Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.

I saw a video on YouTube today apparently from a episode of a community access Christian talk show. The show ended with a couple of women singing the song ďGo Tell it on the Mountain,Ē a song of rejoicing over the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a song that reminds us that Christmas is Good News and we should sing it from the mountain tops.

The video is on YouTube because singers just canít sing. Now, Iím sure I would sound just as bad, since I really canít sing very well. What surprises me is how sad the singers look as they are singing this joyful song. Either they were very nervous or they simply did not want to sing on television. The girl, who only sang the chorus, kept looking to one spot, perhaps the karaoke machine they were using for the music, afraid sheíd forget the words. Her mouth barely moved and you could only occasionally hear her voice. The video gave plenty of fodder for the bloggers who made fun of every aspect of the performance.

Though I was bothered by the squeaky highs and the out of tune verses, I have to say I was far more disappointed that they were so sad singing the song. If they had at least smiled, we would have seen the joy of their faith. We might have wanted to know what kind of faith a person has giving them the boldness to share their gifts with others. Who would want to become part of a religion that leaves its followers so sad?

But then again, who would want to follow a religion that brings out guys like John the Baptist? After all, he is a man who is perceived to be wild, harsh and demanding. He was very unusual and acted counter to the culture in which he lived. He lived in the wilderness, wore clothing made from camelís hair and ate locusts for lunch. This description brings to mind an image of a rough and tumble man, unkempt and unclean. He has been compared to the smelly homeless man on the street corner preaching the end of the world to passers-by.

He was taken seriously, however. He had a huge following. There was something about him that drew the people into his presence, even Herod wanted to hear him speak. It is unlikely that Herod would have invited an unkempt, smelly wild man into his palace. It was not Johnís appearance that offended. It was his words. The temple leaders joined the crowds by the Jordan to hear his preaching. We know that in the end most of them rejected Jesus, but in the beginning of this story, they thought they might be seeing the fulfillment of Godís promises. The leaders were educated and they were religious experts; they knew more about the signs of the coming and they were anxious to see those signs fulfilled.

John didnít greet them warmly. As a matter of fact, he doesnít seem any happier than the two women on the video. He calls the crowd a brood of vipers, snakes fleeing from the wrath of God. Did they think that John would give them the freedom from the things they feared? Did they think he was the Messiah come to set them free? They saw the Messiah as one who would come to release Israel from foreign rule, which would guard and protect them because they were children of Abraham. John warns them that their heritage is not enough to keep them from the coming fire.

This isnít a joyful message. It is a message of Law, not mercy. When the crowd asks, ďWhat shall we do?Ē he answers with a list of righteous actions: share with others, donít cheat or threaten others, be satisfied with what you have. John was calling the people to repentance and to manifest the repentance in their relationships with other people. It is interesting that verse 18 says, ďWith many other exhortations therefore preached he good tidings unto the people.Ē Even in the midst of calling the people to a better life, he was pointing toward the fulfillment of Godís promises. ďLive as God calls you to live now, because He is coming soon! When He comes, the Day will be frightening. Be ready because His coming is truly Good News.Ē Is this really a sermon damning those who have come to him? Is the wrath of God something to be avoided? John wonders why they are fleeing. Perhaps facing the wrath of God is not destructive and unmerciful experience we think it might be.

The wrath of God is often described like fire, but when we think of the references of fire relating to God, we realize that it is not something that will necessarily destroy everything in its path. When Moses met God it was at the foot of a bush that was on fire but did not burn. The people of Israel were lead through the desert at night by a pillar of fire that did not destroy anything in its path. The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in the upper room like tongues of fire. Last week we heard that God is like a refinerís fireóHe burns the impurity out of the precious metal leaving behind something pure and perfect. Godís wrath is not necessarily meant to destroy, but to refine.

But those times of difficulty, when we are going through the refinerís fire, arenít pleasant, and we find it difficult to rejoice. How can Paul ask us to rejoice always? Can we really rejoice when we are feeling ill or when we donít have enough money to buy decent food for the table? Paul is not calling us to be happy all the time. He is calling us to rejoice in the Lord always. In everything we do, in everything we are, we are to live in the joy that is found in our relationship with God. It is a matter of coming before others with that joy so that theyíll see the good works of God in us.

We might think that John the Baptist was unlovable, but we know that he attracted crowds from every part of the Jewish society. There must have been a joy in his preaching, a sense of peace the people wanted to experience for themselves. He couldnít have been comfortable wearing camel skin and eating locusts, but he mustnít have complained about it. Though he was a wildman, he must have had a gentleness about him, or who would have let him baptize them in the Jordan? He must have been prayerful, or who would have believed he was a prophet of God?

Rejoicing in the Lord is about living that life of repentance fully assured that Godís promises are true. Thatís where our peace is found, no matter what our circumstances. If we love God even when our bank accounts are empty and our muscles ache, the world will know there is something special about the God we love. The Good News we have been given is that God is near. Through thick and thin, through good and bad, God dwells among us. He came to earth in the flesh of a child, the one for whom we wait this Advent. He will come, but He has come and He is here and now. This is truly good news, news about which we can rejoice.

And sing. Even if we canít sing, like those ladies in the video, we can make a joyful noise. The message of Christís birth is good news to the world. It is happy news. It is news that deserves to be sung with smiles on our faces.

Zephaniah shares with us the Good News from an Old Testament point of view. The Lord has taken away judgments! He has turned away your enemies! He is in your midst! He will rejoice over you and renew you in His love! He will exult over you with loud singing! WaitÖ the Lord will exult over us? Who is this God who will rejoice over people like us, sinners in thought, word and deed? We deserve the wrath that is threatened by John, but Godís wrath is not destructive, it is healing and transforming. Who is this God who would care enough that He would choose to live among His people? If we have a God who can rejoice over us, why is it that we canít sing with joy over Him?

Isaiah sings a song of thanksgiving. He knows what God has done. God is our salvation. He is our strength and might. How do we live in the knowledge of this good news and not sing for joy? How do we not tell the whole world about the good things He has done?

Zephaniah and Isaiah call the people to lives of joy. Paul confronts us with this charge to rejoice always. He assures us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Iím not so sure that I have ever felt so totally at peace that I can rejoice always. Iím not so sure I have ever been able to rejoice always to know the peace of God. But I can see the Good News that John brings to us: God is near. He has come to dwell among us. His fire will transform the world and make everything right. We need not fear the Day of His coming for He comes to save. Let us sing this Good News with joy so that the world might know His peace.

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