Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-18a | Philippians 4:4-7| Luke 3:10-18
Oh, God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
We’re now on our third Sunday of this great season of Advent, a season announcing something that’s coming. We know that what’s coming is a kingdom, the kingdom of God, and we know a couple of things about it. It’s inside of us. It’s not necessarily something we should look for outside. It’s a feeling. It’s a disposition deep within us, and it’s here now. It’s not about something in the future where things are going to get better. No, it’s exactly enough right now. It’s exactly what it needs to be now to produce something, and what it’s producing, according to the set of readings we’ve just listened to is an amazing quality, amazing disposition. It can be summed up in one word — peace. Peace. It may sound like it means no struggle, no tension, everything is just fine and calm, but it doesn’t mean that in terms of the external world we live in. It has something to do with the internal world, the world that is truly us, the world that is forming us, guiding us, supporting us and even harming us at times. But in that inner world, what we’re looking for is a place of calm, a place of well-being that creates not just peace, but the peace brings a kind of joy, a kind of happiness that’s not the gigantic, elated thing where we’re jumping up and down because we just won the lottery or something like that, but it’s about a kind of calm, inner happiness. All is well. All will be well, Julian of Norwich.
So how do we get this place, or what is it, or how do we engage in it? It’s clear to me that I often don’t live there, and it’s probably true for you too. We get caught up in worry and anxiety, but this Sunday always, the third Sunday, is dedicated to this gift that we’re promised if we enter into the inner kingdom and we live it as it was intended to be lived. So let’s look at what creates this peace. Where does it come from? What does it take for us to stay in it? Well, the one thing — let’s look at the first Sunday. The first Sunday of Advent was we have to go through changes. Anybody that wants to enter into this inner kingdom has to let go of the outer kingdom, so to speak, the way the world would tell us we should live to be happy, no problems, having everything we want, having more than somebody else, being the best, whatever. If your world is based in those things and you have to die to that, the world feels like it’s completely falling apart. So we were told be careful about what looks like the end, because it may simply be the transformation, the radical transformation you need to go through in order to get to this place called the kingdom. You have to die to everything that’s not the kingdom. Then the next Sunday was about the journey, the path. We have to make this journey of movement towards truth, towards wholeness, towards authenticity, and it’s difficult, and it has deep, deep valleys and high, high peaks and lots of confusing directions and constant obstacles. But something, I’ll call it hope, trust, those virtues keep us moving so that the darkness is not so dark, and the high peak is not as exciting as we thought it would be. Being confused at times is not really as unsettling as we think it is, and daily obstacles, well, we can learn how to deal with those. So now what are we looking at? Where do we find peace?
Well, the first thing that I sense in this quest is that we see something in the first reading that is unusual in a way, because I tend to think about how can we show God that we’re thankful for him. How can we be grateful? “Thank you, God, for giving me my life. Thank you, God, for this. Thank you for that.” The word Eucharist means thanks. We gather week after week to give thanks to God for our life. What’s interesting about this first reading, it’s really not about we giving thanks to God, and he’s so happy. It’s he [sic] feeling enormous satisfaction and joy and peace as he looks at who we are, at what he created. He delights in us. He looks at us and absolutely, totally falls in love with what he created, and he’s delighted in it. And he knows it’s imperfect. He knows he made it that way, and so what I sense in this first reading is one of the core, I would say, foundations of our sense of peace is that, as messed up as we are and as filled with failure and doubt as we are, there’s something about us that God just looks at and says, “Wow, look at what I created. It is absolutely beautiful.” And when you see something beautiful, you have three reactions, because we’re made like God, and God has these reactions. I take pleasure in what is beautiful. I want to protect what is beautiful. I want to participate in it. I want to be a part of it. That’s what God sees in us. He wants to be a part of our life. He wants to participate with us in this process. He wants to enter into us, live with us, dwell with us, go on the journey with us with all of its mess and all of its sin. He says, “I want to be right there, please. I really like being with you.” God, how many years of doubt and struggle I’ve had trying to please God by being perfect, and I think, if I’m not, I always thought I’d lose his favor. He smiles at our mistakes, and he’s sad, because they cause us pain and others. But it never ever weakens his love, his affection, his attention.
Then Paul talks about how we should be so delighted in this work that God has given to us. If we understand our work and we do the work that God has given us, we live the gospel, we’re going to find great satisfaction. So it’s about finding peace in what you’re doing — what you’re doing. That’s a really interesting image. What is it that we do that brings us peace? What is it that we don’t do or do that causes anxiety and worry? Well, I was struck in the gospel by the words that John the Baptist gives to these people that come up, because he’s been telling them, “This is happening. This new thing is coming. This promise that we’ve always had that this God of ours is going to enter into a new relationship with us, it’s going to be much more intimate than it was in the Old Testament, and we’re going to be given a gift called redemption.” He didn’t use that word, but he meant we would be made new, and we’d be given more insight.
