A sermon for Advent 3
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Stir up your power O Lord, and come among us. Oh really? We want God among us. Really? Think about it for a moment. I know what we hear Zephaniah say this morning; how divine judgements have been taken away. I know we hear that disaster has been removed. I know we hear God will: save the lame, change shame to pride, bring us home, make us renown, restore our fortunes. I know we hear similar words from Isaiah: that we trust in God, and do not fear. I know we hear how God is our stronghold, how we will sing praises about God’s mighty deeds. But really, do we want God among us?
You see what we don’t know are the first three chapters of Zephaniah. He is a prophet in the time of Josiah, one of Israel good kings, who tries to institute reforms. Unfortunately, he is killed in battle with Babylonians. Israel is thrown into turmoil, political and religious leaders cave in, and fall completely away from God. Zephaniah opens with a call for worldwide, for cosmic destruction. Oh, there will be a remnant, but they are not spared; they just survive (Luther Seminary). Zephaniah is one of the grimmest, saddest most frightening books in the whole Bible (Hoezee, Advent 3C | Zephaniah). Isaiah is in a similar position. Israel is now in exile. The fires of faith have absolutely gone out (Jacobson). It is a cold, dark world.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the parallels between Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s world and ours. Some politicians and religious leaders conspire against the people they are called to serve. Some loudly profess to believe in God and then serve other gods, other values, by their actions. Others claim God for themselves, ~ and us, and then use that claim to dismiss “the nations of the world” be they refugees, or a different race, or a different faith. It seems most people don’t really believe God gets angry (Bratt). It doesn’t take much imagination to see the similarity between falling religiosity in the US and Europe and the cold fire of faith of Israel in Babylon. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand the fear the death of Josiah evoked, as the equivalent to the perceived fall: of respect for or the power of the US across the world.
It’s a dark, cold world. So absolutely YES! Stir up your power O Lord, and come among us. But really? Are you really ready, really willing to stand on the banks of the Jordan? Are you really ready to face the prophet whose has come out of the wilderness? Are you ready to answer him? Not the question about who warned you; oh no, the implied question of the opening salvo “You brood of vipers!” Are you ready?
I hope so, we should be ~ the light is growing. Today is as Gaudete Sunday, marked by the pink candle, symbolic of the growing dominance of divine light. In the midst of darkness, it really is time to rejoice (Pankey, we are sorely hindered). As much as Zephaniah justifiably rants about unfaithfulness, and hypocrisy, at the end of the cosmic day it is God’s commitment to restoration and new life that makes the difference (Hoezee, Advent 3C | Zephaniah) (Stewart). And so yes, we want God’s power and might to root out or keep out all the evils. If only. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s wrote:
If it were only that simple. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being (Jones).
John the Baptist points to the same truth. The people by the riverside want to know what’s to be done. Notice that John does not take on the imperial oppressors, political conspirators, or the corrupt religious officials. John answers them literally: if you have 2 shirts give one away; if you have food do the same. There are no qualifiers: for what you have; or the worthiness of the recipient. He tells tax collectors and soldiers there, don’t steal, don’t extort money. A colleague puts it this way: John says: share, don’t cheat and be nice (Pankey, The Terrifyingly Mundane). John sends those people, sends us, back to ordinary lives, only to live them better, more honestly, as service to others; to live spiritual lives in the ordinariness of our little corner of the world (Lose) (Hoezee, Advent 3C | Luke). John does not ask us to change or save the world; God is taking care of that. John is asking us
to witness the change already in process, by actually living like it’s here, like we believe it’s really coming, like we think it actually matters (Lose).
Stir up your power O Lord, and come among us. The prayer is already being answered. It is not always comfortable for us. We will have to continue to acknowledge: our other allegiances, where our actions do not meet our commitments or professions (Stewart). It is a daunting reality, but the light [point to advent wreath] is dominated and continues to overcome the darkness; it will never fail. By the light, we can recognize our illness: physical, mental, spiritual, or moral; acute or chronic. By the light we can be healed, brought to shalom, wholeness of life; we can walk the right path, we can see the Kingdom, present and possible. By the light, we can witness to God’s truth in the face of worldly powers that tries to suppress it (Expertly) (Lewis). By the light we know:
The LORD, our God, is in our midst (Zeph 3:15b), surely, we will trust in him and not be afraid (Isaiah 12:2a).
By the light we know:
the peace of God, which passes all understanding, is keeping your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord (Phil. 4:7) (BCP, 339).
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