Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14–20 | Isaiah 12:2–6 | Philippians 4:4–7 | Luke 3:7–18
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:7-8a).
Today we mark the third Sunday of the season of Advent, and we also reflect on the theme of Joy: which along with Hope and Peace is so essential… but often misunderstood.
And what a great passage from our Gospel reading to help us contemplate joy, am I right? I mean, what brings ‘joy’ to mind quicker than calling people a “brood of vipers!” But as strange as it may seem, John’s passionate words of warning do have quite a lot to tell us about joy… about the particular understanding of joy that Christians have, and where we can find it.
I think it might be helpful to remember right off the bat that we can all to easily confuse joy with happiness. Both words can be used to describe a positive state or experience… a ‘good feeling’, that most of us want more of in our lives. But many people today think about and pursue happiness in ways that have little to do with what the Christian family would recognize as joy.
This time of year, there can be all sorts of pressure to create a ‘happy holiday’… to pour ourselves into pursuing the things that are supposed to make us feel great: special meals, gifts and gatherings, practicing treasured traditions… all the things that pull at our heartstrings, and that bring a smile to our faces.
At least for a while. At least until the food runs out, and the dishes start pilling up… ‘til the gifts are all given, and the guests are starting to get on our nerves a bit. Now I’m no grinch. I really love Christmas, and I’m looking forward to sharing in all these good things. But we all know the good feelings they bring don’t last forever. They’re lovely… but temporary. And so happiness has often become connected with feeling good in the moment. With experiencing or holding onto an enjoyable state ‘hear and now’. Which means we have to keep looking for more ways to be happy, or maintain the good times as long as we can. To make our ‘now’ the best it can be, again and again.
This pattern goes way beyond the hype around the holidays. We can see something similar in the way people talk about ‘seizing the day’: striving to ‘make the most of each moment’, and to just pursue whatever makes them happy. Again, there’s nothing wrong with looking for fulfillment, or living each day intentionally. It’s probably better than wasting the time and energy we’ve been given. But I think there is often the problem of becoming too focussed on the ‘here and now’… of losing sight of what’s come before, and of where we are headed. When we’re caught up in trying to find happiness over and over again, we can forget or ignore the bigger story, and our own place within it.
But what I want to call Christian Joy is not based on our feelings or experiences ‘here and now’… this joy a gift that comes to us from the Holy Spirit, and that is deeply connected to our faith: to trusting in what the Living God is up to, not just ‘hear and now’, but for all of time.
This joy can be seen in our first reading today from the Prophet Zephaniah, who calls God’s people to rejoice for:
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival” (Zephaniah 3:17-18a).
The Living God Himself will rejoice over them with gladness. The prophet proclaims this good news to God’s people, telling of how Yahweh has promised to show mercy, to rescue them, and set everything right. But our reading today is not the whole story: it follows strong words of warning that the Lord would first deal firmly with the sins of His people… that it is being made right with the Living God that will be their path to joy. His good news of rescue, and redemption would also involve His people being remade. No longer pursuing whatever ‘makes them happy’, but finding joy in what is right… in being made right.
In this light, John’s words of warning don’t seem so out of place anymore: he stands in the line of Israel’s prophets, calling for God’s people to repent… to turn around and reject the lies that they had come to believe, and turn instead to the Lord who longs to share His joy with them.
One of those lies that John brings to light is still a big problem for us today: the lie that human happiness comes from what we can acquire. Whether we’re talking about possessions, relationships, experiences, insights, or whatever… time and again, we’re told to believe: “if I just have…” fill in the blank… “then I’ll be happy”. What ways have we believed this lie? What do we assume will bring us lasting happiness?
Right now, I could answer: “if only we stay in Level 1 of our Province’s COVID-19 Winter Plan for Christmas… THEN I’d be happy.” But again, for how long? Until the next challenge? Until the next unmet desire? Until the next heartache? Until the next distraction? How much of our lives do we spend chasing after the things we think should make us happy, only to get them, and find ourselves still longing to be satisfied?
John calls us to turn away from this lie… and instead to turn to the Lord: to have our hearts, our desires, our lives realigned with the Living God which opens us up to take part in the joy we were created for… and created to share.
When asked what it looks like to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”, John told the crowd to not seek their own comfort and happiness, but to care for those in need: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors, who made their livings at their neighbour’s expense, and the Roman soldiers who used their position and power to simply seize what they wanted, John told them to not take more than their due… to be satisfied with their wages. This was all a huge part of what John believed it meant to live one’s life in line with the Lord. For John, living God’s way was inseparable from living well with those around us… with actually loving our neighbours, not just doing what makes us happy.
But John does not settle for telling his listeners to take better care of one another. He points them to God, and to the one God will send to ultimately set things right. Looking back to the prophets, John reminds those who had gathered (and us as well) of God’s promise to come and rescue His people… to reclaim their hearts, and restore their fortunes. John looks beyond the ‘hear and now’ to the coming of God’s Messiah, His anointed one, who will bring the Holy Spirit and purifying fire to remake His people once and for all.
Jesus is the one John was waiting for… the one he points us to who has come near to save us and our world. To set things right at last between us and God by dying on the cross, and rising again from the grave. In Him, death has been defeated. In Him, we find God’s forgiveness. In Him, we are offered New Life… enduring peace and hope… forever! In Jesus, God has drawn near to us to draw us all close to Himself, and also to draw us into His work of reaching out with His love to those around us.
We have been told again and again that if we just had ‘this or that’, then we would be happy. But in Jesus, God has already given us absolutely everything! Not just for ‘here and now’, but for all eternity.
When this reality… when this beautiful truth is remembered… when we begin to grasp the scope of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the joy of the Lord can begin to break through to us… no matter what else we’re going through ‘here and now’.
When we know and trust in Jesus Christ, and all He has done for us… even as we face moments of grief, of sadness, and pain, we can rejoice. Not because these things don’t matter, but because we know our place in the story. Looking to Jesus, the Risen Lord, we know how our story is going to end. And we know the One who is with us ‘here and now’, and will be with us forever.
We can and should be thankful for the things that bring us happiness: for everything that we enjoy, and helps to brighten up our daily lives, and for the special moments and seasons that we eagerly anticipate. But let us remember that in Jesus, we have been given a source of joy beyond compare… one that has the power to sustain us when our ‘here and now’ is hard to bear: the joy of sharing the New Life of God, both ‘now’ and for all time.
With this in bigger picture in mind, I’ll close with these words from the Apostle Paul:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. 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.” Amen.
 Read Zephaniah 3 in it’s entirety.