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Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Rejoice in God always; again I will say, rejoice. This is what the third Sunday of Advent is about. Rejoicing. Joy.

          This week, three members of our Social Justice Committee, Sherry, Bill and Susanne, took the opportunity to meet Kim, the Coordinator of the Shelbourne Community Kitchen, in the midst of a busy day, and present her with a gift basket including a woven scarf from Lynn and a card from Susan, and other gifts in recognition of the 8th anniversary of Kim’s working for the Kitchen and all that has been accomplished through her leadership and service. It was a moment of surprise and great joy and not a few tears for Kim and everyone at this thoughtful and well-deserved recognition. I saw Kim later in the week and congratulated her on the anniversary and Kim spoke again about the joy she felt and received in this recognition. Thank you and well done to everyone involved. What a cause for rejoicing. What joy!   

          The prophet Zephaniah invites, even commands us to sing! And shout! And rejoice and exult with all our hearts over all that God will do in the midst of Jerusalem and with all God’s people. Sing, shout for joy together!          

          The song from Isaiah proclaims trust in God’s salvation and strength, inviting joy and thanksgiving, to sing praises, to sing and shout for joy, for great in our midst is the Holy One. Give thanks, sing, shout for joy together.

          Paul writes to the Philippian community, Rejoice in God always; again I will say, rejoice. In gentleness, without worry, making known our requests to God, for God is near, that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. That’s cause for, that’s a way of rejoicing together always! Again, rejoice!

          The Gospel may seem a lot less joyful. It’s John the Baptizer after all. Not known for joy, more for name calling, harsh judgements, warnings, and commands to faithfulness. And yet, people respond, coming out to be baptized by John and filled with expectation. And despite John’s unflinching judgement and calls for repentance, the people ask, “What then, shall we do?” And John’s response is clear and practical about “bearing fruits worthy of repentance,” in sharing our second coat with anyone who has none, and so also our food with any who are hungry. And unique to Luke’s Gospel, and the assurance God’s invitation to repentance and new life is open to all, a tax collector asks and John responds, take no more than is due, and to a soldier who asks, do not extort money from the vulnerable but be satisfied with your wages. Are these instructions by John of radical generosity, merciful justice, and having enough, cause for rejoicing, for singing, shouting for joy? The Gospel writer concludes, John proclaimed the “good news” to the people. Rejoice, shout, sing for joy in this good news in waters of repentance and our being reformed in love for our neighbours and all creation, all by God’s grace.

          So, how is your joy, your reason for rejoicing on this Third Advent Sunday? I know it is not universal just because we call it a Sunday for joy. So much has happened and is still happening with flooding and recovery, with rising Covid-19 cases and growing pandemic fears – again, and rising drug poisonings and death. And extremes of weather and tragic loss for others in the US and elsewhere, a young man killed in a traffic accident just up the street, in refugee and migrant crises, in starvation in Yemen, Afghanistan, and conflicts in Ethiopia and Syria. And more personal challenges in grief and illness and depression and relationship struggles and life challenges, making joy not easy to find. Joy illusive, inappropriate, absent for some.

          But that may not be so disconnected with the Bible’s words on this Advent joy Sunday as we might think. The book of Zephaniah prior to today’s reading condemns the failings of God’s people in Judah and Jerusalem. The prophet nearing despair, concludes in one instance that God will have to destroy all creation. The result will be a terrible day of judgement, a “bitter” day “of distress and anguish,” “of ruin and devastation,” of darkness and gloom,” “of clouds and thick darkness,” “of trumpet blast and battle cry!” Not much cause for rejoicing, no joy. It is that much more astonishing that the book of Zephaniah concludes with today’s words not of despair but of hope and joy. Less likely original to the prophet but written later to both affirm the prophet’s warning of devastation and proclaim God’s gracious response in the midst of God’s people, taking away judgement, fear, disaster, shame; and gathering, restoring and bringing home God’s people. And so the prophet’s invitation: sing, shout, rejoice with all your heart because God is in our midst, rejoicing over us with gladness, renewing us in God’s love, even in the midst of despair.

          The Psalm from Isaiah concludes the first 12 chapters of the book, that include both God’s judgement of the people’s failings and hopeful waiting for God’s salvation, including in the promised Messiah. And again, the prophet’s words are a song of joy, giving thanks, singing, shouting that God is among us and in this world, to restore, to save. And so wait with hope.

          Paul writes likely from a prison in Rome, Ephesus or Caesarea to the Philippian community likely experiencing persecution of their own. The invitation to rejoice is not some unrealistic optimism, but a deeper trust in God who is near, rejoicing in God always, letting our gentleness be known, not worrying about anything but with thanksgiving letting our prayer requests be made known to God, receiving the peace that surpasses understanding to guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus that God graciously gives in times of trial.

          Common to all these words is the “nearness” of God. God’s being both close and soon here. This is Advent’s promise. God in Christ arriving in our world in the flesh of a child soon to be born again for the world to rejoice. And God arriving at any and all times, and at the end of time in Christ Jesus, gracious judge and saviour of the living and of the dead. God is near, meaning soon to arrive in any circumstance of this world and our lives, to free, redeem, give strength, hope, life again. And God is near, close by, never far away. God as close as the breath that is in us or our hearts beating. God as close as a neighbour. God in flesh. God in breath/Spirit. In every circumstance of our lives and this world, God is near. God is here. So rejoice, sing, shout for joy.

          As Lori was packing up an Angel Gift, I took a moment to look inside the box, to make note of the name and age of the person, to see the sweaters and socks inside, and to imagine them opening this small gift, and what it might mean. With no expectation of what the recipient’s reaction should be, and recognition that alongside an Angel Gift we need to advocate for and walk alongside members of the Our Place family, many of whom struggle with poverty, working for reform, for greater equity together; and on my own generosity, justice making and contentment with enough, I hope there is joy in receiving this gift, and a sense of love from a neighbour, and even love of God. And that as I see folks gathered around Our Place on Pandora Avenue, I will think of the names we will list today in our prayers, and the hope and joy of working for their and our wholeness and wellbeing together as a community. And so also for the women of Harrison Place shelter and the gifts they will receive from our Women in Faith, and their joy, and their and our hope for new lives beyond abuse and harm.

          God near like this, close by and always soon to break into broken worlds and lives, is cause for joy. So rejoice!

          John’s unflinching invitation is to share in a fruit bearing, joy yielding, grace filled relationship with God and one another, because God is near! And that’s good news! As much as John demands faithfulness from us because of the nearness/advent of God, the advent/nearness of God assures us of God’s redeeming, renewing, restoring, realigning, recreating, presence to repent – meaning turn us and this world and the earth and its climate around for God’s good purpose and for joy!

          God is near, so rejoice! So we hear and proclaim in the songs we sing and prayers we cry or shout this morning. So we hear and share in the peace of Christ. So we hear and remember at the table, with Christ Jesus as close as bread we eat and wine we drink. So we hear and trust in the blessing and sending of God into a world of hurt with the hope of God near, and the calling and promise of God in generosity, justice, and peace. So rejoice. In the too often sadness of this world and of many of our lives, rejoice in God, and again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be made known to everyone. God is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication make your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Sing, shout, rejoice! Let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.