Throughout the biblical tradition, in both the Old and New Testament, there are prophetic denunciations of sin, personal and corporate, that call people back to the ways of God. What often gets lost is that these exhortations are not intended primarily as threats to condemn but as wakeup calls for people lost in the false promises of the world. The prophetic call to repent is a gift of forgiveness, an invitation to freedom, a promise of love. It offers the hearer to come and see that God is good, and what God intends is for your benefit and flourishing. Repentance is the path to rejoicing. At the very heart of the promise of the Messiah is a call to get ready to experience what it means to be fully human. God does not condemn but waits to offer forgiveness. Prepare to rejoice!
The prophet Zephaniah asks the people of Israel to “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” But why? “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” God’s promise is joy, gladness, love, exultation. Our lives are intended for a festival.
Yet this offer of festivity is not blind to the reality of suffering and death or to the sinfulness that courses through us. And it is not an offer that pretends every day in this world has been joyous. But the offer and the promise resonate with us and with what we were created for. We mourn the suffering, the pain and the sin of this world—including our own—because we were made for more. We are being invited to more. Sing, Zion, sing! Shout aloud, Zion! God is with you, and there is a festival God has prepared for you and for the whole earth.
John the Baptist continued to tell the story of the prophets before him, though, in his rough camel hair clothing, he could not be mistaken for a party person setting out a spread of locusts and honey for the desert glitterati. Yet in John’s self-abnegation, his asceticism is a call to focus—the opposite of today’s constant self-distraction—on God’s message of promise. John’s sharp critique of the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias is a condemnation of an “anything I want goes” culture, which amuses itself as a sedative from reality. Wake up, says John; face God’s truth. This is not fun when you are caught up in the silliness of trivialities and trinkets, but a bracing slap to the face to seek true joy. Sing Zion, sing! Shout aloud, Zion!
You do not need the newest clubs or thousand-dollar champagne to sing and dance; you do not need the newest clothes and designer drugs to shout aloud. The ephemeral draws us away from recognizing true joy. Paul from his prison cell wrote to the Philippians telling them to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Not because Paul had the things of this world but because God was with him in his prison cell as he wrote to the Philippian church.
Paul, in light of his encounter and life with the risen Lord, asked that joy be placed at the center of the Christian life, encouraging the Philippians to live their lives in gentleness, without worry or fear, because the Lord, who had come, was coming again. Paul experienced that the heart and mind turned to God were always ready to rejoice, protected by “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”
It was to prepare the people for this joy that John the Baptist came, calling on the people to act with love and righteousness to one another, to turn from sin, in order to accompany a people prepared for the Messiah. Was John the Messiah? No, John said; he was preparing the harvest for the Messiah, who had “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.” This is good news, a promise of joy to the people who will hear God’s call and await the Messiah’s coming. We are the people being prepared to rejoice always.