Sunday, December 13, 2015

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Psalm 85
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 7:18-28 (29-35)

Jehovah hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the King of Israel, even Jehovah, is in the midst of thee; thou shalt not fear evil any more.

It is said that fear is a powerful motivator. Take, for example, a family facing a fire in their home. Fear drives them to escape the flames by running out of the house. Fear of failure drives many people to work hard. Fear is a negative motivator, but it can have positive results sometimes. It can also have devastating results, such as when our fear paralyzes us into non-action. A deer in the headlights is afraid of the car, but the fear makes it impossible to move out of the way. This can happen to human beings who are too afraid to get out of the situation that is causing their fear.

I used to love horror films. I would go with my friends whenever a new slasher film was released. I hate to admit how many of the "Friday the 13th" movies I went to see. We enjoyed the adrenaline rush of the fear that builds with the background music and the certainty that the bad guy was just around the corner. We laughed at those movies, too, because we knew that the whole concept is ridiculous. Surely there aren't that many stupid teenagers in the world? Like the Hallmark Christmas romance movies, slasher movies follow a formula. They both work at getting the reaction they want.

I remember one time when I went with a friend to see yet another of those slasher movies. We went at night to a movie theater in a rough part of the town where we lived. We were looking forward to feeling all the usual feelings even though we knew that it was going to be a terrible film. The experience of fear began long before the movie began, however. We were very out of place among the other moviegoers. I know I shouldn't make judgments based on appearances, but we were truly afraid, rightly so based on the actions of those around us. There was at least one fight that night outside the theater. We definitely did not enjoy our movie, but our fear taught us a lesson: don't go to that theater at night.

I don't go to horror films any more. I'm not sure what made me stop; perhaps it was that night with my friend. I think having children has also made me stop looking for the adrenaline rush that comes from any type of product that is in that genre. I stopped reading horror books, too, and I don't find any pleasure in any of the television shows based on monsters or death. I suppose I experience plenty of fear in worry about my kids that I don't need background music or the expectation of a bad guy to give it to me.

We fear death. We fear loneliness. We fear failure. Advertisers take advantage of our tendency to fear by playing on that; they make us fear missing out on something. There is a commercial right now for an electronics store that bothers me. They encourage the viewer to shop at their store so that they can "win Christmas." The point is that they'll get the best gifts at that store and that the receivers will thing they are the best. They play off the fear that we'll get the wrong gift or that someone else will buy something even better, to motivate us to rush out to their store and buy the newest, most expensive gadget so that we'll "win." Gift-giving isn't about winning or losing. Christmas isn't about winning or losing.

Fear is rampant in our world today, perhaps rightly so. There are very real reasons for us to be afraid. Fear can have a positive impact if it causes us to be more watchful or careful. It can also have a very negative impact if we respond with anger or hatred or violence. Sadly, that's how many people do respond when they are afraid. Oh, many times we will ignore the underlying fear that causes us to act as we do. Fear gets covered up by other emotions and actions. Fear is seen as weakness, and in a world where the weak are manipulated and abused, any sign of weakness is buried by attitudes, words and actions that seem powerful and strong. The rough moviegoers are hiding fears they would never admit and perhaps do not even realize they have.

Zephaniah gives us the Good News, "Thou shalt not fear evil any more." In a world were so much is driven by fear, this is something we want to hear, but we have a difficult time believing it. We don't know when it will happen, but we know that we will hear reports of some disaster happening to a neighbor and we will worry that it might happen to us. We'll hear the weather report forecast potentially dangerous weather and we will fear what might happen to our homes. We'll hear about another outbreak of violence and wonder if it could happen to us.

We have a hard time believing this good news because we think it means that there will no longer be evil. There will come a day, the Day of the Lord, when God will truly finish that which opposes Him. In the meantime, however, we will deal with the things that make us afraid. The promise is a call to trust.

Zephaniah says, "The King of Israel, even Jehovah, is in the midst of thee." That is the promise of Christmas. That is what we are waiting for during this Advent season. We are waiting for the King to come, both as a baby in the manger and as the eternal Judge and Savior. Because He came, we have no reason to fear.

Oh, we'll still face the dangers of the world, but with Christ Jesus as our King we know that we will receive the promise no matter what happens in the flesh. See, we might lose our home to a fire or even die at the hands of someone who has chosen to respond to their own fears with anger or hatred or violence, but we have something that is better than fear: hope.

