By Debie Thomas

The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday.” “Gaudete in Domino semper,” St. Paul writes in his letter to the Phillipians. “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

In many churches, the penitential purple of the season is put aside this weekend, in favor of a lighter, happier rose. The lectionary readings call for exuberant celebration and worship. “Sing aloud!” the prophet Zephaniah instructs us. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” “Shout aloud and sing for joy,” says the prophet Isaiah. “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously.”

These are beautiful exhortations, and I wish I didn’t find them so jarring. But “rejoice” and “exult” are churchy words — words that don’t jibe easily with my 21st century mindset. “Joy” itself is such an overused word in America’s Christmas lexicon, I find it inpenetrable. And as for shouting aloud? That’s a pretty tall order for a self-conscious introvert. Worse, “gaudete” is an imperative; the lectionary essentially commands us to rejoice. Even on my best days, I resent commands — especially the sort that tell me what to feel. Rejoice? Sing praises? Shout? “No!” my inner two-year-old screams, stomping her foot and crossing her arms. “I don’t want to.”

And that’s on good days. What about on bad days? How are we supposed to rejoice when our hearts are breaking? What songs of gladness can we sing when despair, exhaustion, and fear darken our lives? Do these readings advocate pretense? Inauthenticity?

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I don’t think so, but the challenge to “rejoice” remains just that — a challenge. Luckily, the lectionary doesn’t leave us high and dry. Cue the Gospel reading. Cue John the curmudgeonly Baptist, the bearded killjoy of Christmas.

“You brood of vipers!” he shouts across the wilderness in the Gospel of Luke. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

The fact that these harsh, austere words belong to Advent is both remarkable and refreshing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get called a “viper” very often, and I have to confess: something in me perks up. At last! Hard words for hard lives. Nothing saccharine, nothing I might scrawl across a Hallmark card or stuff into a giftbox. “You brood of vipers!” Repent. Bear fruit. Wake UP.

According to Luke, great crowds stream into the desert to get yelled at by John. Why? Why are they willing — no, eager — to hear his fire-and-brimstone preaching? What attracts them?

The first clue lies in the question they ask John at the conclusion of his sermon. “What should we do?” That’s not necessarily a question people ask when things are going well. It’s the question we ask when we’ve come to the ends of ourselves. When the received wisdom has failed, when our cherished defenses are down, when our lives are splitting at the seams. It’s what we ask when we’re weary, bored, disillusioned, or desperate. “What should we do?

So here’s the challenge: is this a question we’re asking during this Advent season? As we wait in the darkness, as we look forward with hope to the coming of the Messiah, are we engaging in the kind of robust self-reflection that leads to action? Or are we smug, complacent, and sluggish? Are we flocking, like the crowds in John’s story, towards genuine repentance? Or are we turning away, offended that repentance has a place in the Christmas story?

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John’s answer to the crowd’s question provides our second clue. Imagine him if you will — a wild beast of a man, ascetic and rough. Dressed in camel’s hair and fueled by locusts, his very appearance bespeaks the margins. What do the crowds think such a fringe character will say in answer to their question? “Abandon your homes and families?” “Dwell in the desert?” “Start a revolution?”

Given John’s demeanor, the crowds might very well expect such radicalism. But the answer he gives them is even more radical than they have language to comprehend — so radical we stand in danger of missing it: What should you do? You should go home.

Go home to your families, your neighbors, your vocations, your colleagues. Stop fleeing. Stop insisting that God is far away from the nitty-gritty dailiness of your particular life. Instead of waiting for a holy someday that will never come, inhabit the stuff of your life as deeply and as generously as you can right now. Share now. Be merciful now. Do justice now. Inhabit your life, no matter how plain, how obscure, how unglamorous, how routine. Why? Because the holy ground that matters most is the ground beneath your feet.

Wait. Is this really what John says? It is; look at the text. To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the mercenaries: “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations; be satisfied with your wages.” To the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Don’t allow your religious heritage to make you arrogant or complacent.” To everyone who has anything: “You have gifts to give. So stop hoarding. Stop procrastinating. Stop making excuses. The day of repentance is now.”

What John is daring to suggest to his listeners is that holiness is not the ethereal and mysterious thing we tend to make it. If we’re willing to look closely, if we’re willing to believe that nothing in our lives is too mundane or secular for God, then we’ll understand that all the possibilities for salvation we need are embedded in the lives God has already given us. There is no “outside.” We don’t have to look “out there.” The kingdom of heaven is here, within and among us.

What does this mean? It means we have work to do — work so ordinary, it will almost definitely disappoint us. I wonder how those tax collectors felt the next time they headed out to collect money. Wait, God’s kingdom is here? Here in this hated profession? Here among people who’d just as soon spit in my face as pay me what they owe me? God cares how I live here?

Yes. Yes, God cares how we live here.

The Gospel writer calls John’s exhortation “good news.” And it is. If you’ve believed in your heart that your life — your family, your heritage, your vocation, your life stage — is outside the purview of God’s saving goodness — then what John has to say is good news indeed. Your life is infinitely dear. Nothing in it is beyond redemption. Nothing.

John concludes his sermon in the wilderness with a harrowing description of the coming Messiah: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

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Okay, how is this good news, this portrait of a Jesus who judges, sorts, burns, and gathers us? I believe we squirm at such language because we misconstrue the meaning of judgment. We tend to equate judgment with condemnation, but in fact, to judge something is to see it clearly — to know it as it truly is. In my dictionary, synonyms for judgment include discernment, acuity, sharpness, and perception.

What if John is saying that the Messiah who is coming really sees us? That he knows us at our very core? Maybe the winnowing fork is an instrument of perceptive love, patiently wielded by the One who discerns in us rich harvests still hidden by chaff. Maybe it’s in offering God every particular of our lives that we give Him permission to “clear” us — to separate all that’s destructive from all that is good, beautiful, and priceless.

I called John the Baptist a curmudgeon, but here’s an ironic little fact: he is the patron saint of spiritual joy. He was still a fetus when he first leapt at the presence of Mary and Jesus. He rejoiced at the sound of his “bridegroom’s” voice. When it was time for him to “decrease” so that Jesus could “increase,” he did so willingly, saying, “My joy is now full.”

So where does joy come from? Maybe it comes from true repentance. From the great relief of laying our burdens down. Maybe joy comes when we hear a shockingly painful truth about ourselves — “You brood of vipers!” — and decide to listen rather than run.

The thing is, odd and crusty as John is, he understands something hard and flinty about joy. Joy is not sentiment. Joy is not happiness. Joy is not cheap. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John tells the crowds who flock to him in the Judean wilderness. Bear fruit — bring it forth. But also, bear it — carry it, shoulder it, endure it. Your life is a golden field, ripe for sacred fire. Yes, the fire hurts, but the One who wields the flame is trustworthy. He knows you. He sees you. He loves you. And he will gather you with joy.

Image credits: (1) Athineon.com; (2) Eastern Giftshop; and (3) Sacred Murals Studio.

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