Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
“Rejoicein the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” We are still a few days away from the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. I will keep encouraging us all to try on this Advent spiritual fast, but I know, most of our friends are having parties and enjoying the Christmas hustle. After all, who really wants to light Advent candles, pray fervently, anticipate and expect? We would rather just drink Eggnog, eat holiday cookies, and watch all those Hallmark Christmas movies. You may say, “Eric, just give in, hang the tree, turn on the Dean Martin and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, and Deck the Halls.” “After all, it is week three of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), which is traditionally a relaxation of the fast so, let a little Christmas Spirit into the sermon please.” OK, I will relent. Let’s talk about Christmas joy, rejoicing in the Lord, and Joy to the World.
Wikipedia defines joy “as a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” C. S. Lewis, that great Anglican writer made clear distinctions between joy, pleasure, and happiness. He wrote, “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy. Joy has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it (joy) would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.” (4)
Lewis was saying that joy is lasting and is outside our control, and pleasure is fleeting and something we work to achieve. My fear is that Christmas for us has become more about pleasure, when the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is the moment in history when God came among us in our poverty, despair, and grief and brought a joy that lasts throughout eternity, a joy that will change us.
Repentance and the Unquenchable Fire
In today’s gospel, John the Baptizer is preaching repentance again saying, “You brood of vipers bear fruits worthy of repentance.” You may ask, Eric, if we our theme is Joy on Gaudete Sunday, “what does repentance have to do with it?” The notion of repentant joy was confusing for the crowds, the tax collectors, and even the soldiers that John confronted with these prickly words. That first century crowd understood as we do, that repentance has something to do with being sorry for sin, but they did not understand fully, that turning, a change, and a new life, requires some kind of follow up after the “I am sorry.” Real repentance requires a life change, a turning, a heart conversion, and a new way of being. The crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers naively asked John, “if I repent, then how will I know that the change God is doing in me will be real and what does that change look like?” Literally they asked him, “What then should we do?”
John told the crowd, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He told the tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Finally he told the soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” In other words, John told this crowd that the results of repentance will change the heart and change how you have been living each day of your lives. Through the change God that begins in us, we will find real joy, not fleeting pleasure per se, but real lasting joy.
John then gave them this ominous warning, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John was talking about how God works in us, to nudge us toward new life in Christ. In those ancient days, a bread baker had to literally separate the wheat heads from the stalks (chaff) in order to grind the heads to make bread. In that process, the chaff was not discarded as unusable garbage, but it became the fuel source for the fire in the oven. Even though the baker sorted the good and bad parts of the stalk, she used all of it in the process, and the family was able to make the food that sustained their lives. The fire was fueled by the chaff, and at the same time, it burned away the garbage that was inedible.
God works like that in us, with unquenchable fiery grace, God sorts out the hidden junk and illuminates the dark places of our hearts, burning away the chaff of our misguided pursuits of self-indulgence, self-absorption, relational deceit, inequitable power and the character flaws that keep us from being in right relationship with God and with our neighbor. God does not throw us out like garbage when we stumble and fall, but by grace, he burns away the “chaffy” parts of our lives, and transforms us into life-sustaining, life-changing, and life-giving members of the Body of Christ.
As members of that Body, we are ambassadors of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Bread of Heaven and the only food that can feed the souls of the world. God begins a work in us, preparing us for the turning or change of repentance, and through that new life we are led to say, “alright, I am being made new, so, ‘what then should I do now’.”
What then should we do?
John provided the answer, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In other words, when God’s work of purifying fire ignites change in use, we should live differently. When the church is repentant, we must do what we do best, which is to open our doors for prayer, offer solace where pain abounds, and do so by serving people and offering them the hope of God’s love “not only with our lips, but in our lives.” We will know when God is working in us to change and transform us, when our repentance changes us to leave our four walls and bring Good News to our neighbors, and this church is doing that right here and right now.
Monday afternoon from 3:30 to 6:00 pm, a team of 10-15 St. Monica’s ministers, through the work of their hands and out of the love of their hearts, made it possible for 93 of our neighbors to have enough nutritious food to sustain them for another week. Also, each month, on the Second Thursday 9:45 am to 1:30 pm, a ministry team of 10-15 St. Monicans go to Immokalee and feed anywhere from 70-80 women, children, and men at the Guadalupe Soup Kitchen. Also, a team of 5-7 of us on the second Wednesday of the month from 4-6pm, distribute diapers to 35 economically challenged families in our own neighborhood, which helps them free up precious funds to pay for rent, food, and utilities. When God’s unquenchable fire burns away the chaff of our lives, and when we are led to turn, repent and change, we are drawn to respond to that change with action. We literally become spiritual and engaging bread for the hungry, hope for the lost, peace for the anxious, and joy for the despondent, and we all have a mission to do.
Change and new life has less to do with membership, and more to do with repentance (or turning). The crowds said, “We have Abraham as our Ancestor,” but John told the people that benign association was insufficient for salvation. Our mission is not to merely to show up, get our bread fix, and then go home as if nothing else has changed. God’s unquenchable fire will not allow us to go unscathed by fiery grace.
We follow the One whose “mission is to ‘bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and send the downtrodden away relieved.” As repentant disciples, we ask, “Teacher, what then should we do?” I think our joy will be found when we recapture a missionary spirit in the church. Our joy will be found when we not only gather, but when we go and share God’s love with our neighbors. The church’s real mission in the first place begins when God’s unquenchable fire ignites a spark of change in us that leads our hearts to be turned away from ourselves and toward others. Real and lasting joy happens when our passion for mission is to feed, restore, and love our neighbors.
Simon Sinek, an author and reluctant Christian, wrote in his book “Start with Why” these words, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress: Working hard for something we love is called passion.” (3) If you want real “Joy to the World,” I mean real joy, not only in the next few weeks but in the years to come, then find the ministry passion God has in store for you and work hard at it. Spend some deliberate time in the remaining days of Advent and prayerfully ask God, “Lord show me where my spiritual gifts abound, and where they will meet the world’s needs.”
God seeks his ambassadors to be the change the world needs. Sinek wrote, “The world we live in is not yet the world I want to live in. But I am an optimist and I can still clearly imagine that world. We must stop at nothing to find those who will help us turn the tide. We must not shout at those with whom we disagree. We must not point fingers and cast blame. We must not throw stones. Instead, we must become what we imagine. We must work together to inspire each other and inspire those around us.” (5)
As the faint tones of “Joy to the World” begin to slowly ring in the distance, while the fast relaxes on Gaudete Sunday, and yet repentance and fiery grace nips at the fleeting passions of our holiday celebrations, God is working to transform our hearts toward those around us are left in despair, poverty, isolation, and pain. As Advent fades and Christmas hope comes into view we are left with this question, “Teacher, what then should we do?”
1 Burghardt, Walter J. “Just A Church Or A Just Church?.” Living Pulpit 9.4 (2000): 10-11. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 Dec. 2012
2 Willimon, William H. “What Then Shall We Do.” Christian Century 99.39 (1982): 1246-1247. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.