Advent is a season of lights. We begin with darkness, representative of the darkness of our lives. Each Sunday we light a new candle. As we draw closer to the coming of our Lord Jesus the light grows until that joyous night when we can light the Christ candle and celebrate His coming. We have finally reached the third Sunday, Christmas Day is coming quickly and we can feel the excitement building. On this day, we finally have more candles lit than are dark and it is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday or the Sunday of Joy for that very reason. Finally, the light is greater than the darkness and will continue to grow.

This joy is found in our readings for the day. The book of Zephaniah is hardly joyful. The prophet announces to the people that in His day God will bring judgment to the nations, including His people who had abandoned their faith. Yet, the prophet does not leave them without hope. Today's reading tells of the restoration that will come when God completes His work. Zephaniah foretells the rejoicing that will go on within the city of Jerusalem.

To the Jews, prosperity meant God was near, misery meant that He had abandoned them. Though God was never far away, it was not hard for them to fear when things began to go wrong. When the nations could overwhelm them with their power, it was obvious that God was no longer protecting them. Yet, God has a purpose for all things, including those times of pain and suffering. They help us to turn to Him, to repent of our sin and look to Him for our needs. God did not intend for the Jews to be destroyed, He knew that He would provide salvation in His time and way. After judgment, God cleanses His people, purifies their lips and they call out to their God. The day will come when He will bring them home. "At that time will I bring you in, and at that time will I gather you; for I will make you a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I bring back your captivity before your eyes, saith Jehovah."

Our greatest trouble is trusting God. It began so long ago in the Garden of Eden, when Eve believed the lie of Satan about the Word of God. She did not trust that He spoke the truth; she saw goodness in the thing He said would bring pain and made the decision to do what she thought was best. The Israelites did not trust that God would take care of them. They grumbled in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. They turned to other nations for help against their enemies. They asked for a worldly king when they had the King of kings as their ruler.

When we turn from God, He does not force Himself. He allows the natural consequences of our mistrust to humble us before His throne and we cry out for the One we know can overcome our difficulties. He doesn't allow more than we can bear, but He does allow enough so that we will remember His faithfulness and trust Him again. Over and over again throughout history, God did this with His people. They were defeated by their enemies and then restored when they turned to Him. They were taken into captivity, but then were returned to their home when they looked for Him. We suffer our own consequences when we turn from God, but He is always near to respond when we repent and trust Him. We respond to our fear in all the wrong ways instead of looking to God to get us through.

Instead of fear, God gives us hope. We know that evil will continue to happen all around us, but we do not need to be afraid because God has defeated evil. Whatever happens to us, we know that God has won and that we will receive the eternal inheritance He has promised. In a time of fear and anger and hatred and violence, we have hope because the Light has overcome the darkness. Instead of fear, we are called to live in the joy that comes from being in the Light.

Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice." 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; we are to trust that God is greater than anything we might fear. During Christmas we recognize the coming of God in flesh, we honor and remember the child in the manger. However, we aren't waiting for God to come again. He is here now, dwelling amongst us, walking with us, guiding us, loving us with a tender and compassionate love. We can rejoice in the Lord always, because He is always with us. In good times and bad, we can trust God because He is always faithful to His promises.

That's what John the Baptist came to proclaim. He came to be a witness to the coming of the Light, to testify to the gracious mercy of God. I'm not so sure we think about mercy when we think about 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 camel's hair and ate locusts for lunch. He defied the self-indulgent ways of the culture in which he lived. He did not wear silk or linen and he did not feast at great banquets. He chose a simple life, a life in which he could focus more clearly on His vocation as a prophet of God. He identified with the prophets of old and lived as they might have lived. He preached about repentance and called the people who came to him a "brood of vipers." There was nothing about John the Baptist that should draw people to him.

Yet, there was something about him that drew the people into his presence. Even the temple leaders came to hear him speak. The passion story of Jesus shows us a group of men who rejected Jesus and refused to believe that He was the fulfillment of God's promises, but that does not mean that they were not seeking the Messiah. As a matter of fact, since they were the educated and the religious experts, they knew more about the signs of the coming and they were anxious to see it fulfilled. In the end Jesus did not meet their expectations, but early in the story they saw possibilities with John. Many of them wondered if John might be the Messiah.

John knew he wasn't the Messiah. In last week's reading we saw John identified with the Old Testament prophecies as the one who would prepare the way for the Lord. John told them that he would baptize with water, but that the Messiah would baptize with fire. He encouraged the people to be prepared for the coming of the King by turning their lives around. His words, especially those about Herod, put him in prison.

