Zephaniah 3:14-20;Isaiah 12:2-6;Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
December 16, 2018 –Third Sunday in Advent
We come to the Third Sunday in Advent to celebrate Joy. We light the pink candle this morning.
We have three purple candles for hope and love and peace. But we have a white candle…for the Christ child. And we have that one pink candle…for joy.
We light candles on our Advent wreath at this darkest time of each year. I think that we who stay through the winter in the Flathead basin understand the value of light as well as anyone.
This is a dark season next to the largest body of fresh water between the Great Lakes and the world’s largest ocean…the Pacific.
The lake that keeps us warmer in winter and cooler in summer also keeps us darker at the darkest time of the year, holding a cloud cover over us that can sometimes keep us from seeing the sun – beholding the light – for months.
This makes the sunshine…or any period of light…more precious to us. That is the silver lining to those who know they live in darkness. Those who have lived in darkness, we read in Isaiah 9 and Matthew 4 … “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
Darkness is not something to be sought out, unless you are ashamed of what you are doing. If you are doing a good thing, you seek the light so you can see clearly that you do the right in the right way.
And Jesus, who brought all the goodness of heaven into the world with him, is referred to in the first chapter of John’s Gospel as The Light of the World. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
If all is darkness around you, dear friend, rejoice, for you have been called to bring the light.
We who follow The Way and proclaim Jesus our Lord and Savior are children of the light. We are called to put that light upon a stand so that it can shine all around the world…so that all the world can see it…even in the worst of times …especially in the worst of times.
We bring light and we bring joy.
John the Baptist came into the world at one of the darkest of times. Defeat and oppression had beaten God’s chosen people down. They had been promised that a descendant would be upon the throne of Israel forever.
By the time the Christ child came to them, it had been 500 years that they had been waiting. They were bewildered by this, but they were still alive.
If goodness followed virtue, as God had told them through Moses, they must have sinned. They had trouble understanding where this had come from.
Tell me what I did to deserve this, Lord, so that I can never do this again. They had been to hell and they did not want to go back.
They tried hard to be better. And they prayed, in the midst of their despair, “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” Ps 35. “How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?” Ps 79. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” Ps 89.
There was a flicker of hope even as Jerusalem fell. Isaiah prophesied as the storm clouds gathered, as the walls were breached, while the exiles were held in Babylon and as they were permitted to return to Israel.
He was among the first to proclaim in the 8th Century BC that, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”
But then even the prophets began to despair as the people gradually lost hope…and they fell silent for 100 years, during the Assyrian oppression…until the prophet Zephaniah arose in the 7th Century, about the same time King Josiah of Israel instituted reforms to set faith in a bright future…somehow… someway…by someone.
Zephaniah begins the chapter we read from today with a stern judgment against Israel’s leaders who had lost their faith and ruled only to gain glory and prosperity for themselves.
“Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city!
It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God. The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning.”
Those who once put all their faith in the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob…and Joseph and Moses and Samuel and Elijah…now put faith only in themselves…sought to be me-centered…does it make me happy now? They forsake joy in the Lord for happiness in the flesh.
They had become a nation of short hitters, seeking only what they wanted for themselves and forgetting all that “Love God and love your neighbor” stuff.
But Zephaniah finishes strong, with our reading. Even in those days, the prophets were seeing that the better things get, the worse people get…but the worse things get, the better people get.
Just before where we pick up the reading today he proclaims God’s word as God’s oracle, “For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly.
“They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord— the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.”
Even in the depths of despair, they cling to hope…real hope…in the ultimate triumph of goodness over evil…love of neighbor ASlove of self…belief in God AS belief in life itself.
Perhaps…just perhaps…we find ourselves as 21st Century Americans …in a situation that is not entirely different from theirs. We are on top of the world, like they once were, but things are always in motion and we need to keep ourselves awake to what is going on around us.
