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Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-4, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Did you know that this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, is often called Gaudete Sunday? Gaudete means “Rejoice”—it’s the first word in the Roman Catholic Latin Mass for the third Sunday in Advent—the Sunday on which most churches using Advent wreaths light a pink, rather than a purple candle.

Advent is a somber season of waiting, maybe even penitence, isn’t it? Now we are called to rejoice. When pastoring, I sometimes used the candles to represent the sweep of history: First Sunday—Creation; Second Sunday—The Patriarchs; Third Sunday—The Prophets, through whom a great light of hope brightened the sky from deep purple to pink, the glow of impending dawn.

Some have simply noted that we have passed the halfway point of Advent, so we take a moment to rejoice. Whatever the reason, it is true that waiting often alternates between hope and despair.

This Sunday’s epistle from Philippians, with its clear call to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” is often read on Gaudete Sunday. Joy is present at some point in the message of each of the prophets, the prophetic message being prominently visible during Advent. Joy almost always shines through somewhere when we are touched by the message of a God of Love, but it is a joy rooted in a deep sense of the tragic in human lives, in society, in each one of us.

In general, the prophets addressed three situations: (1) a time when threat was on the horizon, with a message of warning to the people to repent and change their ways; (2) a time when collapse was actually happening, or imminently near, a time to be prepared for disaster; and, (3) a time after the disaster, in exile, with a message of hope for restoration and strength of live through these times, sometimes with some restoration already underway, leading to rejoicing. Whatever the historical times, such patterns recurred in the life of the Hebrew people and the early church—and have, in a sense, been with us always. Trying too hard to figure out the exact historical circumstances addressed by each biblical message can distract us from the universality of these cycles and the messages needed in each.

If we take the book of Zephaniah at face value, we see that Zephaniah traces his lineage to King Hezekiah, a reforming king. He is also a distant cousin of Josiah, another reforming king. Does he find hope in such a tradition of reform? Who are the reformers that give us hope? Zephaniah is often seen as a contemporary of Jeremiah, and/or one who is prophesying while the Scythians are a threat to Jerusalem. My favorite commentary goes on for several pages trying, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to sort it all out.

Today’s reading from Zephaniah offers a message of joy as judgment and oppression are removed, the outcast and lame, and all those who need hope, find it. It is a time to “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Isaiah’s message, although almost certainly not from the same time or circumstances, looks to a coming time of joy, when God’s people will be able to shout and sing.

Gaudete Sunday—a Sunday to celebrate joy in the midst of our waiting, because, through it all, God will be our strength—even our home. In all circumstances, we can drink deeply from the wells of God’s salvation.

But where are we, right now, as those cycles of history continue to grind their way through the years of our live? John the Baptist, in the reading from Luke, brings us back to earth, reminding us that reform is a dangerous undertaking. It will mean the downfall of some. The way things work now will be challenged. Where will we land when it is all over?

John’s call, in the midst of all this, is to focus on what we are to do in the here and now. Begin now, even in these days of waiting, to share what you have, to treat people fairly. When people do that, true reform will take hold, and that will be good news indeed. Hope is no longer a pink candle, a glimmer of light on the horizon. It walks the city streets and the poverty-stricken hollows in the rural hills, saying today is a day to start rejoicing.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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