Jesus began His ministry after John was in prison. Rumors trickled their way to John as his disciples questioned what they should do. They were loyal to John, but if Jesus was the One, should they follow Him?

John sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask, "Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?" This seems like an odd question coming from John the Baptist, since his story is one of faith even before his birth. John leapt for joy in Elizabeth's womb when Mary visited her relative. He identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist explained to his followers that God gave him a message that he'd know the Messiah because he would see the Holy Spirit descend when He was baptized. John knew that Jesus was the One who was sent by God to save His people.

So, why did John send his disciples to ask this question? Did he do it to prove to his own followers what he already knew? Did he doubt Jesus? Did he doubt himself? Did John question his own ministry? Was he afraid that perhaps he was not the promised messenger? Did he need the encouragement of Jesus that the work he was doing was what God wanted him to do? John was in prison; he was probably facing his own fears which brought on uncertainty. He wanted to know for sure that he was sending his disciples down the right path.

I have to admit that there are often times when I could use that kind of encouragement, and you are probably the same. Do you wonder if you've heard God's voice correctly? Do you wonder if you are doing what God is calling you to do? Do you ever think that it is absolute craziness that God would choose you for that task? Do you wonder if you can even accomplish it? Do you ever face the fear of what might happen in you fail? Even worse, if you succeed? After all, John the Baptist was a successful evangelist and he ended up in prison. What might happen to us today? We cry out to God in our fear, doubt and uncertainty, "Surely there is someone better than me for this!" Did John wonder if he was really the one to fulfill the promise of a messenger? Perhaps Jesus was meant to be the voice crying out in the wilderness and the Messiah would come later?

I like the possibility that John needed encouragement. After all, if he whom Christ called the greatest man born of woman needed to hear the he was indeed doing the work God intended, then how much more might I need to hear it? I haven't had visions. I haven't been visited by angels. I haven't had any miraculous experiences in my life to verify I'm doing the work of God. Jesus verified to the crowd, and to John, that John was what he said he was. He was the one crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord and Jesus told them to look for the signs that might reveal the truth.

The religious leaders did not believe. Unfortunately, many of the people who began following Jesus turned away at the end. Jesus sounded good in the beginning, but after a while He did not live up to their expectations. He didnít do what they wanted Him to do. They began looking for another. They were looking for the wrong kind of Messiah. They were responding to their own worldly fears instead of trusting that God had a plan greater than their expectations. They hoped for salvation, but their expectations were too low and when Jesus didn't climb to an earthly throne, they turned away from God. They didn't want a Messiah that would change their faith, so they chose darkness rather than the Light.

Jesus had great words the crowd about John the Baptist. He said, "John was more than a prophet. He was the prophet promised by God." And then Jesus said that this prophet, great as he was, is less than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. That's you. That's me. That's anyone who has come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. With Good News like that, who are we to be afraid?

It won't be easy, of course. There are still those who do not believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, that He is the Judge and Savior who has come and will come again. They will persecute those who shout the Good News of forgiveness with the world. John was beheaded a short time after the encounter in today's Gospel lesson. Our end may not be so dramatic. As a matter of fact, few of us will be martyred in any way. The things we fear are tame by comparison.

We have seen the rejection of Christianity in our world; for many, faith is nothing more than a fairytale. There is are billboards that have been purchased by a group of atheists that show Santa Claus with his finger in front of his mouth as if he is about to tell us a secret. The sign says, "Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness' sake. Happy Holidays!" There are those who are offended and upset by this. They are afraid that the world is trying to steal their joy by diminishing their celebration of Christmas. They are afraid that piece by piece our traditions and practices are being stripped from us.

They can't steal our joy. Our joy does not come from celebrating Christmas, it comes from being in Christ. It comes from the Holy Spirit whom God has given as a guarantee of the inheritance that He has promised. Our joy comes from trusting in God who has overcome the darkness. We may have valid reasons to be afraid in the world today. Persecution is real. People are dying for their faith. Christianity is under fire in many ways, even from within. Yet, Zephaniah's words are still true. God is with us and we have no reason to fear evil. He has overcome everything and has promised that in His day we will share in the inheritance of His eternal Kingdom. Our fears can have a positive impact on our lives as they drive us in a way we should go, but let us always remember to trust in the God who will be faithful no matter what happens.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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