A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
December 13, 2015
(Zephaniah 3:14-20; A Song of Isaiah; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18)
The prophet Zephaniah is calling for a celebration: ‘Sing…Rejoice’.
And with good reason: YHWH’s judgments have been abandoned, Israel’s enemies are ‘cleared away’, evil is no longer to be feared. The ‘king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst’. And two verses later: ‘The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save’.
God is coming to save.
It is a sentiment and hope that Isaiah shares: ‘God is my salvation’; ‘God is my strength and my song, and has become my salvation’, and then, a promise; with ‘joy, you will draw water from the wells of salvation’.
There is a theme here. And it is more than merely the repeated use of the word ‘salvation’. Isaiah wraps up his song with phrases we have heard before: ‘Shout and sing for joy….for great in your midst is the holy one of Israel’.
A present, saving, joy-inspiring God.
We can all too easily hear John’s path-paving call to repentance as less than joy-inspiring.
After all, John was a straight-talker. His preparing voice names the crowds ‘vipers’, insists the treasured family heritage is worthless, and points to the ‘axe lying at the root of the tree’.
Yet people come. People listen.
Why? Because repentance promises that there is another way. It inherently offers an alternative. John named the crowd’s short-fall and filled them with the expectation and excitement of another possibility.
It is a narrow and dangerous path for John to tread. Too far one way and John is nothing more than a crushing, and rejecting doom-sayer leaving listeners broken and hopeless in his wake. Too far the other way and his is a hollow message that all is well despite the stench rising from the rotten fruit of greed and oppression.
John does not, however, free-fall down either of these cliffs. Rather he preaches the possibility of a turn around – even for those caught in the wealth trap, those collecting occupation taxes, or those playing their part in Rome’s ruthless killing machine.
Is it this combination of honesty and hope that brings people to hear John’s message? Do they gather because they are too far gone to see any alternative alone? Have they heard a desert-born rumour that makes them dream of another way?
And so they take the risky step of conversation. Unsatisfied with less than a clear alternative they ‘ask’ this prophet of preparation: ‘What then should we do?’
What does this repentance-fruit look like? How can we be bearers of it? What practical alternative is there for us urbanites caught in the daily grind?
They are right to ask. And John is prepared to answer. Not only does he know what healthy fruit looks like and the potential life-giving harvest within each heart. He also knows the temptations and behaviours that consume and compromise.
And so John speaks of practice rather than pie-in-the-sky ideal. Those with much can share; those working for Caesar can do it with integrity; those serving Rome can do it without falsely accusing, filling others with fear, taking more than is theirs.
They are not as stuck as they think they are. John is opening eyes to other possibilities and paths.
John’s baptism was never an invitation to simply acknowledge a ‘missing-the-mark’ (sin), shrug it off, and continue living life in the same destructive direction. In John’s mind repentance is a turning from greed and disregard to the generosity and love of God – the fruit of the hope-filled, turn-around kingdom, that God is continually calling humanity to participate in.
And this message rings so true the people begin to see God in John. In the eyes of many there is no more likely Messiah. He has filled them with expectation, confronted evil, turned hearts from selfishness, baptised into a new way. Surely even John could reason that good could come out of a messianic claim?
John knows, however, of one who is greater still.
Jesus will take things to a whole new level. So much so that the ministry of John, while being honoured and remembered, will take a backseat.
John will, however, forever live in the memory of the faithful as one who ‘proclaimed the good news to the people’. An epitaph worthy of our gratitude, remembrance, and emulation.
It would seem John waited well for the action of God.
Like these three prophets, Paul, well after the coming of Jesus, expresses the reason for his own call to ‘Rejoice’: ‘the Lord is at hand’.
Of course, we may be tempted to see in this an end-time reference. A pointing to the coming that we hope for.
Another possibility, however, is that Paul is reminding his readers just how close God is now – so close that we can brim with joy at God’s presence, hand over all our anxieties, and live lives of thanksgiving. God is so close that your hearts and minds can be guarded by the peace Jesus won between you and the creator of all that is.
Paul is right: this goes far beyond our understanding. It is also beyond our circumstances and the reality of the pain and loss we all experience in this broken world.
That is not to say, however, that the peace of God is anything less than reality.
No wonder Paul’s repeated call is to ‘rejoice’! Church of God, make Isaiah’s words as your own this Christmas: ‘Shout and sing for joy….for great in your midst is the holy one of Israel’.