(Modified 2021-12-05: Revised sermon text. Added recording of this sermon.)
Second Advent Sunday December 5, 2021.
St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Regina
Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6.
Living God, increase your joy in us so that we may praise and worship you in truth and spirit. Amen.
When you read about how Judah was overrun by the enemies and how Jerusalem was destroyed during the time of Jeremiah and Baruch, you may ask where is God in this situation?
When you read how Paul was imprisoned and humiliated, you may ask where is God in all this?
When you think of the ongoing coronavirus that has confined us into our houses and inflicted great pain and suffering in us, because we have lost friends, coworkers, family members, or someone we know personally, you may ask where is God in all this?
There are other countless examples that we may give on how we may think in human terms about situations where we expect the powerful hands of God, but all we see and find is darkness hovering over our lives and denying us the joy of life. There is no joy in these circumstances, is there?
However, that darkness is only true if we talk about human experience of achievement and happiness because for God the greatest joy and achievement is having an everlasting relationship with God, living in the shadows of his heavenly wings and praising him “with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name…”
Since we have limited knowledge about the action and plan of God, we must follow the guidance of God’s Spirit, the inner voice that directs our minds and hearts to the full knowledge of God and his ways, in order to have a glimpse of the loving plans of God for our lives and our community.
Therefore, when we read Baruch, especially the statement, “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction … and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; and put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting” (vs. 1, 2), we realize God is welcoming us into his space. He is in control of both the joyful and sorrowful situations.
Additionally, “God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him” (vs. 9). This is the joy that we see with Israel and Judah because they understand God will bring back their children from the exile in Babylon.
What a practical pastoral application of the joy that will come to Jerusalem as she waits in great happiness because her Lord is coming for her salvation from her oppressors!
The psalmist anticipates similar theme of joy for Zion with the opening and closing prayer to “restore the fortunes” (vs. 1, 6). Joy is aligned with the restoration of the blessing of Israel such that “our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them” (vs. 2,3).
The phase, ‘shouts of joy’ (vs. 2, 5, 6) is recurrent and shows the satisfying feeling that God will fill his people with great things, restoring their fortunes (vs. 1, 4) and providing the safety net to enjoy the blessing. The lesson for us is to understand God is in control over our situation. This is a reason for joy.
Apostle Paul also expects us to thank God and pray with joy, especially when we share in the gospel, in anticipation that God, who has begun a good work among us, will complete the work by the day of Jesus Christ (vs. 4,5,6). Joy is the result of great hope for the day of the Lord.
It is a great joy when we remember each other (vs. 1), pray for each other (vs. 2), share the gospel with each other (vs. 5), hold each other in the heart, that is, thinking about each other’s particular situation (vs. 7), share in God’s grace, both in imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel (vs. 7), and long for each other with the compassion of Christ Jesus (vs. 8).
Paul passes on to us the expectation that these elements of joy may uplift us in great difficulties and encourage us to love God: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (vs. 9, 10, 11).
What lesson do we learn from the prayer by Apostle Paul? We learn that God is the only source of joy and that his merciful deeds produce the harvest of righteousness with its full abundance in Jesus Christ.
In suffering, God suffers with us and experiences our pain. During the pandemic, God self-isolates with us and dwells in our homes. In exile, God journeys with us and provides for us the important things we need for our physical and emotional sustenance in refuge. In hunger, God feeds and heals us…
There is no time God abandons us because his love is unending and does not depend on our deeds. Paul reminds us about this reality, praying that God may “strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess. 3:13).
Luke identifies this relationship between joy and repentance from sin at the beginning of his announcement of the message of John the Baptist, who is mostly considered the bridge between the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin (vs. 3) and the gospel of indwelling, where God lives in his people and fills them with joy that comes to those who have joined in the faithful community. This is what comes to mind when I read the message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (vs. 4, 5 6).
Joy is a result of repentance from our sins before we begin to enjoy the grace and love that God shares with us in Christ (I should point out that this section about repentance has been updated in the sermon after the sermon was sent yesterday. If you have printed your sermon this morning, you may not find it).
Repentance reconciles us with God. Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin is the primary reason for joy in the preaching of John the Baptist. The Bible also explains Judah and Israel have been taken to exile because of sin, that is, disobedience and disloyalty to the covenant with God by worshipping the gods of the land that Yahweh had warned the children of Israel not to worship. Such idolatry (abandoning the worship of God for idols) and syncretism (mixing the worship of Yahweh with other gods in the mountains and high places in Judah and Israel) describes the search for counsel somewhere apart from Yahweh, the God of Israel. The return to Jerusalem, which will be a great source of joy for Israel, is a result of repentance from sin, both the sin of the nation of Israel and their leaders.
I do not know how I missed this piece about repentance and sin in my first draft. I suspect it is because of the realization that the churches in the West are struggling with political correctness. Consequently, preaching about repentance and sin has been affected. The language of preaching has been turned into psychological sweettalking or motivational speech to console the people in their current political, social, moral and ethical situations. Preaching about repentance and sin is considered judging others. The preachers have been boxed in to talk only about positive things about human actions and behaviours because talking about sin and repentance is considered politically incorrect by those who think loving each other is about avoiding talking about the things that make our family and friends uncomfortable.
