Ian Digby, Homilist
Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-; Luke 3:7-18
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always pleasing to you, my God.
Good morning, and I offer a warm welcome to visitors who are joining us at Holy Trinity for the first time today. My name is Ian Digby, and I am a long-term but sometimes irregular member of this congregation. It is a pleasure to work through the Bible readings with you today for the first time in many years.
We are now at the third Sunday of Advent, three quarters of the way along the path of waiting for the coming of the Christ Child. This is often known as GaudeteSunday from the Latin word for “Rejoice”. It is called Guadete because of the repeated references to Rejoicing and Gladness in the readings and music. The Ancient Hebrew texts tell us to “Sing aloud, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” Paul, writing from his jail cell under the Roman occupation, tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord Always”. There is hope and expectation in the air, the Christ child is coming!
But for many of us we have an internal conflict with this guidance. For this is the darkest period of the year, a time of cold, rain and snow, and a time when life is hard. Many people suffer seasonal affective disorder and depression at this time of year. Life is difficult for those with disabilities and health problems. Many are suffering pain, and many are sick or dying. Around the world there is poverty, injustice, civil crisis and war. And in the midst of this dark period, this week we also struggle with an event of unspeakable horror that occurred in the United States.
So, while acknowledging that we live in a very difficult world, my challenge in this Homily is to balance the difficulties with the call to “Rejoice!” And in this balance, I want to talk about the urgency of action. The Bible tell us that the Rejoicing must begin now, and the actions must be those of social justice.
In the late 18th century, the German poet and philosopher Johann Goethe pronounced on the idea of action in a quote that has been much repeated. Goethe writes “Whatever you can do or dream you can… begin it now.” There is a need for action and commitment to heal the sick world around us, and it must begin with a first step.I will speak about Goethe more in a moment, but before we go there let’s review the texts.
We start with the book of Zephaniah, which is attributed to several different prophets from about 600 BC. In this book the writer makes great promises to an oppressed people who have suffered enemies and been outcast. Earlier in the writing, Zephaniah describes the world they inhabit as a “soiled, defiled [and] oppressing city” which is filled with reckless and faithless officials and judges.
But even in this oppressive context, the prophet tell the people to “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! … Yahweh is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” Zephaniah tells us that God will rejoice over the people with gladness, remove disaster from them, deal with their oppressors, and bring them home. These are great promises, that many in the modern day would wish for. But Zephaniah’s people of twenty-seven centuries ago were unlikely to have experienced these dreams in the way imagined by the prophet. Historically we know that there was — and continues to be — much more suffering to experience. But the promise was written in this ancient text, to be called on again by later preachers at the time of Jesus.
Likewise, the psalm from Isaiah, which occurs in basically the same time period and social context as Zephaniah, carries a similar message. Even in a period of great political unrest, turmoil and injustice the prophet says: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for Yahweh is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
So where does one find that strength? Where does one draw the energy to act in the face of deceit and oppression? I’d like to read with you some of Goethe’s writing for inspiration. The quote I am referring to is variously titled “On Commitment” or “Begin it now”. Here’s what he says:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness… The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”
I find this tremendously powerful, especially at times of indecision or paralysis. A first step is always required to make the journey. A phone call or conversation is needed to understand a social issue and commit to change it. Witness the wider discussion that has occurred in this parish since Michael Creal’s recent homily on refugees, and the action in the national church that has come out of it. Witness the movement that developed around the proposed Mega-Quarry in Melancthon Township with musicians, chefs, politicians and neighbours joining for a common cause to stop the Quarry. They all started with a few neighbours alarmed with a common threat, and deciding to act on it.
What Goethe says is that when we make a decision to act, “All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.” Move on what is before you and “A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance…”
So let’s try to merge the words of Goethe and the Ancient texts with today’s Gospel. Imagine that we are in a crowd flocking to hear a radical preacher named John. He is baptizing believers on the shores of the River Jordan, and causing a lot of excitement. You approach the preacher, expecting perhaps to hear some motivational words. Instead, this is what he says: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?… Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…”
Rather than reassuring and calming this crowd, John tells them that they are self-righteous and prideful. They claim their strength from their ancestor Abraham, but they are no more worthy in God’s eyes than the gravel on the ground. John goes on with a blunt message that those among them who aren’t producing good fruit will be cut down with an axe. They ask him “what should we do?”, and what follows is a list of actions: share your coat with someone who is cold; give food to the needy; those who are Tax collectors should do their work justly; those who are soldiers should use their power justly. Use the skills and services you have to do good works. To a reader in the 21st century, these directions from John sound like the basic moral values that we teach our children in Kindergarten: share what you have, be kind, don’t be a bully. But at the time of John, this was a phenomenal revelation and something truly worth noting.
Just on the cusp of the coming of Jesus, John is turning social philosophy of the day on its head and giving new guidance for how to live life. Not only is he saying “Trust in Yahweh”, but he is imploring the people to “Act on it”. And moreover John is only the precursor. What he is offering is just a taste of things to come, for just around the corner is an even greater prophet who “will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
So we can see a common pathway in these writings. We are implored to see the world around us for what it is, its oppression, its hardship. This is not candy coating to try to ignore what is evident around us. But also among the hardship seek the Spirit of God, then choose the path of justice, of fairness, of anti-oppression. And don’t just wait for others to do it, or hesitate in your convictions, but “Begin it Now”.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians, written from the challenging conditions as a Roman prisoner, with an unknown fate before him, expresses this well. Saint Paul writes “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is what God is calling us to do — to rejoice and begin it now.
I’ll end with words from the opening hymn today, which resonates with these ideas:
Although you go forth weeping
Carrying your seeds to be sown,
You shall come back rejoicing
Carrying your sheaves full grown.