You may have noticed the pink vestments today – I’m not wearing pink because it’s my color, although I certainly do like pink. These pink vestments, actually rose-colored, are in honor of a special Sunday in this season of Advent, a Sunday called “Gaudete Sunday” – Rejoice Sunday. Even as we know that the Advent season is one of solemn preparation for the birth of Christ, we cannot help rejoicing because we know the time is drawing near. So we break our sequence of using purple or deep blue vestments and paraments, and shine a little light by wearing the rose. We show our rejoicing not only in words from scripture “Rejoice, and again I say Rejoice always” but in the very color of our garments.
So here we are in the midst of Advent, looking ahead with joyful anticipation to our celebration of the birth of Christ, and what do we get? John the Baptist excoriating the very crowds who came out to be baptized by him, for repentance of their sins. “You brood of vipers!” Not what’s recommended these days in all the church growth literature as a way to win new converts to Christ!
Of course, we could simply say that John was cranky after too much locusts and honey and his back was hurting from sleeping in caves or on the rough ground in the cold night, but his mission was deliberately designed not to be easy to listen to. He was a prophet, after all, and prophets generally talk about how God’s people have gone astray, not how everything’s going to be all right.
John does seem a bit of a killjoy, with all this talk of fire and winnowing forks and axes and stuff, but the scholar John C Morris suggests something different: "underneath the holy fire is holy joy. If the Baptizer can be described as a killjoy, it is because the joy that he kills is the false joy of manufactured sentimentality and superficial jolliness. Underneath John's stern message is the good news that a better world is possible by the grace and power of God."
There is a tendency in the world, particularly this time of year, to pretend that bad things don’t exist, that people aren’t mean to each other, that everyone is good and happy and the world is alright because it’s the holidays…we put red and gold and green glossy wrapping paper over everything to hide the things we wish weren’t there. It’s the holidays, and we’re supposed to be happy, right?
That may be a false kind of happiness, as Morris says. And it is worth the effort and perhaps a little bit of pain to look underneath the glossy paper to the reality beneath, and do some work on fixing that, because therein is the gift that might bring true happiness.
In a way, it’s a little bit like my laptop computer. Every now and again, it locks up on me. I can’t get it to do anything, or, worse, I get the dreaded “blue screen of death.” Something is corrupted, some process confused, and it simply gives up. Ctl-alt-delete isn’t enough. I have to do a hard reset. I unplug the thing. I detach the battery pack. Then I put it all back together again and restart it, and usually it fixes things. It's what's called a "hard reset."
What John is talking about here is a hard reset. In preparing to welcome the newborn Jesus, we’ve got to do more than simply papering over the bad parts, the things that are corrupted in our souls…we’ve got to look at ourselves honestly and clearly and do the necessary repair work – the cleansing of our hearts and souls.
The hard reset is about fixing ourselves, because in fixing ourselves we start to fix this broken world. And that is what truly brings rejoicing. John is not simply condemning the people who come to see him on the banks of the Jordan, he is giving them direction on how to live better lives in the future. Share with each other. Don’t take more than is your due. Don’t extort or threaten. Live within your means. Pretty good advice in these days of widespread unemployment, of Lehmann Brothers, of ARM balloon mortgages, of fake Patek Phillippe watches…John says, “Do a hard reset on your life. Get rid of the things that make it harder for you to hear what Jesus is saying. Don’t be like the ones who only value their lives in terms of this world, of money and power and privilege. Be for god and for each other.” A transformed world view. A hard reset.
That’s what the prophet Zephaniah is talking about today. Rejoicing, singing and dancing, because God has forgiven our past sins and is our defender against those who are against us,
That’s what Paul is saying in his letter to the church at Philippi. Rejoice always, again and again, and be gentle with each other, trusting God and knowing he will be at our side.
When I do a hard reset on the laptop, it usually takes a bit longer to restart. I may be ascribing more humanity to the thing than is appropriate, but I think it is reordering itself in some fundamental way, finding new ways of making all the internal connections necessary to work properly. We might do that, too.
What John prescribes, and what Zephaniah and Paul celebrate, is the restoration of wiser, purer connections, of the joy of being refreshed in our relationship with God. This season of preparation is also a season of rejoicing, not just because of presents and wrapping paper and Christmas trees, but because once again we know that we can perfect ourselves, with God’s help. When the baby comes, we will be ready, and all the angels will rejoice with us.
Reset, refreshed, rejoicing.