Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
After learning I was preaching this morning, I turned to the lectionary and read over the first lesson, from Zephaniah. It is full of rejoicing and the promise that God will renew all things in love. Well that will make for a jolly sermon, I thought cheerfully and then carried on to the gospel reading, where I promptly banged my head against John the Baptist’s famous "You brood of vipers!" speech and some of my twinkle went out.
I then read up on the book of Zephaniah, as he isn’t one of the better-known prophets and his writings from the 7th century BC encompass only a few pages in the Hebrew scriptures. And it turns out that the jolly nice reading we had from him this morning in fact comes at the very end of a book full of doom and gloom, prophesying a terrible day of reckoning for all who have turned away from right relationship with God. "Their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung," he says … and that’s one of his milder statements. Well, I know we don’t sit down and address Christmas cards that reflect these kind of sentiments ("Dear Brood of Vipers, I hope this finds you well"), so why must Advent be riven with this accusatory tone?
After all, this isn’t Lent, the season we expect to take on self-improving prayers and practices in the lead up to Christ’s crucifixion. This is Advent, in which we anticipate the joy of Christ’s birth. So what’s with the finger-wagging?
Self-scrutiny is, after all, something we often shy away from, because we are usually uncomfortable with the results. At my downtown workplace I recently attended a webinar on the Freedom of Information Act in which we were told that anything we communicated about any particular case must be released upon demand by outside parties involved in that case. All those internal emails we had dashed off to a colleague with quick comments, never to be thought of again, could be resurrected to have the cold light of day fixed upon them. And we were reminded that no privacy legislation in Canada includes any provision for withholding such communications because we or others may be embarrassed by their contents.
I noted the look of dismay on colleagues’ faces as we mentally reviewed our email habits, and I found myself thinking of the prayer we say at the beginning of each worship service, speaking to the God "to whom all desires are known, and from whom no thoughts are hidden." God might have greater access to our thoughts than the privacy commissioner, but it appears the gap is narrowing! And our reaction to that is often thinly veiled panic as we consider all our failings that may be revealed by close examination.
And here’s another example, this time of a handy-dandy mirror with a regular and a magnifying side. It was Mom’s, and I was initially happy to have it, but I admit that my enthusiasm has dimmed. It is not always a morale-boosting experience to flip over to the magnifying side and see your flaws in stunning technicolour.
And yet. And yet. As I watched Dickens' Christmas Carol with some of our young people on Thursday evening, there was that expression of utter joy on Scrooge’s face as he awoke on Christmas morning to find that he still had time to turn his life around. And the exuberance with which he did so would not have been possible without the painful examination of his character the ghosts of Christmas had forced upon him.
Advent is a time to prepare our hearts and our minds. Which means knowing our hearts and our minds. But we are invited into this self-examination trusting wholeheartedly in God’s loving compassion and unconditional embrace. On the carrot and stick scale, we can be assured that God is all carrot.
God does not want us to wallow in shame. And that isn’t just because God is being nice to us. It’s because when we are frozen in shame for misdeeds large or small, historic or chronic, we cannot flourish. We cannot be our best for ourselves or others.
Think of the pain that shoots through us when we put our hand on a hot stove. It causes us to snatch our hand away and reminds us to be more cautious next time. After the pain fades, the lesson remains, but the injury no longer incapacitates us and our hand is back to full function. Shame, on the other hand, is a pain that does not heal. Sadly, it turns into a chronic condition that keeps us trapped in our emotionally injured state. God offers us freedom from that pain and release from all the insidious limitations it puts upon us.
I say insidious, because even our small shames can trap us without us fully realizing it. We might have inadvertently put our foot in our mouth when we were speaking with someone six months ago, and have unconsciously avoided them ever since. We might forego a lovely walk in nature because we have for too long scolded ourselves for not being fit enough. Or perhaps we made a big mistake years ago, and there really is no way to fix it. Maybe we were responsible for an accident, injury or injustice that simply couldn’t be corrected. In the aftermath, perhaps part of us stayed frozen, believing that we are not fully deserving of joy. But we must remember that God’s scales of justice are so different from the ones we create in our minds. God does not want us living in a cage of our own making.
Despite the admonishment from John the Baptist (he’s on Team Stick in this passage, not so much on Team Carrot) the offer of liberation from sin - however you may define it - is woven throughout scripture. Zephaniah turns from his doom and gloom to promise that the Lord will take away all judgments, and that shame will be turned into praise. In our Eucharistic prayer today, you will hear Helen say that Christ "will come again in power and great triumph to judge this world, that we, without shame or fear, may rejoice to behold his appearing."
Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means "rejoice" and you’ll have noticed both Zephaniah and the letter to the Phillippians urging us to rejoice in the Lord always. It’s sometimes called Rose Sunday, as rose, the colour of joy, is used for the candle in the Advent wreath and sometimes in clergy vestments. We are reminded that the end point of this season is joy and to make ready a place for it in our hearts.
So Advent is a good time to examine our life, or review the year past, not because God wants us to beat ourselves over the head, but because God wants us to wake up like Scrooge on Christmas morning, feeling ourselves forgiven for what has been and released into a new life of what can be. But if we want to truly experience the liberation God offers, it helps to know what we want to be liberated from. Hence an invitation into this season of focussed anticipation and calm, thoughtful (not self-flagellating) examination. Each of our lives is unique, and each of the cages we have built for ourselves is unique. Only we can decide what may be hindering us from leading a more fully joyful life.
And amidst this year marked by fire, floor, pandemic and loss, perhaps we need to remind ourselves that joy and happiness are different. As theologian Henri Nouwen said, while happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is "the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that love away."
Given our All Creation Waits Advent theme this year, I would like to close with this Mary Oliver poem, a poem that invites God into our all of our imperfect messiness as we prepare our homes and our hearts for the joyous day of Christ’s birth.
Making the House Ready for the Lord
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice — it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances — but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.