More than that, we need to keep our minds right. We need to keep first things first and remember what is important. It isn’t so much what position we are in, but the relationship we have with the truth …and we need to be ready to do the right thing.
The Boy Scout Oath comes to mind for me as I reflect on this. We must keep ourselves physically fit, mentally awake and morally straight. That used to describe our highest ideals. If it no longer does…what does?
This season of Advent is a good time to make this bare-faced commitment to ourselves…to our neighbors…and to our creator.
We await the coming – at any moment now –of our Lord and Savior. We need to be ready to give a good account of ourselves when he appears. We may not need to be perfect, but we need to be leaning in that direction…striving…listening for the upward call.
You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. I’m telling you why. It’s someone a lot more important than Santa Claus that’s coming to town.
But Jesus doesn’t try to scare us or threaten us. He will come as a helpless little baby who couldn’t… or wouldn’t…hurt a fly.
He doesn’t want us to cozy up to him for what we can get out of him either. He will come from a poor part of the country, without a fortune or an army or even a position of authority. He will even be illegitimate from birth…from a worldly point of view.
He is not coming to have a transaction with us. That is not his promise.
Look at Israel: as obedient as any nation in the world, suffering for half a millennium, waiting for the Promised One to deliver them from captivity. As Moses had led them out of bondage and into freedom, they wanted him to throw out their oppressors.
But he is not looking for a transaction. He is trying to show them that they are their own oppressors.
He comes looking for a relationship, and he is willing to give far more to your relationship with him than you can hope to know how to give of yourself.
But he will show you how he gives and invite you to join him in The Way of giving. He has far more to give than anyone…just love God with all you have and all you are and love others as you love yourself.
He wants you to know how much he loves you and how much more you can love your family…and your neighbor…and your God…and yourself. He comes to give the gift that keeps on giving…joy in the midst of suffering.
God has been merciful to America …because we have been the exiles from all over the world that God alone can gather. We have been the remnant of Israel in the world…a people humble and lowly …who only wanted to do good and be better.
Now we find ourselves watching over the world as no country has been called to watch over it before. It is a dangerous time, to be sure, but it was always a dangerous time.
Our devotion to truth and justice…the American way…corny as it sounds, is what has brought us through. We may not be perfect, but we still strive to be…so long as we still aspire to be a people humble and lowly…to bring peace and prosperity to people everywhere… here and abroad.
John the Baptist speaks to us this morning as clearly as he has ever spoken to anyone.
“Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”
John does not say these things to us because we are bad…or ever have been…but because we could be so good…and he knows that we see it …because we come to a man who calls us vipers and asks us to be better…to head in The Way toward perfection.
Like the Baptist, I see another one coming whose sandals I am unworthy to untie…but he wants to wash my feet…and yours. He only wants to show us how much he loves us…and how much he wants us to love the world.
It may seem like a heavy load at first, like the Exile was to Israel. But we were not dispersed into the world for no reason…but like the prophet Zephaniah describes it for us this morning, we are like the exiles who have been gathered from all over the world and the God of truth and justice and mercy only seeks to make us renowned and praised among all the people of the earth… if only we will seek to be worthy…which is to say, know that we are unworthy…of the love that has been showered down upon us.
God has given every person the gift of love in Jesus Christ…the child who has come into the world as a helpless baby born in a lowly stable that we might receive him with mercy and kindness in our hearts… and pass it along to those we meet.
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and humble, helpless requests, with thanksgiving!, present your requests to God.
If you do this, you will not ask for anything that is not worthy of God’s time…or yours. This is not a Christmas to ask for trinkets or passing happiness.
This is a Christmas to ask for joy like the joy Zephaniah knew… like the joy John the Baptist knew…like the joy the Apostle Paul came to know…a joy that lasts forever…so that we might…by the grace of God in Jesus Christ…become a people that the world will talk about forever…because our gentleness is evident to all.
Peace on earth…Good will toward all people.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through me this day? Amen.