Sermon on Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-18 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C, Dec. 13, 2015
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
All my life, I have been trying to figure out God. It is probably a fool’s errand, since I am a finite creature, but I cannot help myself. I am not interested in theology because it is fun, but because it is, for me, necessary.
Every time some new horrible event happens the god-questions come back. Recent terrorist attacks at home and abroad are poignant examples. We wonder what is going on, we wonder why, we wonder what it means to be a person of faith in a world in which so much bad happens.
Some Perspective on our Times
But it is also helpful to get some perspective. These are not the worst of times. Not by a long stretch. In my quest to figure out God I read books by people who have been on this journey ahead of me. Recently I started re-reading a book from the 14th century by an unknown English author called The Cloud of Unknowing.
It is a book of instruction, written to help serious Christians learn how to meditate using an anchor word, which we would call a mantra, but without any other words. We call it “contemplative prayer,” or “centering prayer.”
The central idea in the book is that God cannot be known mentally, by theological concepts, but only by love; by directly experiencing God’s love. We experience God’s love by entering the “cloud of unknowing” in which we leave mental concepts behind.
Anyway, the introduction to the book describes the conditions the book was written in. In the 14th Century, the bubonic plague was raging through England. Millions of people died. Like Ebola, it filled people with fear. One man, in that time, wrote:
“Neighbors never helped neighbors, and even relatives shunned each other. Brother deserted brother… sister forgot brother…. Worst of all, parents abandoned their children as if they did not know them.”
To make matters worse, that was also the time of the “100 Years War” between England and France, and a bloody, chaotic peasants war. The church, at the time, according to the book I am reading, “worshiped opulence, [popes] ate from golden plates, fought expensive wars and meddled in politics.” (Carmen Butcher, p. xv)
These are not the worst of times. Nevertheless, our fears and our anxieties are real to us. It is not easy to hear the call from the prophets to “rejoice greatly.” In fact, it is quite easy to get depressed. From terrorism to climate change, and from politicians’ rhetoric, to the vitriolic reactions to the politicians that people express in the press and on social media, if you chose to, you could spend your entire day in negative thinking.
But there is another way to live; a much better way to live; in fact a much healthier way to live. What I am going to talk about is not anything like escapism, or ignorance, nor un-involvement. Rather, there is a way to be in this world, with all its problems, as a positive, healthy person; even a force for good.
Signposts of Goodness
I am sure that I will never reach the end of my quest to figure out God, but there are a couple of essential signposts pointing towards a horizon that give me hope. One is that in spite of all the badness around us, we sense that God is good, and that God wants the good, and is working to bring about the good.
The goodness of God is hard to reconcile with the evil in the world, but one thing must be clear: God does not like the evil anymore than we do – probably a lot less.
This is what the prophets rant about. Zephaniah is a tiny book, and we only read the last bit in which he forecasts a future day of hope, which is why he calls the people to “rejoice greatly.”
But before he got to the solution, he did a lot of huffing and puffing about the problem. He has God threatening to
“sweep away everything, …humans and animals, …bird and fish,”
– all the bad guys and everything else with them – that is how angry at the evil in the world the prophet thinks that God is.
But for Zephaniah, God’s displeasure at evil is only a prelude. What God really wants is to “exalt over [his people] with loud singing”. And the people will join the rejoicing, knowing that God is in our midst. God is good, and wills the good, and is working for the good of his people – wanting nothing better than to be with us!
John mimics prophets like Zephaniah with his own rant against the evils of his day. When people came to him to be baptized without any intention of repenting from their oppressive lifestyles, John the baptist, sounding to me like John Cleese, calls them a “brood of vipers.”
But his point was not to be rude, his point was to get everyone ready for the new, good thing that he believed God was doing for his people. And John believed Jesus was the key figure in God’s goodness on behalf of his people.
Jesus and Christmas
This is why we make such a big deal about Christmas; this is why we celebrate Jesus with such outlandish decorations and why we give gifts. Jesus came to announce that God is with us! God is for us. God is good!
For Jesus, God is not standing over us with a club, God is like a lady looking for lost coin, a shepherd searching for a lost lamb, a father looking down the road every day, and running when he sees his prodigal returning at last.
From the gospels, it looks as though John thought that God’s goodness and love was part B of a two-part plan, just like Zechariah believed. The wrath of God against evil would come first, then the good part would follow. So, John announced that Jesus would come, after his baptism with water, and would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus would wield the axe of God, chopping away at the pretentiously tall trees.
Jesus, however, did not go around hacking at people, he instead, healed them. He did not baptize sinners with fire, he ate supper with them. This confused John so much that when he was in prison he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was, indeed the real deal, or if they were mistaken about him. Where was the fiery wrath?
Jesus did not say it exactly like Paul did later, but Paul seems to get it right when he speaks of the “wrath of God” being witnessed already, in the present, not as something extra that God does, but naturally, as people have to live with the consequences of their behavior (Romans 1). Hell is real: it is what some choose to make of their lives.
God Makes Goodness
That is not what God makes. What God makes is good. What God makes is beauty. God makes music possible. God makes sunsets. God makes communities of forgiveness and inclusion possible. God makes, as Zephaniah said, communities where the lame and the outcasts have cause to rejoice, and where shame is a distant memory.
God makes communities of caring, as John said, in which two-coat people give up one so that the no-coat people will be warm at night. Where the food-in-the-fridge people share with the no-food-in-the-fridge people. Where even tax collectors are honest and where law enforcement acts with integrity.
So, there are plenty of reasons for rejoicing: God is rejoicing over us! The Holy One is in our midst. Where two or three gather, the Spirit of the living Christ is among them.
Children usually rejoice over the presents at Christmas, right? Well, knowing this, I wanted to help them think a bit more deeply about the meaning of Christmas this past Wednesday. So I ask them a question: name three presents you got last year. Not surprisingly, it was hard. Some could not remember any.
But everyone can remember the gift of last night’s sunset. Everyone can remember the last beautiful song they heard. Even when bad things happen we can choose to look at the goodness and love shown by those who come to respond. That is where we see the goodness of God, the presence of God with us.
Focus on Goodness
So let us not simply focus on the bad. We need to be aware, and we need to be involved. But we do not need to spend every moment of our lives wallowing in the world’s mess. Watch the news, but do not leave it on all day. Be well informed, but beware of the fact that people have an economic interest in keeping you upset, fearful, and angry: it keeps you watching the commercials. Your anxiety puts money in their pockets. Do not play their game. Turn it off.
Take time to enter the Cloud of Unknowing. Take time to be in the silent presence of a loving God. There is a time for trying to figure out what God is doing, or not doing, in this world of evil, but there is also time to simply
“be still and know.” And for those who do, there will be plenty of reasons, as
Zephaniah said, to :
“The Lord has taken away the judgments against you…
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst…
Do not fear…
The Lord, your God, is in your midst”