On this Third Sunday of Advent, with the coming of the Savior so near at hand, the prophet Zephaniah urges us, exclaiming, "Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem!" (Zephaniah 3:14).
We like this message easily enough, but what we hear from Saint John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, may cause us to stir a bit. We heard last Sunday that the Forerunner of the Lord "went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness" (Luke 3:3). Today, the Baptizer gives us something of his call to repentance: "Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise; stop collecting more than what is prescribed;" "do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages" (Luke 3:11, 13-14).
Here, too, we might like this easily enough because, after all, most of us are not tax collectors or soldiers, but thinking this we miss the heart of Saint John's message: "Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3:9). Here, of course, we cannot forget that Jesus cursed the fig tree that produced no fruit (cf. Mark 11:13-14). What sort of tree are you? What kind of fruit do you produce? Do we produce food for the Savior to eat? Do we do the will of the Father like him (cf. John 4:34).?
When John the Baptist tells the crowd and the tax collectors and the soldiers what to do and what not to do, he points out to the them specific instances of a self-absorption that does not love neighbor and therefore does not love God. How easy it would be for him to point our similar and routine failures to love in each of our lives!
Even so, we are often quick to make one excuse or another for our failure to love, whether in thought, or in action or inaction, even those who have heard the Baptist's call to repentance. Saint Francis de Sales reminds us that
Many confess and deny at the same time. By this I mean that many confess their faults, but in such a way that at the same time they accuse themselves they excuse themselves. They admit that if indeed they committed the fault which they now acknowledge, they certainly had reason for doing so. Not only do they excuse themselves while accusing themselves, but they accuse others as well. "I became angry and consequently committed such a failing, but I had good reason for it; they made me do or say such a thing; it was for such a reason." Is it not clear that in confessing in this way one is denying it at the same time? Say simply: "It was through my malice, my impatience and ill nature, or the result of my passions and unmortified inclinations that I committed such and such a fault." Do not say: "I have spoken ill of others, but it was on matters so obvious that I am not the only one who said or saw it." By this kind of talk we deny being guilty of the fault of which we accuse ourselves.We must not do that. Rather, we must confess clearly and plainly, owning the fault and holding ourselves truly guilt, without being anxious about what others may say or think about us (Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent).
This, of course, is not easy, but the Christian life is not meant to be easy; rather, it is meant to be an embrace of the Cross.
With the stark reality of our sin, then, now right before us, how can we be glad and exult with our hearts? We find the answer in the very next words from Zephaniah: "The LORD has removed the judgment against you" (Zephaniah 3:15).
If we renew our embrace of the Lord's Cross by confessing our sins and seeking his mercy given us on the Cross, then we will be able to live out Saint Paul's exhortation to "rejoice in the Lord always" (Philippians 4:4). As we look for the Lord's return in glory to judge the living and dead, even as we look towards the celebration of Christmas, let us ask the Lord Jesus to stir up his love in our hearts, to move us to a true repentance, that might "acclaim his name" and "among the nations make known his deeds" (Isaiah 12:4).
Living in this way, neither of his comings will catch us off guard and ill prepared. If we are found ready when at last he comes, then our rejoicing will be complete because we will be with him forever to enjoy the fullness of his merciful love.