Third Sunday in Advent - Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18


Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say Rejoice!

Rejoice and sing praises
Rejoice and give thanks
Rejoice and exult with all your heart!

Now, that's more like it.
Finally, here are advent lessons that are in touch with the Christmas Spirit.
That's what it's all about these days.
As Andy Williams tells us in the malls and on our radios,
“Its the most wonderful time of the year . . . It’s the hap-happiest season of all. With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and caroling out in the snow There’ll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
But what if it’s not?
For some, the Christmas season is the most difficult time –
and for all of us, there can be difficult days.
Christmas can be a terrible time of the year
if you are grieving the loss of a loved on
if your family is broken and relationships painful
if all the things you feel you must do cause stress and worry rather than joy.

I found myself saying to my husband this past week,
“I don't even like Christmas anymore.
All the expectations just get to me,
and bring out the worst of my controlling nature.
I don't want to shop anymore,
or worry about what the boys are going to get for Christmas,
or how I'm going to get the house cleaned in time for the family to come.”

It's the most wonderful time of the year.
Except when it's not.

And that's where our lessons for this morning come in.
Because Paul and the prophet Zephaniah are not talking about Christmas Spirit.
They couldn't care less about six kinds of cookies and pictures with Santa.
Paul, and the psalmist, and the prophet, are talking about a different joy.
They are talking about the joy we have in knowing that God is with us.
God is in our midst – that is the cause for rejoicing.
When Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians,
in which he encourages them to rejoice and give thanks,
he was in prison.
He didn't know what would happen to him, when or if  he would see his friends again,
but he knew God was with him every day.

Even John the Baptist, in his grumpy, eccentric way,
is in the end delivering good news.
Most of us don't deliver good news by calling our listeners a pit of snakes,
or ranting about axes and fire.
But John has news – amazing news – urgent news.
And he wants to be sure his listeners are ready to hear it.
He wants to be sure his listeners are ready to see Jesus when he walks in their midst -
and for John, that time is only days away!
Soon Jesus will show up at the Jordan to be baptized,
and John's promises will be fulfilled!

On Wednesday night I read an essay by contemporary preacher and writer William Willimon,
and I'm going to share a part of that with all of you this morning.
“Consider what we do at Christmas, the so-called season of giving. We enjoy thinking of ourselves as basically generous, benevolent, giving people. Christmas is a season to celebrate our generosity. We prefer to think of ourselves as givers – powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. “Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we had little to do with God's work in Jesus. God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn't think of it, understand it, or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it. A gift from God.”
Christmas is about God's gift to us. Period.
God coming as a baby – a baby –
        to be in our midst in a new and strange and powerful way.  
Willimon wants to draw us out of our expectations,
our images of our selves and of God that serve our own egos,
and show us the real, pure gift God gave at Christmas.
His message is something like a 12-step program, telling us that the first thing we need to do to receive Jesus is admit that we are powerless to fix our lives and our world by ourselves.
He is kind of like John, pinning us to the wall with his diagnosis of our failures,
then saying, “The one who can truly save us is coming – be ready to receive him!”

Barbara Brown Taylor is another contemporary preacher, whose memoir Leaving Church is an incredible story of her journey into the priesthood and then out of it. One of the soul-killing things she found in church was the fights her denomination – Episcopalian – has shared with ours in recent decades, primarily over questions of sexuality. I think her testimony has a great deal to say to us as we prepare for Christmas:

“[Finally] I realized just how little interest I had in defending Christan beliefs. The parts of the Christian story that had drawn me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts. 'Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . 'Behold the Lamb of God . . .' 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock . . . ' Whether the narratives starred hayseed shepherds confronted by hosts of glittering angels, or desert pilgrims watching something like a dove descend upon a man in a river as a voice from heaven called him 'Beloved,' Christan faith seemed to depend on beholding things that were clearly beyond belief, including Jesus's own teaching that acts of mercy toward perfect strangers were acts of mercy toward him.” Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.
A baby will be born – and he is the one who will save us..
He will be Emmanuel – God with us.
He will be our joy, our cause for rejoicing.
Because he will be Emmanuel even in our dark valleys of grief.
He will be Emmanuel even when our families seem full of harsh words or cold silence.
He will be Emmanuel even when the pressures of trying to just keep everything together for one more day, and maybe even add a bit of Christmas decoration or a holiday party, seems too much.

Today we lit the pink candle – the candle of Joy.
Now, I am not generally a fan of the color pink.
But this pink candle captured my imagination this week,
as did the off-hand statement of one of my colleagues when we met Tuesday for bible
study that we should “carry a bit of pink with us” in these busy days.
So, I brought for each of you a bit of pink, like the one I am wearing here on my stole.
Please take one, and keep it someplace where you will come across it in the next few weeks -
pin it to your coat, or put it in your billfold or on a bulletin board.
And if someone in your family isn't here today,
or if you know someone who might appreciate a bit of pink, take two,
and share the good news of Jesus, Emmanuel, with someone else.
And when you come across your bit of pink –  Rejoice! For God in Jesus is with you, right now.
That is our Advent joy.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lutheran Church of the Servant, Santa Fe             December 17, 2006

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