Please forgive me if you feel uncomfortable about the language of repentance and sin. I think pointing out sin, or where human beings have erred in our relationship with God, is the highest truth of the Scripture. This came over me this morning as ‘a divine awakening’ to speak only the truth in the Scripture because speaking the truth about the kingdom of God is dying slowly in our contemporary culture, and even in the church because when you keenly read the lectionary readings in the Anglican Church of Canada, most of the Scriptures that talk about sin, repentance and judgement have been omitted from the lectionary.
However, as Christians, we should understand that teaching about the consequences of sin, how uncomfortable that may be, help us attune our priorities and share in God’s grace, both in imprisonment and in the defence of faith and confirmation of the gospel and in times of happiness and sorrow. Paul explains this in his prayer that we may be pure and blameless because our joy reveals the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
The glory of God is our destination and final joy. But how do we achieve such highest joy without talking about repentance, which is the result of our response to God’s grace and love?
How does the concept of “The Lord is our Righteousness” that we read last Sunday and the teaching of “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin” that we have read today affect our Christian life?
First, they remind us that God is always steadfast in love and is just in keeping his promises (Psalm 25: 10). Sin is the transgression from the commandment of God, where we walk our own ways and disobey the Lord. This is the reason for judgement, providing direction to return to the pool of grace in God.
Second, the promise of salvation or deliverance from the sins of the world is dependent on the faithfulness of the hearers. King David was a faithful and loyal servant to God and therefore the promise of lasting Davidic kingdom is a reward for David’s walking in obedience with God. For the sake of David and for the sake of God’s own name, the kingdom of Israel remains united during David’s son Solomon. This is only an example of the fulfilment of the promise of the kingdom in human terms.
Third, the anticipation of the first coming of the Messiah and the king of the Jews reveals a great joy and hope in Jewish literature and teaching and for the Christians. We believe in the Incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us through the birth of Jesus Christ by the Virgin Mary. That is, Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of both the promise of righteousness of God to live in us and the forgiveness of sins. Incarnation is the first coming of Christ that we remember and celebrate in Christmas.
The second coming of Christ that we anticipate is the final judgement, where God the Father, at his appointed time, will send Jesus Christ to return to the earth, the ground God-Man once walked before his suffering and death on the cross, to join the new heaven and the new earth and restore the kingdom of joy, hope, peace, truth, love and righteousness to God. Judgement is the final justice, where God will reward the faithfulness of the believers with an everlasting life and kingdom, and punish the sin of the world with an everlasting death, that is, the annihilation of the unbelievers from the new heaven and new earth.
Like Paul’s teaching, Luke is emphasizing the fact that our joy comes from God and such joy is manifested in the future coming of Jesus Christ, who fulfills the plan of the salvation for all flesh. This redemption is unlike the liberation that the Jewish community, who are suffering under the Roman rule and oppression, may be expecting during the “reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (v.1,2).
There is joy in every action where God is in control.
According to Baruch, Jerusalem is comforted by God because her joy will be great when God leads Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.
For the Psalmist, Zion is comforted by God because her residents will come home with shouts of joy, full and carrying their sheaves when God restores their fortunes and return their children home safely.
For Paul, Philippi is comforted by God because her residents will live with great joy, pure and blameless, since God has enabled their hearts to share the gospel and produce the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
According to Luke, Judea, Galilee, and other regions around Jordan, where John the Baptist proclaims the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, are comforted by God because their residents will see the salvation of God that has come in Jesus Christ. This salvation has practical implications because it is about sharing joy with others, that is, putting smiles in other people’s faces.
For John the Baptist, the coming of joy must meet decisive response from the repentant community: everybody has the role to play in welcoming the joy. To the crowd, John advises that “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (vs. 11). To the tax collectors, John advises that “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (vs. 13). To the soldiers, John advises, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (vs. 14).
Exile, pandemic and suffering are opportunities to reflect on our relationship with God, the source of joy and life. Where there is joy there is compassion and love for one another; there is no corruption, injustice and deception because people are satisfied with their life when they experience joy in God.
No surprise the crowd wonders whether John the Baptist might be the Messiah because his teaching about the coming kingdom increases their joy and directs them to the light of the salvation that is to come.
Their joy is our joy during this season of Advent because we share in the same exhortations and charitable deeds that reveal the compassion of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel. There is joy everywhere when we acknowledge the hands of God in our particular situations.
We realize that none of what we do increase our joy because joy is the gift that comes from God to enlighten our souls to proclaim the glory of God. If joy were within our human powers, we would not be singing “Joy to the world the Lord is come” with gratitude because we would be boasting of our own great deeds of controlling the destination of the gift of God, Lord Jesus, whose coming to the world is the primary reason and cause of joy and celebration of the indwelling of God in us.
During the day Christ is born in Bethlehem, we witness the beginning of an abundant joy all over the world. During the day for the crucifixion of Christ on the cross in Calvary, we witness the beginning of the forgiveness of sin all over the world. During the day of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we witness the end of the powers of Satan all over the world. We are liberated from the exile in sin. This is our joy.
May the Lord of joy, hope, peace and love guide our hearts and minds into everlasting reign of God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit whose indwelling in us is a source of comfort. Amen.