Sunday, December 14, 2003

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

"Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice."

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

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, saw goodness in the thing He said would bring pain, and took it into her own hands. 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 never allows more than we can bear, but He does allow enough that we will remember His covenants and faithfulness so that we will 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.

Isaiah also spoke of the judgment that would come to those who did not trust in the Lord, but he also knew there was hope. "And in that day thou shalt say, I will give thanks unto thee, O Jehovah; for though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away and thou comfortest me." This verse is not included in today's readings, yet it speaks of the reason for our joy. God forgets His anger and comforts His people. We rejoice when we see that God is our salvation, that He is our strength and song.

Isaiah goes on to say, "And in that day shall ye say, Give thanks unto Jehovah, call upon his name, declare his doings among the peoples, make mention that his name is exalted. Sing unto Jehovah; for he hath done excellent things: let this be known in all the earth. Cry aloud and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion; for great in the midst of thee is the Holy One of Israel." That's what we do at Christmastime. We declare the wondrous gift of salvation from God that comes to us in the cries of a newborn in a manger in Bethlehem. We sing songs of joy that the world will see that God has indeed done the most marvelous thing. He has come to dwell among His people and to give them light in the darkness.

We heard from John the Baptist last week, and again in today's lesson. On the Second Sunday of Advent, John warned the people to repent, to turn away from their old ways to the Lord God Almighty. This week John goes on to tell us about the way of the Lord. His message is one of Good News. The Lord is coming! They have desired this day for a long time. His message was not pleasant to all. He warned those who came with a hard heart that they would not be saved without repentance. "Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" It does not matter that they are sons of Abraham - God can make a son from a rock.

Some listened and wanted to know what they should do. John tells them to bring forth the fruit of repentance. "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath food, let him do likewise." "Extort no more than that which is appointed you." "Extort from no man by violence, neither accuse any one wrongfully; and be content with your wages." These answered the questions of the multitudes, the publicans and the soldiers. I wonder what he might call the fruits of repentance in our world today?

John's message seems unpleasant, and yet there is Good News. There is one coming that is greater than John. John baptizes with water to cleanse the people from their sin - to purify their lips as promised in Zephaniah. But another is coming. "He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire: whose fan is in his hand, thoroughly to cleanse his threshing-floor, and to gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire." On a first reading, it is easy to assume that God will cleanse the world from the unrepentant, to remove our enemies with His fire. Yet, don't we all have things that need to be removed? We all have sins we can not overcome on our own, ways which we turn from God.

Wheat is made up of many parts. Each stalk includes the stem with the seed and the chaff. The chaff is the part that covers and protects the seed, but it has no other use. The stem can be used as straw for feed or for bedding. The seeds are eaten or planted. But the chaff is burned. We are like wheat, with straw, seed and chaff. When He comes and uses His winnowing fork on our lives, He will separate the straw and seed from the chaff and it will be burned. He will come to dwell in our hearts, planting seeds of forgiveness through us into the lives of others.

This is indeed a day of rejoicing as we draw closer to the day of our Lord's coming. Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi to live that joy daily. "Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice." Like John, he encourages them to display the fruit of repentance. "Let your forbearance be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. 6 In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God." And like John, Paul offers a message of hope and Good News. "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus."

Thanks be to God.

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