The Adventurous Lectionary – The Third Sunday of Advent – December 12, 2021
This Sunday we celebrate joy and transformation. We light the third Advent Candle and celebrate the joy of relationship with God, each other, and the wonder of creation. Yet, this joy must come in the waiting. A precursor to joy is creative transformation, changing our paths, and opening to God’s wider vision, taking us out of ourselves to care for others. The joy we seek is not born of immediate gratification, but the ongoing encounter with an intimate God who has plans for us – for good and not for evil, for a future and a hope.
As I contemplate the scriptures from the Third Sunday of Advent, I recognize that there are many impediments to our experience of joy, not the least of which is the state of the world around us. Earth is in the balance, and many of our nation’s leaders seem hell-bent on putting short-term gain ahead of the well-being of generations to come. We are mired in prevarication and polarization in the public sphere which has infected conversations holiday tables and on social media. For those who are committed to the old ways, to maintaining power a privilege, diversity is a call to division, rather than an invitation to learning. Yet, we are no different in spirit than the authors of today’s scriptures. They, too, dealt with the interplay of life and death, the collapse of the familiar social order, the dishonesty and incompetence of political leaders, and the impact of the machinations of hostile nations. Still, beyond the chaos, they saw the birth of a new order. God is not done with us or our histories. God has a vision of the future that we can join as God’s companions in pathway to Shalom. We must do our part in healing the earth but God charts the moral and spiritual arcs of history.
Zephaniah celebrates the dawn of a new day, a day of restoration in which even God is singing, rejoicing at new possibilities for human and divine adventures. The captives of Israel are to experience freedom; and the exiled are to find their way 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, nor can our complicity in our nation’s collapse be forgotten, but still 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 listen to the ambiguous histories of our own lives and nation? 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? Where do we find hope and joy in our current national story?
Isaiah promises that “with joy you will draw from the waters of salvation.” Jump in! Healing waters abound and they right where we are! 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? Where do we find refreshment and healing in our troubled time?
In the reading from Philippians, Paul counsels the community to “Rejoice in God always.” Writing from prison and to a faithful but marginalized and at-risk community, 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. (For more on Philippians, see Bruce Epperly, “Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide.”)
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. Joy is not accidental but comes through the interplay of theological vision and spiritual practice. 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.
In our time, we need spiritual practices of joy. We need to “think on these things” – the affirmative, life-giving, and hopeful – rather than being mired in hopelessness, negativity, and fear. We need to watch the “breaking news” and yet present in our words and self-talk an alternative vision of hope and reconciliation. There is much to provoke anger and hopelessness, and some anger and realism is essential to awaken us to the dangers we face as a nation and planet. We need the healing of the mind to empower us to transform the world despite the apparent hopelessness of our situation. Philippians is a guide book of spiritual affirmations, many of which you can add to your own daily prayers and self-talk: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me; God will supply all my needs; I have the mind of Christ; I partner with God in working out my salvation; I shine like a star in the sky; God’s harvest of righteousness is coming to fruition in my life. We can be joyful warriors, confronting evil and working for justice and earth-care without demonizing our “opponents.” This joy is social as well as personal. We must be pathfinders in a politics of joy, grounded in affirmation, hospitality, and reconciliation.
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 repent our hardheartedness and self-interest and move from self-interest to world loyalty. We can let go of the past and become a new creation. We can perform spiritual surgery, pruning away whatever stands in the way for God’s abundant life for ourselves and others.
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.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of over sixty books including the Christmas trilogy, THE WORK OF CHRISTMAS: THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS WITH HOWARD THURMAN; THIN PLACES EVERYWHERE: THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS WITH CELTIC CHRISTIANITY; and I WONDER AS I WANDER: THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS WITH MADELEINE L’ENGLE as well as WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; and PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIE ACTIVISM.