The theme for our retreat season at St. Paul’s this year is “Rejoice in the Lord.” It comes from the same Scripture verses which comprise our second reading for today, Philippians 4:4-7. One of the things that helping give the retreats has taught me is that rejoicing in the Lord goes a bit deeper than what we might ordinarily think. I believe this is true of all of our Scripture readings for today, which is often referred to as “Gaudete Sunday.” “Gaudete” means “Rejoice!”
Our first reading from the prophet Zephaniah is an example of what I mean. In our reading, the prophet speaks of God’s promise for Israel: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel!… The Lord has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.” As Christians, we relate this to the coming of the Son of God become one of us in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise.
But I think if I were to listen to the plight of people in distress, I might hear some skepticism, especially about the words “you have no further misfortune to fear.” For a great many people, there are a great many things to fear, as they have suffered great misfortune.
I don’t think this Advent season calls us to turn a blind eye to what is going on in many people’s lives. But I believe that opening our hearts to Jesus can enable us to face and work through our misfortunes without fear. Some may be thinking, “Fr. Phil, that isn’t being realistic. You’re minimizing the effect of these terrible things on people.” I hear that, but I also see people working, with the grace of God and the help of others, to rebuild their lives after some tragic event. Are they governed by fear, or by something else? I’ve seen people who were able to celebrate the life of someone who died too young, even though they were in mourning. It is the faith of people which has shown me how real it is to trust in God’s love, and live in hope, and even eventually joy.
If we look at our reading from Philippians, it might be good to recall that St. Paul did not have it easy. There were people who mistrusted the truth of his conversion. There were others who questioned his authority to proclaim the Good News. It is not a person who has blinders on who says “Rejoice in the Lord. I say it again, rejoice!” No, it is one who believes, “The Lord is near,” and so can say, “Have no anxiety at all…” If I could just believe wholeheartedly in the love God has for me, then I would not be beset by anxiety and fear. That doesn’t mean my troubles would magically go away, but I would know that they are not the defining things of my life, and that God can see me through.
Such is the love and power of God. So if we can rejoice in God, is there something for us to do? That’s what the people ask of John the Baptist as he preached repentance in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. And when John replies to the crowds and the tax collectors and the soldiers, he gives some simple responses. Basically, he tells the people to give to those in need, to treat others fairly and with justice, and not to amass wealth at the expense of others. Pretty simple stuff. When the people begin to wonder whether John is the Messiah, he tells them that he is not, but that there is one who is coming after him: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” If we make room for Jesus to enter more deeply into our hearts, then we can let Him burn out all the fears and anxieties and attitudes that prevent us from doing as the Baptist prescribed. And maybe even be happy that He would do so for us! I often marvel at Luke’s words when he writes about John’s preaching: “Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.” How could the people take the straight talk that John gave them unless they were ready to have the “chaff” burned off from their hearts and souls?
May we rejoice that God can bring us through and lift us up and heal us of whatever gets in the way of making room for Jesus.
In the Christ Who Is to Come,
Fr. Phil, CP