When I looked at the scripture readings for this week I was reminded of a game from Sesame Street. Four objects would be shown on the screen while one of the characters sang these words:
“One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong. Can you tell which one is not like the other before I finish singing this song?”
Well, I’m not going to sing, but I’m pretty sure that you can figure out which one of these scripture readings is not like the other.
First this morning we hear from the prophet Zephaniah. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” he proclaims. “The Lord is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love.”
From the First Song of Isaiah we sang, “You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation. Cry aloud, ring out your joy.”
The theme carries over to our New Testament reading. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, ‘Rejoice,’” Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi. “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.”
Then we get to the Gospel reading and it seems as if perhaps someone did not get the memo on the theme for the day.
“You brood of vipers!” John berates the crowd who has gathered to hear him speak. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!”
Then, after another warning about burning in unquenchable fire, the reading ends with these words. “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Good news? It is easy to see the good news in Zephaniah, Isaiah and Philippians. But most people probably don’t consider being called snakes and threatened with unquenchable fire good news.
But actually, John is not so far removed from the theme of the day as we might initially suspect.
The type of rejoicing that we celebrate today is not a giddy, senseless joy that ignores the harsh realities of life. This is not a joy based on denial, not a whistling-past-the-graveyard, don’t-worry-be-happy kind of joy.
Instead, this is a joy based on the recognition of God’s love and presence in our lives, despite the distance between God’s hopes and dreams for humanity and the reality of how we actually live.
This is a joy that comes to us in the wilderness and times of deepest darkness.
That was certainly the case for the Old Testament prophets. In the chapter before today’s reading, Zephaniah laments the terrible realities of life under the rule of the evil king Manasseh, who has occupied the throne for almost half a century.
Morality and faithfulness have been on the decline in Israel for decades. Religious, political, and military leaders are not to be trusted. The poor are becoming poorer; foreigners and immigrants are treated badly.
Things are so bad that Zephaniah comes to the sad conclusion that God has no option but to destroy creation. He warns the people of a coming day of terrible judgment, a bitter day of distress and anguish, of ruin and devastation, of darkness and gloom.
Israel is in a time of lamentation and mourning, of hopelessness and despair.
But then the word of God breaks through, and surprisingly, God brings not harsh judgment, but hope and great joy; joy that is even more deeply felt because of the hopelessness that preceded it.
Even in Israel’s darkest times, God is in her midst, bringing grace and joy.
Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, exhorting them to rejoice always becomes more remarkable when we learn that he is writing to people who are being persecuted because of their Christian faith.
By persecuted, I don’t mean that their Starbucks’ cups didn’t have snowflakes on them at Christmas, or that someone wished them happy holidays instead of Merry Christmas. These Christians risked being jailed or even losing their lives because of their faith.
Indeed, Paul writes these words of joy from prison, where he has been sentenced for proclaiming the Gospel. For these early Christians, these are days in the wilderness, days of hopelessness and despair.
And yet, even in those dark days, Paul says, do not worry because the Lord is near. Paul is not denying the reality of the situation; he is not promising that life will be easy.
But he does promise that no matter how difficult and dire things are, God is still present, and for that we should rejoice.
Then John the Baptist emerges from the wilderness and enters into our Advent observances, calling us to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Like the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah before him, John sees that many of God’s people have lost their way, are going down paths that take them away from God.
It is easy to see the connections between those Biblical times and our own days. It is impossible to turn on the news without hearing voices crying from the wilderness.
Voices of refugee children separated from their parents and held in detention centers; voices of victims of terror around the world. Voices of Jews and Muslims in this country who fear being persecuted because of their faith. Voices of those who fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.
But other voices are also present in the wilderness. The Old Testament prophets all speak God’s word in times of darkness and despair. So does John the Baptist.
And so do voices in our own time.
There are the voices of students from Parkland, Florida, who watched their classmates die in a Valentine’s Day massacre, now traveling the country demanding that their elders keep them safe by passing gun control laws.
There is the voice of Bryan Stevenson, and his work at the Equal Justice Initiative, demanding that Americans acknowledge the sinful treatment of African Americans from this country’s earliest days, and repent.
There are the voices of every reputable climate scientist in the world, warning of the dire consequences of climate change, and begging us to amend our wasteful ways.
There are voices warning us of the rising tide of hate in this country, and the consequences of the growing divide between rich and poor.
If we listen carefully, we can hear today’s prophetic voices calling for confession, repentance, and change. These are the themes of Advent, themes we should take to heart both as individuals and a nation.
Here, in our wilderness wanderings, it may still be possible to discover the way of the Lord in the events of the world around us.
That is why we are here today, why we come to this sacred space week after week, searching for the way of the Lord in the events of our lives and the world. We listen for God’s voice to speak above all the other clamoring voices around us.
We want to know that despite the chaos, despite the darkness we may find ourselves immersed in, that the Lord is near, bringing us hope and grace and joy.
On this third Sunday of Advent, we hear the prophet’s words in our own wilderness, and we know that God wants to live among us, once again.
Christ, the Prince of Peace, is coming.
Prepare the way of the Lord.
Repent, you bunch of snakes.