Zephanaia 3:17, 19:
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength
and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water
from the wells of salvation.
And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord,
for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy,
O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the
Holy One of Israel.
Philippians 4:4-7: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 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.
Luke 3:7-18: John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. 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.
Isaiah tells listeners to sing for joy and Philippians tells us to rejoice always… Rejoicing or joy is the theme that holds these readings for today together. Joy over what God has done. Joy over God’s presence. Joy over help in the past and promised help ahead. Joy over God being our salvation.
But then there is John the Baptist. You may remember him from last week’s reading and sermon – you know, the guy who came out of the desert or wilderness, telling people to prepare the way for the Lord and to repent. And if he didn’t make himself somewhat unwelcome shouting “REPENT” last week, today he greets people by calling them a “Brood of vipers” and announcing that an ax is waiting to cut them down if their repentance does not bear fruit. Fruit that shows itself in how they live their lives. He says whatever status you may claim and whatever position you think you hold and whatever label you put upon yourself – like that of being ancestors of Abraham - is not good enough. It isn’t who you are but what you do that matters.
It seems surprising that people did not just turn around and walk away. It seems surprising that people did not shush him but instead they respond by asking him a question. “WHAT THEN SHOULD WE DO?” No denial; no nothing. Maybe they could hear the truth in John’s words. Maybe they understood that his words were not words of judgement but words of love and concern. Because John knew what is often overlook – that salvation of one depends on salvation of all;the salvation of each one of us depends on the salvation of all of creation; the new heaven and new earth that we are promised are a new heaven and new earth – a new, harmonious way of living in community – for all.
And as we hear the words of John, we, like his first listeners, know that not all is well in this world. Humankind has done much harm. Wars, pollution, lack of care for rain forests and oceans, toxic emission, climate change, dishonesty, a desire for power and might, and our failure to fully love and be thankful for all that God has given us are all sin. “What then should we do”?
John ‘s advice is simple.
First John tells the crowd – the ordinary people – us - that “whoever has two coats must share one with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”. John’s simple request is a reminder that maybe, just maybe, there would be less fear and less unfilled needs in the world if we realized that there is enough to go around if we divide it accordingly. Note that John does not tell anybody to give their only coat or best coat, but for each according to their ability – if you have two then share one. If you have been given more than needed, give out of your abundance.
After that, John seems to address the business people and lawmakers and the powerful of his time; he tells them “not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations” and he tells the soldiers to not collect more than prescribed to you” and “be satisfied with your wages.” The latter is a bit hard in today’s time, knowing that soldiers are often paid very little and many even qualify for food stamps. However, back then soldiers may have extorted money or things from people because their duties were different from soldiers today. And so, John is telling all his listeners to not take advantage of their position to the detriment of others. Do not abuse your power but be aware of it. Know your privileged position and don’t hold it over people’s head but use it wisely and for the better of all of society. Stand on the side of justice, peace and fairness.
Just the other day I read once again about a drug company raising the prices of one of their drugs – drugs that are lifesaving medication to others and that are now no longer affordable. The price of insulin in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2012. That has put the life-saving hormone out of reach for some people with diabetes and it has left others scrambling for solutions to afford the one thing they need to live – all while pharmaceutical companies already have some of the highest profit margins. And this isn’t to rant about pharmaceutical companies, but just to wonder – what does this say about us and about society? Don’t make people poor just so you can be richer and don’t take from those who already can’t make ends meet – Paul tells the bankers and CEOs and quick check cashing lenders and lawmakers and corrupt business people and those who worship money over God.
And with all of this, John is telling his audience just what lived repentance looks like. No, it isn’t just about saying we are sorry. No, it isn’t who we are but what we do – it is not just through inheritance and by claiming Abraham as our ancestor or God as our Father or Jesus as our brother - and ourselves as heirs of the kingdom of God - but it is in how we live into this holy calling and how we love God and each other. It is about being turned from stones into true children of God. It is about how repentance is lived out and how it changes us, John tells us.
Still! Where is the Good News, where is the joy, I wonder.
John also tells us that one, more powerful, is coming, that the one who is coming will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit. In the midst of all this talk of repentance, there are the voices of Isaiah and Paul telling us to Rejoice – REJOICE, the Lord is coming. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, they remind us. Yes, things aren’t perfect. The world isn’t perfect. We aren’t perfect. But nevertheless, hear the Good News: YOU have been found acceptable and YOU are loved, and YOU are lovable.
In the words of Zephaniah, a Hebrew Scripture reading for today: The Lord your God is in your midst. God will rejoice over you with gladness. God will renew you. Isaiah tells us that the Lord is coming – not if or when - but the Lord is coming! And the Lord is our salvation. And we know – we already know - God is Emmanuel, God-with-us – God is already here.
When we accept this and know this, then we will forever be changed. All we need to do is to open ourselves to God’s immense love and make everything known to God; THEN the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus and the re-envisioned life John exhorts us to live becomes our new normal.
“"Even as we await Christmas, God is with us, salvation is here, and Christ has already been born in our hearts. Even as we prepare to celebrate Christ being born anew, we are called to live fruitful lives today, to proclaim the One who delivers the lame and who gathers the outcast, our God who is our strength and our shield, both now and forevermore. No wonder we are called to rejoice."
REJOICE - GOD IS IN OUR MIDST!”
REJOICE - we can be and are partners with God in the redemption of all of creation
REJOICE - God’s love will prevail. God and love will be all in all. Because God is in our midst.
Let us rejoice in the Lord, always, I say – rejoice!
 https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/09/01/641615877/insulins-high-cost-leads-to-lethal-rationing, https://yourbusiness.azcentral.com/average-profit-margin-pharmaceuticals-20671.html, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-28212223
 Today’s Hebrew Scripture is Zephanaia 4:14-20. The reading from Isaiah 12:2-6 is today’s reading in lieu of a reading from the Book of Psalms.
 Beu, B. J.. The Abingdon Worship Annual 2018: Worship Planning Resources for Every Sunday of the Year.