Zephaniah 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
REJOICE IN THE LORD
The church invites us today to be joyful. Gaudete Sunday, though the 3rd sunday of advent but is the first Sunday in this cycle of Advent that really begins our anticipation of the ‘joy’ of Christmas. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” which is taken from Gaudete in Domino semper…! From St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near” seen in the second reading. This Sunday serves as a midpoint break from the austere practices of advent to rejoice in the nearness of Jesus return. In the last few weeks, the readings have been centering on the crisis of life, but with the readings of today, the celebration of today simply focuses on joy.
A Time to Rejoice
The first reading sets the tone “sing aloud o daughter of Zion shout o Israel, rejoice and exult with your heart o daughter Jerusalem (3:14). What we are hearing from the prophet is joy, exult, rejoice, sing, and shout etc which are expressions of joyful moments. It is good to note here that Zephaniah’s ministry took place in the days of Josiah King of Judah. In the context of Josiah’s reign Gods presence is always accompanied with fear and always disturbing. God vows “at that time, I will search Jerusalem with lamps and I will punish the people who rest complacently on the dregs, those who say in their hearts, “the Lord will not do good nor will he do harm (Zephaniah 1:12). The language always sounds harsh “I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests (Zeph 1:4-6) it is always a warning against those who worship other gods.
The reading of today seemed to be penned down in the exilic or post exilic era; it addresses Israel at a time in which they had experience great shame. The nation was ravaged by armies of foreign nations; Israel lived in fear and disorientation. To this people already ravaged by sorrow, and fear of God’s wrath, God promises a new dawn “The Lord has taken away the judgment against you; he has turned away your enemies. The kings of Israel, the Lord is in your midst: you shall fear disaster no more (Zephaniah 3:15). Jerusalem which was once described as a violent, unfaithful and fearful city is here personified as a rejoicing city because God is coming not to judge or inflict danger but to save them.
The Nature of This Joy
While addressing the Philippians community, Paul expresses the nature of this joy, which according to him must be constant; in season and out of season. Rejoice always he said because the Lord is near echoing the message of the first reading. It is important to note that Paul wrote this from the prison (as portrayed in Acts of the Apostles when Paul and Silas although beaten and flogged and imprisoned innocently did not worry nor complain but sang hymns and prayed (Acts 16:25). This letter would have been a letter filled with worries and bitterness like we do in our sorrowful moments. The joy that God gives is the joy that lasts forever, the joy that glories even in suffering because it is a joy in the Lord. In this reading Paul admonished the best way to approach life, instead of worrying in sorrows, in everything use prayer and thanksgiving and seek the face of God. At 2 Cor 6:10, Paul speaks of himself as sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
The key to understanding this exhortation to rejoice is that it is “in the Lord”. This signifies that the Lord is either the object or the reason for the rejoicing. This is what makes you a Christian (Rom 12:12) and a characteristic of hope in the kingdom of God (Rom 14:17) it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and becomes evident during times of trial and suffering (Rom 5:3-4, 2 Cor 6;10, 8:2-3).
Participating In this Joy
The coming of the messiah will surely bring joy and peace to the world echoing the word of the angels to the shepherds at the birth of the messiah “glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will” the joy is for those whose lives will reflect that of Christ. Paul in the second reading here admonished his followers to focus their thoughts and ways to whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, and to put into practice Whatever they have learned or received or heard from him, or seen in him. It is by doing this that the God of peace will occupy their hearts.
John the Baptist stressed this further in the gospel. The Baptist lived a life of passionate commitment. His passion for justice and honesty spoke to the hearts of the crowds, tax-collectors and soldiers. His own austerity had the ring of authenticity. It evoked a question from them: what should we do”? He responded with directness and clarity: Don’t cheat, share your surplus, don’t exploit people. John doesn’t ask tax collectors to stop collecting, or tell soldiers to desert. His message is simple: social justice. Share what you have, be honest, do not oppress people. Be content with what you have. Doing these will not only ensure peace but also a participation in the message that Christ brings; it is the gospel of peace and everlasting joy.
As we prepare to celebrate the coming of God to His people in the birth of Jesus, let us call to mind that the basic problem with Christian faith today is that we profess to believe but do not match it with practical behavior. This self-contradiction constitutes a stumbling block. Christian life is not a life devoid of tribulations, trials, sufferings. The cross is at the center of the Christian message. Do not allow whatever that is happening to you make you lose faith in God. Paul the apostle passed through many bitter moments and still in his moments of sorrow he sang praises. This is the best way to live. Always approach God with prayers and thanksgiving whether good or bad.
John prepared his people for the coming of Jesus by challenging them to mend their ways and believe his message. The best preparation we can make for the birth of the Lord is to repent and guide our behaviour by the selfless teachings of the gospel. This is what is needed today to make our faith perfect so that we can stand with heads raised high in joy at the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This is the time to practice charity at its apex.