The way I like to think about this is that we’re growing with this gigantic thrust into deeper awareness of what is real, growing in a gigantic leap of consciousness. I think it’s fascinating to think about the growth of consciousness of human beings. When God first called Abraham, that was 4,000 years ago, and he dealt with him as God had to deal with people. And he dealt with him in a way that is radically different than the way he fully revealed himself to be in terms of the way he works with us. In the beginning, he was demanding and often irritated by faults and wanted to destroy that which wasn’t good, and then you find he’s not interested in anything that’s like destruction. What he wants is transformation. He wants to renew. He wants to save, save things and bring them into fullness. We’re obviously living now, 4,000 years after that event, in a world where we’re much more receptive to this kind of direction, not being condemned, not being judged, not being threatened with punishment but being invited into something wonderful, into some new life. This new life has a kind of litmus test. I don't know if that’s the right word, but if you want to know whether you’re living in the kingdom, you’ll know it by the amount of peace that you have.
Now, we’re not talking about everything being fine. We’re not talking about your financial situation, the relationships in families. We’re not talking about those all being perfect and peaceful. No, we’re talking about a way of seeing the world that you’re living in that goes beyond the tensions that are there, beyond the fears that might be there that are literal. I worry about this person. They may be making a terrible mistake, and I’m hoping they don’t. That kind of anxiety is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something much, much deeper, like somehow knowing in the midst of all of it there’s a core, quiet, still place I go inside of me where I know my God is there, and I’m with him, and he’s delighted at the way things are going, not because they’re going well, because they are. He delights in what he created. He created a world with suffering, with pain, and I’m not saying he delights in pain and suffering, but he delights in what they can create. And they have this mysterious property of being able to create something for us that’s positive.
So I look at John the Baptist announcing all this. He’s saying, “Look, this is coming. This is going to be wonderful.” And so there are two groups of people that come up to him and say, “Well, what should we do? You’re talking about a kingdom of peace, a kingdom of joy, a kingdom of life. What do we do? What’s our part? How do we get it?” And his answers are amazingly simple and not what I would have expected. When I think about what it is the church has generally required for holiness, it’s like a life of austerity, a life of separation from the world, the monks that go away to be holy. They give up family, and they give up sex, and they give up connections with pleasure, and they live in a quiet, still place. There’s a real, honest vocation in that, but that’s not the model for our holiness. It’s not. This is not something you have to go away from the world to achieve. It’s something that you achieve by living in the world in the way God intends you to live in it, and so listen to what advice he gives to the tax collectors. Now, these were people that were outcasts. They were Jews that were working for the enemy, Rome. So right away they’re kind of on the outs, so they may be more open to asking a question like, “How do I get out of this mess I’m in?” And so they say, “What shall we do?” And he said, “Well, don’t charge more than you’re supposed to.” That’s it? That’s going to bring peace? That’s going to bring the kingdom? What does that mean? Well, think of it symbolically. The toll collector, someone that helps people get from place to place, to pay what it costs to move on to a new level, a new, deeper understanding, and we’re all called to help each other do that. What he’s saying is, “Help each other do that, but don’t use it to get something from them. Don’t manipulate them. Don’t be selfish in this. Just help them to get to the new place. That’s just enough — enough.” Do what you’re called to do authentically, and you’ll find peace.
Then soldiers come up. It’s interesting. The centurions were often closer to Jesus, because they understood. Soldiers understood how authority worked, and authority was everything about the way they saw power, and they saw that power in Jesus, so they were more open to him. So the centurions say, “What shall we do?” And again, the advice is so interesting. Don’t use your power as extortion. Don’t take bribes. Don’t use it for selfish reasons, and furthermore, when you’re dealing with people and you’re in a place of authority, whatever you do, don’t lie. Don’t accuse somebody of something if they’re not — be honest. And then the last one is so funny to me. Stop complaining about your wages. Just do what you’re to do authentically.
Authenticity, what an interesting image.To be authentic is the key to finding peace.I’m simply doing what I’m called to do, and my intention is in sync with my nature.My nature is I should do what I’m called to do to help other people.The first one was about people who had two coats and food.That was the one that, if you have something, give it to people.You’re here to help people.You’re here to help them move along.You’re here to guide them and to protect them from things outside of themselves, but you do it with integrity.And so my suggestion to wonder about at this time is what is authenticity in my life.Do I really feel that I am the person that I’m called to be, and how do I know that, that my intention, what I’m here for, is really in sync with my nature?Intention and my nature, when those two are together, and not the nature I may think I have but the nature I truly have — so when you ask God, “God, show me who I am.Help me understand my role,” well, do your job.Everybody has a little job, a little different job.Just do it with authenticity.Do it with the right intention, and all of a sudden, there’s this kind of well-being that comes over you.I can feel it at times when I’m doing that.I do this work.I get up, and I preach.I do this.If I’m trying to win your favor, it gets in the way.If I’m trying to preach better than somebody else, it gets in the way.If I’m just doing it because I’m called to do it, then there’s peace.
Father, your affection, your care, your interest in our lives is something hard for us to grasp. We work too hard for human relationships. We struggle to please them, yet you tell us we should not do that with you. We should allow you to simply be the source of what makes this relationship so deep, so profound, your attention, your affection. Bless us with an awareness of it as we continue to do the work you’ve given us with authentic hearts so that we can be truly effective and, in our effectiveness, find that great, great gift of peace. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.