Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!In Scripture & Song, today we rejoice. Rejoice! Today the pink candle is lit because on this day of rejoicing, with three candles lit, we await and prepare for the coming of Christ, we are full of anticipation and joy that the Lord is near.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
The prophet Zephaniah give us a song that celebrates God's vindication of Israel; “sing aloud, rejoice & exult” that God is in the midst of her, Israel will no longer be overrun by other nations, God is with her.
This joyful pronouncement is also in Paul's letter to the Philippians, another song of praise. Calling us all to rejoice! in the Lord, for the Lord is near. But Paul does not end on that note. He wants us to take the rejoicing further. He wants us to act on our gentleness, our joy and to think about it and share it with others, “for then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
These readings are not just relaying feelings of joy, but rather they are commands to rejoice, commands of faith, that indeed God is still active in our world and we need to rejoice. We stand rejoicing because of our faith not our feelings, and in the midst of all this, there is someone who stands in the corner of our lives that demands to be noticed, and he says: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
The words from the Gospel, from John the Baptist startle us like a splash of cold water on our face...
"Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'we have Abraham as our ancestor,' for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."John the Baptist calls on those who are listening to his message to bear good fruit. Not to rely on their ancestry, their power, or themselves. It is as if John is looking right at us this December, celebrating for ourselves and looking around at our world and calling us to bear good fruit.
So what does it mean to bear such good fruit?
We like the crowds that remained with John the Baptist ask the question, "What then should we do?" What should we do? How do we live faithfully in the midst of our busy lives and this violent world? How do we follow Jesus and bear good fruit?
What does John say?
Does he say, give up everything, put on camel's hair and come live with me in the wilderness, at the river, eating locusts and honey. Yum! No.
Does he use baptism as a magic act, a cleansing ritual, a kind of get out of the fire free card. Nope.
To the crowd he replies: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."Simple, common-sense, charity toward one's neighbor. If they have a need, share your abundance: your coats, clothing, your food. It is a challenge for us when it is so easy to hoard all the extra we have and miss all the need around us. And I think John’s challenge to us, really goes after what it means to rejoice! For how can we rejoice, how can we celebrate when we don’t reach out with a coat or food when we see someone in need. How is this acting on our faith?
To tax collectors: "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."
To soldiers: "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
The fruit that John asks us to give, is the fruit not born out of selfishness, but out of generosity and love. I think of how we asked for winter coats and people brought coats and we gave them to the Birmingham Group and women and children this winter, in this cold, will have something to keep them warm. I think of all the Turkeys bought with those gift certificates at Thanksgiving, all those presents we will be giving to kids in need through DCF next week for Christmas.
Last winter, Ellen & I heard about a need at one of the shelters in New Haven, they had run out of pillows, they needed help. It was an easy act, purchase and deliver, but for our kids, to see how people were living and to understand how and why we help those in need, is as that commercial says, was priceless. When we pray for those in need, my kids remember.
Helping out others: I also think of a story I just read…
Officer John Fosket of the Helena Police needed help, they had a new explosive sniffing dog from the Israeli Defense Forces – but he only responded to commands in Hebrew. And try as he could, he just wasn’t pronouncing the words properly and Mikey, the dog, would not always respond to the commands. He asked a Hasidic Rabbi who was at the Capitol to light the menorah candles for Hanukah for help. And as was reported: all is well in the Jewish community there. The Hasidic rabbi is helping the Montana cop speak Hebrew to his dog. It is good news all around. The officer keeps the Capitol safe, and the Hebrew pooch is feeling more at home hearing his native tongue, and the rabbi, a recent arrival from Brooklyn, is working hard in Montana building up his community. [from the NY Times]Helping each other when we are in need, that sounds like good fruit.
We need to look beyond John’s words "you brood of vipers!" and hear his words that gives us counsel on how to lead a faithful life that indeed bears good fruit. In words not so harsh but filled with the wisdom of God. For he reminds us that we need God in our lives and we need to help others.
John's words today are full of rejoicing! (just like the other readings). For the Lord is near and we are called to live bearing fruit that God would want us to bear. So with many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people. Those words are good news for us too, if we are ready to bear good fruit, fruit that will last. So let us rejoice as Zephania and Paul would have us do, and live what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable before God and our neighbors as John would have us do. Amen.