Sunday, December 16, 2012

Third Sunday in Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Psalm 85
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 7:18-35

But what went ye out to see?

John sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask, ďArt thou he that cometh, or look we for another?Ē This seems like an odd question coming from John the Baptist. After all, John was related to Jesus. Mary went to Johnís mother in the early days of her pregnancy, and during that visit, John leapt for joy in Elizabethís womb. Though he would not have remembered that, surely his mother and other relatives shared the story of Maryís visit when he was a child. They probably spent time together when the families gathered in Jerusalem for feasts and festivals. We also know that he identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist explains the his followers that God gave him a message that heíd 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?

We have identified John with the prophecy from Isaiah that one would come crying in the wilderness to make way for the Lord. 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?

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 youíve heard Godís 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? ďSurely there is someone better than me for this!Ē we think. Did John wonder if he was really the one to fulfill the promise from Isaiah. 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 heówhom Christ called the greatest man born of womanóneeded to hear the he was indeed doing the work God intended, then how much more might I need to hear it? I havenít had visions. I havenít been visited by angels. I havenít had any miraculous experiences in my life. Iím a nobody, but God chose me for something. I sometimes wish I had someone to send to God to ask, ďAm she right? Is she obeying your call? Is she speaking your Word?Ē 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.

Was Jesus that one? We know the answer to that question, but not everyone accepted it as the truth. The religious leaders did not believe. Unfortunately, many of the people who began following Jesus in the beginning turned away at the end. Jesus sounded good in the beginning, but after awhile He did not live up to their expectations. He didnít do what they wanted Him to do. They began looking for another.

See, in those days John and Jesus were not the only ones proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Other prophets preached on the streets. Others made bold statements about Godís Will. Others promised salvation from the cares of the world. The people wanted a Messiah that would restore Israel and rid them of the Romans. They had hope that Jesus was the One in the early days of His ministry.

But their hope was founded on a false promise, perhaps thatís why the religious leaders did not believe in Him from the beginning. They were looking for the Messiah; many are still looking for Him. But they didnít want a Messiah that would change their faith. The status quo was good for them; the Kingdom Jesus preached was not.

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.

Yet, there are those who suggest that John the Baptist was an Essene, and if he was, then he would not have been unkempt. He would have followed a pious cleansing practice with ritual washing. Even if he didnít, John spent hours in the water, baptizing the crowds. His clothing, while not typical was not that out of the ordinary for the humble and poor of his day. The thing that bothers me most is the locusts he ate, however they were acceptable fare for the Jews. It might seem gross, but apparently they are good food for someone living in the wilderness.

So, while the description of John seems outrageous to us, he was probably just a humble, obedient prophet doing the work God called him to do. He was counter cultural, in that he should have followed his father into the Temple as a priest, wearing the clothes and doing the tasks of a priest in Jerusalem. But John was not a man to be clothed in fine, expensive clothes or to live luxuriously. He was called to a much different vocation. Jesus said, ďHe was more than a prophet. He was the prophet promised by God.Ē

And Jesus said that this prophet, great as he was, is less than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Thatís you. Thatís me. Thatís anyone who has come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

So, if we are more than John the Baptist, even as we are the least of those saved, then perhaps we are not nobodies. Perhaps we are called to do the work we are doing in this world. While this is true, it isnít always easy. Those who do not believe the Good News of Jesus Christ will persecute those who share it with the world. John was beheaded a short time after the encounter in todayís Gospel lesson. It is unlikely that weíll be beheaded. Few of us will ever be martyred in any way. We have seen the rejection of Christianity in our world today. Our faith is nothing more than a fairy tale. There is no need for salvation because ďIím ok; youíre ok.Ē Jesus is missing in the celebration this month which has become Ramahanukwanzmas or simply ďthe holidays.Ē

Itís hard to rejoice some days. Where was the joy on Black Friday when people were stampeding for a $12.00 pair of pants? Where is the joy in the post office, where people are standing in line for an hour to send a few presents? Where is the joy of the season? We are so busy getting things ready and stressed because the lights donít work, the cookies burned and we canít find that perfect gift at the mall. We forget that we are incredibly blessed.

We put so much work into preparing for Christmas and it is such a blessing that we can do so. But thatís not the real blessing. Our busy schedules are not necessarily bad. Our problem is that we lose touch with the very reason we are doing all these things. We lose sight of God. We forget that He is the gift, that He is the joy. We work so hard at being happy and at making others happy that we no longer experience the joy.

How can Paul ask us to rejoice always? Can we really rejoice when it seems like the world has rejected our faith and our God? 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. They may reject us, but then again, they might just see the truth of the Good News we bring.

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? Who is this God that would care so much that He chose to live among His people? If we have a God who can rejoice over us, why is it that we forget to sing with joy over Him?

Whatever we do this Christmas season, we are called to rejoice in the Lord always. While it is nice to be happy, to enjoy ourselves during the festivities of the holidays, Paul reminds us that it is not about laughter and satisfaction. It is about living in the Lord, dwelling in His presence even as He dwells in ours. When we rejoice in the Lord always, we live the life that manifests Godís grace to the world even in our times of difficulty. It means we recognize Godís presence with us at all times, even when we feel like the world around us is coming to an end, knowing that God can do a good work through suffering by burning away all those things that keep us from fully living in our relationship with Him.

Blessedness is often credited as the reward for a good life, but when we suffer some sort of setback then we must have done something to displease the gods. Even the Jews believed that prosperity had to do with Godís grace, and when they suffered it meant that God had abandoned them. He would only abandon His people if they were disobedient. But God is never far away. Even when it seems like the world is winning, God is in control. He has a plan and He is always faithful.

We wonder if we are doing the work that God has called us to do. Do we hear Him? Is it His voice? Is this truly what we are meant to do in this world? These are questions we can only answer by faith. The Psalmist sings, ďI will hear what God Jehovah will speak; for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: But let them not turn again to folly.Ē While it is natural for us to wonder and doubt, the Christian that rejoices constantly will keep his or her eyes on God. If we are following God, we will certainly do the things that will glorify Him.

His salvation is near. This is a promise that we see fulfilled not only in the manger, but also in the work we are called to do sharing the Gospel in this world. At Christmas we see how mercy and truth have touched the world, how truth and righteousness have joined together. God gives good gifts, the greatest of which is Jesus. He is the One that they were waiting for, and we are the ones who have benefitted. We are part of the Kingdom of Heaven, greater than even John the Baptist.

Jesus asked the people what they went into the wilderness to see. We can ask the same of those who ask us about Jesus. What do they see? Do they see people frenzied with the secular activities of Christmas, or do they see Christians living in the joy of the greatest gift? Do they see people who are putting on a show with fine clothes and luxurious living or do they see humble obedience? Something drew the people to Johnís ministry, and something draws people to us. We might wonder and doubt, but we can rejoice because God is near and He is faithful. If He has called us to the work of His Kingdom, Heíll provide us with everything we need to accomplish it.

The world might not know what they are looking for, but God is ready to show Himself. Letís be ready and willing to share His grace so that they will see Him.

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