Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
The exultancy of the first readings today shatters any gloom that might threaten us! “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O, Israel! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you … he will rejoice over you with gladness!” Paul echoes this joyful strain of good news as he declares in Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice … the Lord is near.” The promise of Israel’s return, of the expectant closeness of God is cause for rejoicing, always. Yes, we speak often and strongly about the need for repentance during this season of Advent, and John the Baptist reminds us, least we forget. We are called this day to remember, however, that repentance is a turning to God; that repentance means we are called to turn our bodies, minds, and spirits to the God whose beauty, grace, and love are so overflowing and transcendent that our only reply can be, will be, joy.
We have talked about the importance of not becoming too caught up in the joy and flow of Christmas as it approaches, in the first two Sundays of Advent. Today is “Rose” Sunday, as the third Advent candle reminds us; today is an occasion, perhaps, for us to pause from our turning inward and outward toward the challenges of the world and to face, instead, toward the joyful expectancy of our God’s coming. Zephaniah is filled with the joyful hope of the return of Israel from exile in Babylon – the gratitude and blessing of God’s deliverance from physical and spiritual bondage. The First Song of Isaiah carries the same promise, acknowledging that surely it is God who saves us, therefore our response is to “draw water with rejoicing [that word once again] from the springs of salvation.”
So, the word of the day: rejoice – to not only possess joy in our spirits but to express that joy to God. To praise. To worship. But suddenly, like someone violently scratching the needle across and off our favorite Christmas album, John, the ultimate buzzkill, shouts out “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” Well, uh, you did John. What do you think you have been crowing about for the last month or two? Repent! So, here we are! Don’t be mean to us. What do we need to do? What is this repentance? And how might it become a source of joy.
John is very rough around the edges but he is, in his way, proclaiming a message of good news. The good news is that we are saved, we are not abandoned by God, that God is near, in Jesus, the Christ. John’s call to repentance and righteousness is not bad news at all. It is calling us to turn to the goodness and light of God, because it is not only good, but a source of strength and joy for all, Yes, some purifying is required. When we turn our lives to receive the joy of God and to radiate our own discovered joy back to God, we sometimes have things in the way; walls that prevent our turning, challenges that may make life with God difficult if not impossible. Our praise can be muted. Turning is not always as easy as swiftly pivoting to God in the blink of an eye. Sometimes, we have to shed a bit of skin first but it actually makes the beauty and radiance of God – as we throw off whatever casts a shadow over us - all the more joyful.
There is a wonderful book in the Chronicles of Narnia series called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I want to say it is the fourth book in the seven-book series. The story introduces a new character to the world of Narnia – a rather unpleasant, entitled, angry, bitter, and self-absorbed 11-year-old boy with the rather appropriate name: Eustace Scrubb. And Eustace is transported, as all initially are in the series, to the world of Narnia, a world that is not necessarily heaven but certainly not earth or hell either. And Eustace is miserable. He complains loudly in his diary about everything and everyone and makes no friends on the ship. He is selfish, self-absorbed, and muted to the beauty of the sea and the people around him.
The Dawn Treader eventually comes to an island and Eustace separates himself from the group, and stumbles into a cave where he discovers a treasure trove of gold, jewels, and much more. He places a beautiful gold bracelet on his arm and then falls asleep. When he wakes up, he feels a searing pain in his arm and, through a couple of circumstances, discovers he has become a dragon – the outward expression of his inner self. The bracelet that he put on his arm is now much too small for his huge dragon leg but he can do nothing about it; it causes him searing pain. But, as a dragon, now feared by everyone, he slowly begins a transformation, a new becoming. He helps the crew of the Dawn Treader in a number of ways and they slowly realize that this dragon they feared is Eustace. He laments and now desires to be a boy again, but he doesn’t know how. Suddenly, Aslan the Lion appears (the Christ figure of the story). He leads Eustace to a mountain stream and tells him he cannot go in “dressed”; he must take off his clothes/skin. Eustace tries three times and peels off his skin. But each time, he is the same dragon underneath. Finally, Aslan offers to “undress” him and, though Eustace fears Aslan’s claws, he says yes, and lays on his back, exposing his belly.
As Aslan’s claws tear into Eustace’s flesh, it hurts worse than anything he has ever experienced. He is able to bear it, though he feels Aslan’s claws are cutting all the way down to his heart. When the skin comes off, Aslan takes hold of his still dragon body, without its protective shell, and places him into the water. It hurts at first, but then the pain that he had in his dragon leg from the bracelet goes away and then he begins to swim and realizes that he is a boy again; the dragon is gone.
I am not able to fully convey the power of Eustace’s transformation or of this scene, but it has always remained with me. Lewis’ story gives me the sense that repentance, turning to the potential joy of God, is not easy or painless. Yet, we need not fear it because the joy that awaits us as Christ comes more fully into our lives is impossible to describe. Christ calls for us to turn to his joyful presence and be filled with joy, in turn. Repenting and turning to the Lord holds a promise: of hope, love, comfort, strength and yes, oh yes, of joy. And when we feel the joy of God’s love in Christ all we can do is praise. That is what we were made for.
The final part of my vows when I was ordained a priest is spoken by the Bishop: “And in all things you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of His grace and strengthen them to praise God in this life and in the life to come.” This is actually the charge of us all. The Lord is near, the Lord is open, the God of all history wishes joy for us. It is hard to be joyful, so much of the time, in this broken world. We have deep sources of joy, often, in our children, friends, work, and communities. But nothing compares to the joy that awaits us as we turn our lives and offer our pain to the One who heals. We don’t always realize how beautiful God is in Christ Jesus. Let us sing of God, pray to God, and begin to turn more fully ourselves to the Lord who can love us into joy.