There’s a whole lot of rejoicing going on in our readings for today. In fact, there’s even a name for this Sunday of rejoicing: Gaudete. Gaudete is the Latin word for rejoice, and it’s taken from the 4th chapter of Philippians we read earlier when Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (4:4). And even old John the Baptist gets into the mood by the end of today’s Gospel when we learn that he “proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3:18).
As I look around this world, it takes some effort to find much cause for rejoicing. We have families as well as unaccompanied minors camped at our borders seeking asylum. Children have been separated from their parents, perhaps permanently, just because they were brought here seeking a better life. And a little 7-year-old girl died this week, caught up in this system. The US-backed civil war in Yemen has sparked one of the worst human rights disasters in recent memory. Black and brown people are subject to disparate treatment in navigating public spaces and encounters with law enforcement. It’s an unusual week when we don’t have an incidence of serious gun violence somewhere in this country, and on Friday, the sixth anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the school had to be closed due to a bomb threat.
I preached on these very texts six years ago, two days after that unspeakable event in Newtown. At the time, I was in New Haven in divinity school and had classmates serving internships in that devastated community. It should have been the tragedy that changed everything, but it wasn’t. I looked back this week at what I had preached about rejoicing in the wake of such horror, and I think my words then are still valid now.
We sometimes get so caught up in the urgency of the present that we forget that there really is not much happening now that has not come before, even if our resources for causing harm can be more catastrophic than ever in the history of the world. At the time of the prophet Zephaniah, life was not exactly pleasant. A contemporary of Jeremiah, Zephaniah wrote at a time when the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen a century before and they could see on the horizon that Judah, the southern kingdom was about to undergo the same fate. An invasion from the north threatened to wipe them out, and after a long recitation of woes upon the people, Zephaniah then says what we heard this morning – yes, all these bad things are going to happen, but don’t be afraid. God will not abandon you and will bring you home. So sing aloud and rejoice. God is here, even in this time of looming catastrophe.
And Paul? He was in prison when he wrote his letter to the church in Philippi. In his lifetime, Paul had been beaten, tortured, shipwrecked, and imprisoned, yet he could still write some of the most beautiful words in all of scripture:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 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. (4:6-8)
And what about John the Baptist who seemed to do nothing but go around yelling at everyone? Notice, though, that John did not go into Jerusalem to call people names. No, he’s the hairy, smelly dude living in the beat-up Volkswagen bus down by the river. To get yelled at by John the Baptist, you have to go to him! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d go out of my way to find this guy. Why would anybody?
Well, I think you would have to be pretty desperate, wouldn’t you? When the world feels turned upside down, tragedy strikes, things we thought were firm and unchangeable get scattered like leaves on the wind, and none of it makes any sense – that’s the kind of desperation that might lead us into the wilderness to find someone like John.
It’s the kind of desperation that puts us on our knees and makes us realize that nothing that we have – power or possessions or privilege or prestige – none of it will protect us from sadness and sorrow, from tragedy and failure any more than it will make us happy or carefree or keep our children safe or our marriages together or our health strong.
When we’ve hit rock bottom, that’s when we go out in the wilderness to hear crazy John shout at us. But don’t forget: Luke says that it’s Good News. No, it doesn’t sound like good news, this business about throwing the chaff in the unquenchable fire, but what John is announcing is that the Messiah has finally come. The long-hoped-for savior of Israel. This is why these desperate people have come out here to be insulted and criticized. Messiah. The Anointed One. He will make all things right, but we need to be ready, and in order to be ready, we have to make some changes. And John is going to tell us what we have to do.
Repent. Repent. Repentance is not about beating ourselves up. It’s about turning around. When nothing makes sense and whatever is going on in our lives and the world around us seems upside down, turn around. Turn away from our broken selves and turn toward a new way of being. “One who is more powerful than I is coming.” Turn toward that one.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, no stranger to tragedy and suffering, included a litany in his African Prayer Book, part of which says:
When will we ever learn, when will they ever learn?
Oh when will we ever learn that you intended us for Shalom, for wholeness, for peace,
For fellowship, for togetherness, for brotherhood,
For sisterhood, for family?
When will we ever learn that you created us
As your children
As members of one family
The human family— Created us for linking arms
To express our common humanity.
God, my Father (and Mother), I am filled with anguish and puzzlement.
Why, oh God, is there so much suffering, such needless suffering?
I am dumbfounded and I am bewildered
And in agony –
This is the world
You loved so much that for it
You gave your only begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus
Christ, to hang
From the cross, done to death
Love nearly overwhelmed by hate
Light nearly extinguished by darkness
Life nearly destroyed by death –
But not quite –
For love vanquished hate
For life overcame death, there –
Light overwhelmed Darkness, there –
And we can live with hope.
(Tutu, Desmond. An African Prayer Book (New York: Doubleday, 2006) 88.)
Our scripture readings today tell us that the Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. Go on. Go out in the desert and get yelled at. It may be hard to hear, but our very lives depend on it. Even in the uncertainty of these days, we can turn toward the light that we know is coming into the world.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)
Turn around. Our savior draws near.