Reflection for Sunday – December 12, 2021
Readings: Zephaniah 3: 14-18a; Philippians 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 10-18
Preacher: Gloria Ulterino
Shout for joy! Be glad and exult! Today’s readings simply reverberate with joy, seeping into every cell of our being, overflowing out to all we meet.
But some might say, “Really? You’ve got to be kidding! Where is such joy to be found? Have you forgotten the pandemic? The powerful new variant—omicron—that simply cannot be contained anywhere in the entire world? Even the physical darkness this time of the year, in our northern hemisphere.”
And yet, a fair response might well be “Really? Do you think our ancestors in faith had it any easier that we do? Why don’t we take a brief look at their circumstances? See for ourselves what prompted their conviction. Their assurance of great joy.
Take Paul, for example, in one of my all-time favorite passages. You would never know, would you, that he’s somewhere in prison, writing to his beloved Philippians? Indeed, it is their prayers, gifts, and Gospel faithfulness that keep him going. Hence his injunction to them to “rejoice in the Lord always.” To confidently claim, “the Lord is near.” To urge their continuing thankful praise of this ever-faithful God.
Or take the prophet Zephaniah. (Did he write this particular passage, during the time of King Josiah in the 7th century BCE.? Or was it added later by an unknown author, after the intense pain of the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BCE? Most scholars now believe it was the latter.) In any case, today’s words emerge from an experience of profound loss, assuring hearers—twice—that God “is in your midst.”
Just like them, we also know what it is to suffer loss. To become discouraged. To ponder: Will we ever get back to “normal” again? Wondering, all the while, what “normal” will even look like? Perhaps, in times like these, we might ask the same question put by the crowds—and yes, even tax collectors and soldiers—to John the Baptist: “Teacher, what should we do?”
An all-important question, asked by everyone, of John. Why him? What had drawn them to him in the first place? Was it his totally unvarnished, passionate, prophetic truth? (Despite his egregious insult of the crowds as a “brood of vipers,” retained in Luke’s Gospel but omitted from today’s readings!)
His answer? In short, John proclaims: become the very best version of yourselves. To the crowds: Share your food and clothes with those who have none. To the tax collectors: Only collect what is prescribed. To the soldiers: Be satisfied with your wages; refuse to extort or make up lies about anyone.
What, then, might he say to us, today, here and now? What does it mean for us to become the very best version of ourselves? Who, and what, can inspire this desire in us, especially during our challenging moment of virus-producing anxiety?
Almost immediately I remembered the monks of Weston Priory, in Vermont. Every summer my husband and I go there to be refreshed and renewed, if only for a week or two. While we don’t stay at the Priory, we participate in their liturgies on a daily basis. The location, in the green hills of Vermont, could not be more inviting. The music is gentle and healing. The monks are always hospitable. The preaching is often challenging, urging me to connect to necessary changes in my own life. Yes, it’s like a retreat, something we all need at one time or another. This time of the year, my mini-retreat takes this form: getting up early, turning on the tree lights, and sitting in the silence with a cup of coffee.
Our “here and now” is Advent, this beautiful time set aside to celebrate the coming of divinity in all the muck and mess of human life. And yet, we know that this season can stir anxiety rather than reflection. Is there enough time to buy the presents, send out the cards, do the baking, and on and on? “So, Teacher, what should we do?” Carry signs announcing that God is near? How about becoming signs that God is near? Yes, buy presents for loved ones and decorate our homes, all the while never forgetting that we are already gifts to one another. Sparks of divinity to one another, even in all our human messes and confusions. For The-One-For-Whom-We-Wait has already come. Is already near, is already “in our midst.” Can we allow this reality to fill us with true, authentic, joy?