Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, Rejoice. Is
Today the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday. It gets his name from the antiphon for the introit Psalm I read to you. This antiphon is from the Letter to the Philippians, our New Testament lesson for today: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
In the Hebrew Scripture lesson, the prophet Zephaniah calls for shouts of joy: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” It is because the King of Israel is in her midst. The prophet Isaiah also tells people to rejoice and sing the praises of the Lord, “for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”
The season of Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Lord that anticipates the “coming of Christ” from three different perspectives: the physical nativity in Bethlehem, the reception of Christ in the heart of the believer, and the eschatological Second Coming. All three will cause rejoicing to burst forth from hearts and lips.
Now, in the Gospel reading, there comes the straight-talking prophet, John the Baptist. He is yelling at those who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!” It doesn’t sound like he’s rejoicing, though, calling the gathering “congregation” a bunch of snakes.
John down at the Jordin River is baptizing and proclaiming repentance and the coming of the King of Righteousness, but curiously asked them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” If I were there for baptism, I would probably have answered you did to John’s rhetorical question. John teaches the absolute need for repentance to prepare for the coming Messiah.
He tells the crowd not to take their status as children of Abraham for granted as a guarantee of salvation. He exhorts them they need to bear fruits from repentance. He warns them that an ax is waiting by the tree’s roots, should no fruit be borne. It is not who they are or their ancestors are, but what they do is most important.
Those who genuinely repent will live their lives with a focus not on self but for others, turning away not only from their former lives, twisted by alienation and violence, but toward deeds of compassion, justice, and love. John also made clear that the time for this transformative repentance is now.
When people ask John what they must do for repentance, he cuts straight to the chase. If you have more clothes or food than you need – share with those who have little. The tax collector – collected no more than is prescribed for you. The soldier or police – do not extort money from people by false accusations. Much more straightforward and easier to understand than the almost seven hundred rules in their tradition of the elders.
The people want to change and are waiting for their Messiah to come. With John’s urgent teaching, they suspect him to be that Messiah, but he knows his call is to clear the way for the real one to come. John introduces the coming of Jesus, guiding people to see God’s way. He tells the people that the Messiah, the Christ, is coming with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus the Christ will come with the power and great might of God to be among us. The great fire is to cleanse us from our wrongdoings when we turn from ourselves to others, our neighbors. Putting off change until tomorrow is not an option, for the tree that does not bear the fruit of repentance is about to be chopped down. Those who are made new in the waters of John’s baptism are called into immediate, decisive action.
There is a witticism that people like to go to Episcopal churches because there is the absolution of sins every Sunday. They say that people can do whatever they want and sin during the weekdays and then be absolved every Sunday. Is that what confession and absolution are, only doing lip service? It is probably these
kinds of people that caused John to call them a brood of vipers. In the confession, we say, “We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.”
We are truly sorry, and humbly repent is a confession from the heart. It is not lip service; it is not just showing up and reciting the Confession of Sin.
Evidence that a need for a new way in the twenty-first century is all around us. Every passing day seems to bring a multitude of tragedies: a bombing, a plant explosion, a terrible shooting, a devastating hurricane. Around the globe, news reports remind us of continued civil wars, the death of hundreds of low-wage workers in workplace disasters, elected leaders murdering their people, the ravages and violence of the drug trade, and the horrors of human trafficking. Each of us probably knows of more personal stories of grief and suffering in this time of COVID. This can all be overwhelming; however, we are not called to fix everything, only to turn around so that we see what God is doing in our midst, conforming our practices to the reality of God’s rule. John’s challenge to the crowds two thousand years ago is still the challenge that is before us in the twenty-first century: to repent, to turn around, to live for others, to get involved in the work of restoring relationships. So the question is still the same today: “What are we to do?”
So, what are we to do? – Our guide for turning away from ourselves is our five baptismal promises in the Baptismal Covenant, Beginning on page 304 of the book of common prayer:
1. Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?
2. Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
3. Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
4. Will you seek and serve Christ to all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
5. Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?
A sixth promise has been added and is no less important: “Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?”
John the Baptist teaches us to care for those in need, seek justice, and have integrity. Those are part of what following Jesus the Christ is about and part of what the Most Rev Michael Curry calls the way of love, true repentance to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, rejoice!