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God's Word on Sunday: Joy flows from seeking God in our midst

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  • December 5, 2021

Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 12 (Year C) Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Psalm 12; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18

Joy is an essential and vital element in our religious faith and relationship with God. And yet it often seems to be lacking, for what is written on our faces sometimes belies the words that come from our mouths.

Pope Francis has underscored this in his teachings: Long faces, sadness, gloom and anger are not effective tools for proclaiming the Gospel. Many would object that there is not much to be joyful about — we live in a world torn apart by disease, violence, hatred and injustice.

But the Scriptures provide us with a very challenging response to this objection: Our happiness and joy does not depend on our outer circumstances. Joy flows from the nearness and presence of God in our midst and in our hearts. Nothing can ever take that from us, but it can be carelessly thrown away.

Zephaniah is a fine example of this insight into the nature of joy. Scholars are unsure when it was written — one can connect it with several periods in Israel’s history. But for our purpose it does not matter, for its message is eternally applicable.

The Book of Zephaniah warns of an impending judgment and wrathful Day of the Lord. The inhabitants of Judah have brought this on their own heads by their corruption, idolatry and infidelity to God. The image of the day of wrath lurks perpetually in the background of human consciousness and forms part of our collective image of God.

But the frightening message was followed by one of hope and joy, which is the core of today’s reading.

The people are exhorted to shout aloud and sing for joy, for God is in their midst. God is not angry with them; God has removed all judgments as well as the threats that had surrounded them. God rejoiced in His people and was set to renew them in His love.

Human afflictions are usually our own doing but they are also passing in nature. God’s intention and goal for us are always new life and joy. If we seek God in our midst, we can begin to experience that joy now, even as negative events swirl around us.

In the same way, Paul urged his community to rejoice in the Lord always — not sometimes, but always. True, he expected the imminent return of Jesus, but his exhortation is not dependent on that expectation.

The Lord is always near in the spirit. This awareness should be reflected in gentleness and an absence of fear and worry. It is the self-assurance that results from the Lord’s nearness. The immediate gift is the peace of God, which cannot be understood in human terms and indeed seems inexplicable to many. The presence of this peace, joy and gentleness is the most effective proclamation of the Gospel imaginable.

Those who heard the preaching of John the Baptist were seized by the same fearful expectation as people in the time of Zephaniah’s prophecies. God was approaching; there would be a terrible day of reckoning and judgment.

They all pressed John with the obvious question: What should we do?

The answer was dazzlingly simple and did not include any explicitly religious practices. Share what you have with those in need. Do not abuse power or oppress others. Behave with justice, especially in your duties. Is that all? That is certainly enough, and humanity has enough trouble with these.

Their hearts were roused and they began to think of John in terms of the promised Messiah. But it was a role that John refused. His mission was to prepare them for the greatest gift from God that one could imagine — the fire of the Holy Spirit. It would be a time of great separation between those eager for God’s reign and those who simply did not care.

John’s preaching was perhaps a bit heavier on the fire and brimstone than we are comfortable with today. But his message is still on target: make a fundamental choice for or against God. And that choice is not one of words or ideas, but a choice from the heart, revealed in compassion, generosity of heart and solidarity with others.

As we face the same frightening world as in John’s time, his answer to the crowds provides us with the tools we need to weather the storm.

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