Sunday, December 16, 2018

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

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.

I have heard it said that fire was one of the greatest inventions of man. Yet, man never invented fire. Man invented ways to create fire. He discovered the use of sticks or stones that make sparks. He found ways to control fire and to use fire. But man never invented fire. After all, a lightning strike can cause a forest to burn without any help from mankind. It is likely that the ancient people of the world first used fire that was created during a storm, and perhaps even carried live coals from place to place to build new fires to use.

Even though man did not invent fire, the ability to use and control fire was one of the most important accomplishments of human history. Unfortunately, fire is always been controllable. Lightning still strikes and controlled fires go out of control. During the winter all too many houses burn down because some candle flame has been placed too close to something flammable or sparks flew out of a fireplace. Fire can destroy within minutes, but even when it destroys it can do good things.

Farmers burn their fields after a harvest to remove the stubble and to renew the earth. We learned last week that fire burning at an intense heat will remove the impurities from metal during the refining process. It might seem horrific when a fire burns a forest, but forest fires play a vital part of the ecological process; it thins the brush and dead wood while opening up the pinecones which releases the seeds. All this brings about new growth and strengthens the forest.

The voices of Advent call God’s people to live joyful and peaceful lives, so we would expect a similar theme in this week’s Gospel lesson. Then, as we begin to read, we hear the words of John the Baptist, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” This is not a very pleasant passage; who wants to face the destruction that comes with the wrath of God? Where is the Good News?

The good news is in the very fact that God is a consuming fire. His wrath is not like an out of control fire that completely destroys a house. His wrath is like the refiner’s fire that destroys all the impurities and makes the silver pure. His fire will destroy all that makes us unrighteous, taking away our sin and our hardness of heart, leaving behind that which is good, right and true. His fire cleanses without destroying. His fire tempers and makes us pure.

That is truly good news. The God who comes to dwell amongst us has baptized us with the Holy Spirit and fire, destroying all that separates us from Him. While it might seem like John the Baptist is preaching hellfire and damnation, he is giving the people a message they need to hear: “Repent!” They receive it with enthusiasm, asking, “What can we do?” They hear the message that brings joy: the promised Messiah is coming and they want to know what they can do to be ready.

It is a message we still need to hear today. Will our good works bring the salvation we desire? No, because God has already accomplished that salvation. That’s the good news. But John reminds us not to run from the coming wrath, because it is that very wrath that will cleanse us, renew us, and make us pure and righteous before God. God’s fire does not destroy, it makes us whole. It gives us reason to rejoice.

The book of Zephaniah is hardly joyful. The prophet announced to the people that God would 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, daughter of Zion! Shout, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem. Yahweh has taken away your judgments. He has thrown out your enemy. The King of Israel, Yahweh, is among you. You will not be afraid of 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. It was obvious that God was no longer protecting them when the nations could overwhelm them with their power. Yet, God has a purpose for all things, including those times of pain and suffering. 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 give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says Yahweh.” Sometimes suffering helps us to turn to Him, to repent of our sin and look to Him for salvation.

Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’” Christmas is a time for joy and peace. I am not a singer, but I couldn’t help but sing along to the carols I heard in the grocery store the other day. Our schedules are filled with happy moments: parties, gift exchanges, opportunities to give to those less fortunate than ourselves. There are characters like Santa who always have smiles on their faces and stories that always have a happy ending. It seems like at this time the charge from Paul should be easy.

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time being happy all the time, especially when I’m going through a tough or hectic time. The hustle and bustle of the season makes it a stressful time. Demands from co-workers and family give us little room to rest. Exhaustion leads to illness, which makes everything harder. There is not enough time to do everything, not enough energy to accomplish all the tasks and not enough laughter to get us through. It is made especially difficult when faced with people who expect that smile on your face at every moment. “What is the matter with you, it’s Christmas!”

Yet the joy and peace to which Paul refers is not the kind of joy and peace that most people are seeking at this time of year. As a matter of fact, it is the very seeking of an external joy and peace that makes us even more stressed. As we chase after laughs and good feelings between all people we lose sight of the real source of our joy and peace. We forget that Paul has called us not to be happy, but to rejoice in the Lord. We forget that the peace of God does not necessarily come with peace on earth, but that it is something that dwells within the heart of a Christian who trusts in God.

So, instead of seeking joy in our activities and peace between peoples, we are called to keep our hearts and minds on God our Father. When things get out of control, when we get too busy to smile, when we exhaust ourselves into illness, we are reminded that none of that has anything to do with true joy and peace. Joy in the Lord and peace to His people have everything to do with our relationship with God and His place in our life. The Christian life does not guarantee a life without difficulty, so why would we think that the Christmas life would guarantee a turmoil-free idyllic state?

Instead of expecting unattainable happiness and perfect relationships, Paul reminds us to rejoice in the Lord always. When we do so, we keep our eyes, and our hearts, on the true prize which is peace in our hearts. When peace dwells in our hearts, we have a whole new perspective about the world around us. Instead of being stressed by too many activities, we realize that there is one thing that matters: Jesus. Then perhaps we’ll take care of ourselves by choosing a better way to celebrate this wonderful season and we’ll end up truly knowing what it means to have the peace of God.

We have difficulty 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 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.

God does not force Himself on us when we turn from Him. He allows the natural consequences of our mistrust to humble us before His throne so that we will repent and cry out for the One we know can overcome our difficulties. He never allows more than we can bear, but He does allow enough so that we will remember His covenants and faithfulness, so that we will trust Him again. God did this with His people over and over again. 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 gave Him their trust. We suffer our own consequences when we turn from God, but He is always near to respond when we repent and trust Him.

