Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-18

One of the signature hallmarks of the Advent season is that it is a time of celebration and joy. We sing joy-filled songs with enthusiasm, adulation, and praise. And by the way, if you missed last Sunday’s choir concert, you certainly missed a treat!

We light candles, trim trees, and deck the halls of our homes and offices in order to invite a sense of goodness and cheer. We say merry Christmas, happy New Year, glad tidings, joy to the world – all expressions of wonder and hopefulness right smack in the dead and dark of winter.

We dress our children up in funny looking costumes and drag them out to pageant rehearsals even when they don’t want to come. We bribe them and make all kinds of deals; take pictures and videos that are sent all over the world.

We go all over town or spend hours before a device in pursuit of just the right gift; spending countless time, energy, and money because we know that the right gift at the right time for the right person or persons can make all the difference in the world.

The right gift for the right persons, carefully planned and thought out, having paid close attention to their likes and dislikes, their interests, and proclivities is really something special.

We long to see the expressions on their faces and how they respond because it sends the message: I care about you. You are loved and of great value and worth it all. My joy is complete in your joy.

And when this happens, we feel good about it too. Have you noticed that? How good we feel as the giver as well as the receiver? How insane it all is?

Joy to the world the Lord has come…
He rules the world with truth and grace…
Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy![1]

We need some joy in our lives, don’t we? Something beyond what our eyes see and ears hear. We need to not only have hope on the inside but joy on the outside expressed and spilling over.

For joy, unlike happiness, is not contingent on the present moment or circumstance. It transcends where we are now and witnesses a future not yet seen: hope of what is possible. We have every confidence that the thing in which we hope will prevail in the end.

Joy can make a bad situation good. In the midst of the chaos, mayhem and confusion, we recognize another reality, another truth. And while it might be far off, it will come to pass in time as we declare our willingness to make it so.

In our gospel lesson this morning, we find John the Baptist. You remember John don’t you?  The wild, vagabond-looking guy dressed in camel’s hair coming up out of the wilderness.  And John is preaching and trying to prepare the people to receive the new thing that is about to take place.

And people are coming from over the Jordan valley; from small towns and villages to hear his message of repentance and change and they were hearing it as good news.

And the people are asking: What shall we do? What shall we do? In response, John said: “If you have two coats you must give to anyone who has none. And if you have food, you must give to those who do not.”[2]

Was John being literal here? I don’t know; we each have to decide. What I do know is that we have a Coat Drive here at our church for people who have no coat at all this winter. I know what it’s like to stand in front of the closet and fumble through to decide which coat among coats. I know what it’s like to buy yet another out of a whim just because it’s cute.  And I know that if I gave away one or even two, I would barely miss them at all. How about you?

And I also know that tomorrow morning when I come to work, I’m going to wear a coat and I’m going to bring a coat. It’s not too late for you either. The church is open 7 days a week; you can still drop off a coat or bring it next Sunday or the next.

I know what it’s like to sit down to good food; better yet, to throw away good food every week because I get tired or bored with it. It just sits there on the counter or in the refrigerator because I have so much and I can change my mind so easily. I know what it’s like to spend crazy amounts on lunch or dinner in this city. I know that I have never known the pinch of hunger but there are people all around me who have.

The tax collectors came also. Luke writes “even the tax collectors” for they were a special breed notorious for exploiting people; but they came and asked: “Teacher, what should we do?” John said: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”[3] Don’t over charge people, don’t cheat, don’t take advantage.

And soldiers also: “And we, what should we do?” John said: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.”[4]

After being baptized, the people were asking John: “What shall we do?” Isn’t that what we want to know as well? How shall I do in order to live out my faith in this world at this time?

What shall we do? John said, think of others, share what you have, the ordinary things you take for granted in the day-to-day, don’t be greedy, be fair and just, treat others well, be honest. Love one another, be respectful, be kind – in the day-to-day.

This is the good news of the gospel. This is what it means to have joy in our world – people giving and receiving, receiving and giving – caring and sharing, humanizing one another, not holding back or hoarding, collecting more, more, more, more, more – but giving away.

It’s almost easy to forget that the Christ-child was born amid social and political turmoil.  He was born under violence and the threat of death. We forget that his mother and father were poor refugees; had to flee for their lives. They had no money and that was a reality; and there was no room for them in the inn. We forget that the stable or cave in which he was born carried with it the stench of cow and sheep dung. That he came into the world at risk in much the same ways that millions of children are at risk every day – as a 7 year old dies at our at our borders and many more.

Advent, my friends, is about asking the hard questions. What shall I do? It is about selecting the very best gift of all: choosing joy and making someone else’s joy complete.

“O come let us adore Him. Christ, the Lord.”[5]

[1] Joy to the World, United Methodist Hymnal, Isaac Watts, 1719
[2] Luke 3:7-18
[3] Luke 3:14a
[4] Luke 3:14
[5] O Come, All Ye Faithful, United Methodist Hymnal pg. 234, John F. Wade, Trans. By Frederick Oakeley, 1841.