Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 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. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD. (Zephaniah 3:14, 17, 20)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)
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." (Luke 3:7-9)
The movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are was released this fall. In its opening scenes, we see Max outside playing in the snow. With our own first major snow of the season happening this week, we all know the joy of playing in the snow. Snow is magical – it floats to the ground and creates soft, white drifts. Each flake is delicate and wondrously different. We know the secret smile that fills our hearts when we look outside and find our world transformed by a blanket of white.
So we feel Max’s joy when he runs around in the snow, kicking it up around him and starting construction on a kid-sized snow fort. He works with excitement to pack the snow into a mound and to carve out a tunnel that he can slide into. His diligent work is nothing but joy. When he finishes building up the walls and slides into his fort for the first time, we get the sense that he is warm and safe inside, protected from the cold and the outside world.
He uses his fort as a safe space to build snowballs, which he then throws as his older sister and her friends as they leave the house to go drive around town. With child-like glee, he hurls snowballs across the yard, and begins a big snowball fight. Everyone is laughing and having fun at first. But as the fight continues, and as Max begins to find himself on the losing end of the battle, he again dives into his fort for protection. Without thinking, his opponents pounce on the fort, collapsing its roof and crumbling the whole structure. In an instant, Max’s joy comes crashing down around him.
This is how today’s readings feel. We listen to Zephaniah’s words of promise and hope in our first reading. We hear the joyous news that God will renew and save and heal his people. More than that, we hear in Zephaniah that God himself will rejoice over his people and exult over them with loud singing!
We then hear Paul’s words to the Philippians. “Rejoice!” he tells them. Rejoice in God’s assurance and peace. Rejoice, for the Lord is near.
And then, John the Baptist comes along. Like the big kids who stomp all over Max’s fort, John shows up and stomps all over the joy of the first two readings, with his biting accusations and strong exhortations. Just when we most want to hear from him a word of joy about the coming Messiah, he instead preaches what feels like some pretty serious hellfire and brimstone.
We know that Advent is a season of waiting, but we always expect Advent to be a time of joyful waiting. So how do John’s harsh words about repentance fit into this season of hope and joy? How do they fit in with Zephaniah’s exhortation to “Sing aloud, O Israel; rejoice and exult with all your heart?”
Max comes in from the cold, mad at his sister for ditching him, and mad at her friends for crushing his fort. Max spends the evening mad at his single mother for beginning to date again. His whole world seems to be crashing down around him, and so he runs away. He finds a small boat at the edge of the pond, gets in it, and rows himself to the land of the wild things. This is a land that he hopes will be a new home – a perfect, wonderful place immune to things that hurt him, confuse him, or make him sad. He hopes that this new land will be a place of joy.
We and the crowds in today’s gospel aren’t so different from Max. When times get tough, when things look bleak, we want to put our trust in our own lands of wild things. We hope that we can rely on ourselves, our world, our traditions, our wealth, or our power. We, sinners, have all strayed from home, hoping to find elsewhere the things will bring us joy.
Max learns quickly that life among the wild things isn’t all he hoped it would be. His status as “king of the wild things” doesn’t make him invincible. His wild friends are a precarious mix of love and brokenness, just like his own family back home. Away in a distant land, betrayal and hurt and sadness feel more profound and life feels more unpredictable. So, disappointed and homesick, Max journeys back to the real world, back to his own street and his own house.
John’s words are for all of us who have ever journeyed to the land of the wild things and found it wanting. John’s words come to us when our souls are lonely and our spirits are longing for home. John’s words come to us when we have relied on ourselves, on others, on this world for joy, and have come up short. In spiritually homesick times, John encourages us to do the hard work of self-reflection and repentance. Repentance, after all, means “to turn,” or “to turn back.” Repentance means coming home to God by dying to sin and rising in Christ.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther tells us that “ the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Cat. IV, 12; Trigl. 551; BSLK 516). And in a different piece of writing, he says “Because our Lord and Master Jesus Christ says: Repent, he wants the whole life of his believers on earth to be a constant never-ending repentance” (first thesis of 1517). This is the sort of life that John the Baptist is talking about – a life where we daily turn and return to God.
When Max returns home, he runs into the kitchen, where his mother is waiting up for him. Instead of being angry that he ran away, instead of punishing him for his day’s anger and mischief, she instead rejoices at his return! And Max can be joyful because of her joy. This is what we hear in Zephaniah. God rejoices in his people’s return, and thus gives them cause to rejoice. God promises to be in the midst of his people. God promises to lift oppression, to heal the broken, and to gather all people together. God promises to bring his people home and to give them joy.
The joy of coming home to the one who rejoices in us – this is where John’s words fit in with the optimistic words of the other readings.
Max, Zephaniah, and John all show us that there is joy in returning. Zephaniah’s audience takes joy in the promise of returning home. Max finds his joy in returning to his house and his family. We find joy in returning home to the God who jumps for joy over us. John tells us to return to the manger and to the cross, for the birth of the Christ child is our promise of salvation, and the empty tomb is the fulfillment of that promise.
John’s call to repentance is really a call to remember the joyful news that God saves his people. His exhortations call us to remember the joyful news that we are already forgiven, bound up forever in God’s love and grace. His words ask us daily to remember that God rejoices in us, his children, and that God always keeps his promises.
At the end of the day, Max finds himself home, in his own chair at his own kitchen table, a slice of chocolate cake and a glass of milk waiting for him. His mother, wrapped in a blanket, watches lovingly as Max eats, with relief and peace washing over her face as she knows that her lost child is again home, warm and safe.
There is a chair for you at this table - the communion table. It is your chair and it is your table. It is the warm, familiar kitchen of your childhood. It is the center of God’s home and God’s promises. We are all God’s wayward and returned children, and God feeds us here with good things – the body and blood of Christ. God is present at this table, watching us with joy and rejoicing that we who were once lost are now found. Whenever we find ourselves lost, whenever we find the walls of our safe spaces crumbling, whenever we feel broken or judged, we can come to this table, to the warmth of home, to the joy of God’s promises and the assurance of God’s hope for our future.
For we have a God who says to each and every one of us, “I, the LORD, your God, am in your midst. I will rejoice over you with gladness; I will renew you in love; I will exult over you, and I will bring you home.”