I have mentioned to several people that once our party was over, the rest of the season is easy. I’m done with decorating and crafts. My house is clean and I’ve done a bunch of baking. I still have to mail a few boxes, write my Christmas cards and buy a few more presents. The stress of preparing for our party is over and I’m just about ready for Christmas.

For many, this is the moment when they begin rejoicing, because now they can relax and enjoy the season. Yet, why are we so stressed and exhausted as we prepare for something so special and wonderful as the birth of Christ? We shouldn’t rejoice when we are done with our shopping and decorating, but should rejoice with thankfulness and praise to God for giving us the greatest gift at Christmas.

It could not have been easy to be John the Baptist. He was born to elderly parents who probably died when he was very young. Though he may have had family to provide for him, his circumstances led him to lead a most extraordinary life. He lived in the wilderness, clothed himself in camel’s hair and ate locusts for lunch. We picture him demanding, even angry and hateful, full of wrath, harsh and perhaps even violent with his message. Perhaps instead of seeing John the Baptist as confrontive and offensive, we should be looking at him as an example of the way to prepare for the coming of the Lord. He lived simply and preached the good news. He called people to live simply, to share their blessings and to do what is right.

John said, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” As the people asked him what they should do, he told them to share their abundance, to live honorably and be satisfied. Prosperity often leads to dissatisfaction and greed. When we have enough we want more. When we have more we think we need even more. To keep up such a lifestyle it becomes necessary to keep more than we need and to do anything to get more. That’s why John told the people to give away their second tunic, to collect only the right amount of taxes and to take only their due wages. Be satisfied with what you have; John could speak this message to the people because he was satisfied with camel’s hair clothing and locusts for lunch. He lived a simple life and called the people to live that kind of life also.

As we prepare for the coming of our King, we tend to think in grandiose terms: more tinsel, more lights, more presents, and more food. We decorate our homes in silver and gold and fill our bellies with rich things to eat. We exhaust ourselves to prepare and stress out over details, forgetting that the One who was to come would not come into a world filled with light and life. He was coming to a world filled with darkness and death. He is the Light, and John came to be a witness to the Light. He did not need to be adorned with finery or eat grand feasts. He had something to give to the world: hope. He lived a simple life and spoke the truth. The people were drawn to him and they listened to what he had to say. He called them to repent – to live the simple life, to do what is right and to wait patiently for the One who was to come. He calls us to do the same as we prepare for Christmas.

We may not realize it, but we look toward many things that we think will save us. We get involved in relationships to save us from loneliness. We work hard to save us from poverty. We chase after all sorts of leisure activities to save us from boredom. We do everything within our power to keep our bodies healthy and our minds young to save us from death and dis-ease. We even think that having the perfect Christmas will make our life better. As we chase after the perfect holiday, we often miss what is truly important.

The simplest thing is the necessary for human survival: water. We need air more, but we can’t live even a few days without something to drink. We can live for weeks without food and we can survive under extreme circumstances. However, we need water to live. The same is true of all things living - plants, birds and animals. Some beings can go a long time without water, but eventually they need something to drink. I suppose that is why water has always played such an important role in religious ceremonies. During the Feast of Tabernacles - the feast that memorialized the journey from Egypt to Canaan - the priest gathered water in a gold jug from the pool of Siloam to pour over the altar as a form of sacrifice. It was done in remembrance of God’s gracious provision for the wanderers in the desert. There were times when the water God provided saved their lives.

The psalm for this week is from the book of Isaiah, a song of thanksgiving and praise. The singer recognizes that we choose things that we think will save us from difficulty. However, the singer confesses in faith that the only source of salvation for him is God. So he pours out a sacrificial offering in thanksgiving of water, the one physical thing that is really necessary for life, trusting confidently that God will provide.

Isaiah spoke of the judgment that would come to those who did not trust in the Lord, but he also knew that there was hope. “In that day you will say, ‘I will give thanks to you, Yahweh; for though you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you comfort 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 that God is our salvation, that He is our strength and song.

Isaiah goes on to say, “‘Behold, God is my salvation. I will trust, and will not be afraid; for Yah, Yahweh, is my strength and song; and he has become my salvation.’ Therefore with joy you will draw water out of the wells of salvation. In that day you will say, ‘Give thanks to Yahweh! Call on his name. Declare his doings among the peoples. Proclaim that his name is exalted! Sing to Yahweh, for he has done excellent things! Let this be known in all the earth! Cry aloud and shout, you inhabitant of Zion; for the Holy One of Israel is great among you!’” 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.

There is no real salvation apart from God. As we draw closer to Christmas during this season of Advent, we are reminded of everything that God has done. We are reminded of the baby in the manger and we look forward to the Day of the Lord’s coming who was, is and will be our salvation. That day, though it will be a day of judgment for the world, will be the day when God’s promises are finally fulfilled. It is for this reason we can live in joy today.

John’s message seems unpleasant, and yet there is Good News. The coming One 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. Let’s not fool ourselves, however, because we all have imperfections that need to be removed. We all have sins we cannot overcome on our own, ways which we turn from God.

It was not until I saw John the Baptist as a merciful preacher that I could understand the connection the Gospel lesson has with the other texts for today. Zephaniah and Isaiah called 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. I’m not so sure that I have ever been so filled with joy that I was totally at peace. This is especially true at this time of year when we are so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays. This is the time of peace and good will to all men. We are expected to be happy during the Christmas season, enjoying all the good things in life, yet we face stress, disease and even death, leaving us at times empty, lonely and exhausted.

We know we need to rejoice that Christ is coming in the manger and in His glory, but this is the day for us to rejoice. Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi to live that joy daily. Like John, he encourages them to display the fruit of repentance. “Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” And like John, Paul offered a message of hope and Good News. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”

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