence, and at the Holy One, now moving in our midst. God has done glorious things after a time of trial. God is bringing healing and liberation to the people. Joy is the only response to God’s faithful providence. And so we ask in our personal, congregational, and communal lives: What waters of salvation do we draw from? Where do we experience God moving in our midst?
In Philippians, Paul counsels the community to “Rejoice in God always.” Writing from prison, Paul identifies joy with an ongoing presence of God’s intimacy. God is near to us, as near as our heartbeat. God’s harvest of righteousness (Phil. 1:3-11) is on the horizon. Though writing from the uncertainty and inconvenience of a jail cell, Paul is joyful as he looks at the larger picture. His hope is in the One from whom no human actions can separate us. His hope is in a holy interdependence, a providential presence, that moves through every event, patiently and faithfully bringing forth the best even from difficult situations.
Paul’s joy is theological. God is near and God will sustain us. It is grounded in God’s providence that will eventually have the final word for persons and our planet. Paul also presents practices of joy for the Philippian community and us. The practices of joy include: gentleness, constancy in thanksgiving, commitment to prayer, petitionary and intercessory prayer, and seeing our anxieties in light of God’s ultimate restoration of our lives. While joy comes as a grace, it is sustained by spiritual practices that keep God’s providence before us in every situation.
Luke’s description of John the Baptist doesn’t initially sound like good news. But, beneath John’s difficult words is an invitation to the joy of companionship with God. John’s message is good news because it says we can recognize our illness and discover a cure. Spiritual illness can be as devastating as physical illness. Moral illness can be as damaging as chronic illness. In the context of our waywardness, John says that we can find the right path, change direction, and share in the joy of expectation, for the Messiah is near. John presents us with the joy of transformation. We can let go of the past and become a new creation.
Today, we celebrate God’s vision of wholeness in a fragmented world. This is not denial nor is it cynicism, but the gift of a larger perspective in which joy comes from identifying with God’s cause in the ambiguity of history. God’s cause will not be defeated and while we wait for our own and our world’s transformation, we can joyfully choose to act our way into a new way of seeing, living, and loving.