[Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18]
I want to begin with part of a prayer from Thomas More. More was a 16th-century lawyer and an ardent critic of the Reformation, including our spiritual ancestors the Anabaptists. Sometimes we find wisdom in our enemies. Let us pray:
“Grant us, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest. Grant us healthy bodies, and the necessary good humour to maintain them. Grant us simple souls that know to treasure all that is good and that don’t frighten easily at the sight of evil . . . .”
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I don’t know if you heard it, but our reading from Luke has a very contemporary ring. This is a passage about privilege.
John has barreled in from the wilderness, chased by an epiphany. He has realized that his people were abusing their privilege. Way back in the book of Genesis we learned that their ancestors were blessed in a special way with God’s presence. John believed they had let the gift sour. John’s people had become complacent in their status. So he marches in to share his epiphany. It’s this: God can use stones. Stones can fulfill the mission. God doesn’t need a special people. The people have become like a privileged tree that doesn’t produce any fruit. John tells them to get ready for the axe.
John’s words connect, and there is minor panic: “What then should we do?” John offers several suggestions:
If you have more coats than you need—share!
If you have more food than you need—share!
If you have power—if you work for a university or a hospital or a large corporation or the government—don’t abuse your power!
Don’t use your position to feather your own nest!
If you’re collecting taxes just collect what’s required. Don’t skim extra!
If you’re a soldier, or if you enforce the law, don’t use your position to get rich. Don’t threaten; don’t make up false accusations!
Learn to be satisfied!
You should be forgiven for not noticing, but at the heart of all this is good news. Good news is the heart of the Bible. Good news is the heart of the church. Many of us have so much religious baggage that we forget that the core of the faith is good news. And so, in the words of our text, “with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.”
The good news for them was that God was approaching and things were going to change. No doubt, John’s words were like an ice bath. But there was a crucial, positive message right in the middle of shock: God has not abandoned you. You still matter. Your lives, your suffering even, have meaning. You have a role to play in God’s reconciling work.
If it’s good news then joy shouldn’t be far off. The scriptures tell us that joy is a marker of God’s presence in our lives. In the agricultural metaphor native to the Bible, joy is described as a “fruit of the Spirit” (that’s Galatians).
But joy is elusive. We try to buy—holidays, pills, stuff. We look for it in relationships, in careers, political causes. But joy is elusive.
Lest we feel too bad about ourselves, think about our reading from Zephaniah. The old prophet had to push his listeners into joy: “Sing aloud,” he says, “shout, Oh Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” Zephaniah’s audience needed a cue. Joy wasn’t automatic for them either. It required cultivation.
Cultivation isn’t the same thing as being fake. Have you ever met a super-spiritual person whose life is eating them alive but still insists that everything is great—that God is good? Or have you ever been apple-picking anywhere within the vicinity of a major city? Have you noticed what most people do when they do the pick-your-own thing? What they do is they take lots of pictures of themselves in the orchard and then buy a basket of apples at the little farm store on their way out. The pictures go up on online or they go into the Christmas photo: “Hey look what awesome people we are, we get out in nature and pick stuff!”
My hunch is that this is what we think of when we hear that joy requires intentional cultivation. It’s tricky but joy, just like love, just like courage, just like generosity, doesn’t come bubbling up from some mysterious well of passion. Joy isn’t something that overtakes us like a bolt out of the blue.
Just as we probably know some super-spiritual people whose joy is fake, we probably also know people in very difficult situations that have a deep, genuine joy.
Discover them if you can. You’ll find that they aren’t naive, but that they know joy needs cultivation.
Old Zephaniah had to tell the people to sing to rejoice to exult with all their heart. Yes, their enemies would be turned back. Yes, God’s presence would return. But that was all in the future—so the joy Zephaniah called for couldn’t dependent upon their immediate circumstances. It was a gift from God, but one that they could accept or reject.
Some of you might recognize the name Barry Lopez. He’s a leading American nature writer. In the early years of his career Lopez also worked as a professional photographer. He was especially interested in light and volume. He realized that a camera lens could help us see these things that our eyes alone could not. Some of his more experimental work involved using long exposures to photograph streams in moonlight.
At one point in his career Lopez joined a research team in the arctic. They were working off the coast of Alaska capturing seals. They wanted to know what the animals were eating. It was a part of a study to estimate the impact of drilling for oil in that region.
One day Lopez and the researchers saw another animal, a polar bear. It was a young male who was also looking of seals. Lopez got out his camera and started taking pictures. I imagine he got some great images.
However, after they returned to the research ship and Lopez returned to his cabin he realized something: he had been so focused on taking pictures, worrying about f-stops, focus and framing, that he couldn’t really remember anything. He had to work to remember what the bear looked like or how the weather felt that afternoon. He couldn’t think of anything to write.
Lopez was already a little skeptical of his photography work, but this incident settled things. He had to choose! Writing or photography. He couldn’t write a story that he had photographed. Getting the images destroyed the words.
This has nothing directly to do with joy, but everything to do with making choices—sometimes even choosing to set aside good things. Contrary to the few supermen and superwomen featured in magazines, most of us are worn to bits by doing too many good things.
To cultivate the joy God offers we need to make good decisions and work on good habits. Cultivating joy requires us to pay attention to how what we do with our bodies affects how we feel. It requires us to celebrate and feast, even in the midst of chaos. It requires us to be compassionate with ourselves—just as God is. For most of us cultivating joy requires slowing down and noticing: noticing people, hearing their stories, noticing the natural world, learning its story. And for most of us cultivating joy requires us to focus on the simple requirements of life, the basics, and to let go of the competition and ambition that drag us down.
Cultivating joy requires us to notice the presence of God.
Just as it was for Zephaniah and for John, for Mary and for Elizabeth, God’s presence means justice. It means freedom. It means shame turned to praise!
God’s presence means that peace has an advocate. It means love has an advocate. It means hope has an advocate. It means joy has an advocate.
Some people mistook John for the Anointed One himself. In response John said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He isn’t here yet, but he’s on the way. This is good news: shout for joy, sing, rejoice!
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Sometimes when I misspell ‘deacons’ in my phone it auto-corrects to ‘demons’. So my note reads: “Need to meet with demons tonight to plan church retreat.” Or “One of the demons called. She needs a suggestion on who might be able to visit Bob.” Or “Remember to ask demons for advice on next sermon.”
Sometimes joy surprises us. But even then, we need to be prepared to receive it. This is almost always how God works. Not through force but through an offering, a gift, even the blessing of our own awkwardness.
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Here’s the last half of Thomas More’s prayer:
“So God, give us souls that knows not boredom, grumbling, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress on account of being obsessed with ourselves. Grant us, O Lord, a sense of good humour. Allow us the grace to be able to take a joke and to discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others.” Amen.