[This sermon was supposed to be preached yesterday morning, but Western PA was hit with a major ice storm and church was cancelled. Maybe it will be preached next year!]
Old Testament Lesson:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.
– Zephaniah 3:14-20
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.
– Luke 3:7-18
We have two very different readings for today! The OT lesson from Zephaniah is a song of great joy. The prophet says, Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The gospel lesson, on the other hand, starts out with John the Baptist saying “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
The first lesson seems like a much more pleasant one to focus on — but notice something. At the end of the gospel reading, after all the talk about vipers and unquenchable fire and repentance, the very last verse reads, So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
Good news? Isn’t that a strange comment? John’s message is that God’s judgment is coming and the people need to repent. John’s hearers don’t know yet that God’s appointed judge will come as a baby, in humility and gentleness, and lay down His life for the people. All they know right now is that another prophet in a long string of prophets is calling them to repentance.
John the Baptist has been commanded by God to prepare the way for the King, and calling for repentance is how he does it. Interestingly, our Prayer Book does the same thing – the service of Holy Eucharist begins with a call to repentance and confession before we present ourselves to the King. People are always in need of confession because none of us is perfect.
In the meantime, where’s the good news?
Well, there’s some good news in verse 11. John says people who have extra clothes or extra food should give to those who are in need. Imagine if everybody did this. The poor would be cared for, the less poor would grow in their ability to be generous, and if enough people did it we wouldn’t need welfare. That’s good news.
In verse 13 John tells tax collectors to collect nothing more than what’s due. And in verse 14 he tells soldiers – and by extension, government officials – not to extort money from the people. That’s good news.
And then… towards the end of John’s message, in verse 16, he says: “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” In other words, after all these centuries of waiting, the Messiah is finally on the way! And that’s amazingly good news.
And yet John says the Messiah brings with Him a baptism of fire – which sounds like not-so-good-news. But this fire not the same thing as the unquenchable fire John talks about in verse 17. This fire is more like a refining process, like burning impurities out of gold.
And John also says the Messiah will baptize His people with the Holy Spirit. With the coming of the Messiah, the Holy Spirit will be given to everyone who believes and follows Him. The Holy Spirit is ‘God in us’ – the hope of salvation. Tremendously good news.
And there’s one more answer to the question “where’s the good news?” – in our passage in Zephaniah.
Just to give a little background, the book of Zephaniah is a very short book – only three chapters long – and our reading comes at the very end of the book. In the beginning of the book, for the first two-and-a-half chapters, the prophecies sound a lot like John the Baptist’s fire and vipers only worse. Here’s a sampling. Zephaniah 1:2-3 “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD. “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea… I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.
Zephaniah’s prophecy is, like John the Baptist’s message, a call to repent and turn to God so they can avoid disaster. In Zephaniah’s case, the people ignored his warning and as a result the nation fell to invaders.
But at the very end of Zephaniah’s book, God gives a promise of a brighter future to those who have stayed faithful through it all. In the middle of dark and troubling days the prophet says “Sing aloud! Rejoice!” because God will come to live “in the midst of” His people.
Taking a look at Zephaniah’s message in a nutshell, the reading contains four “he will”s and six “I will”s.
Verse 17 – the four “he wills”
- he will – save
- he will – rejoice over you with gladness;
- he will – quiet you by his love;
- he will – exult over you with loud singing
…and then there’s a shift of voice, from Zephaniah saying what God will do, to God Himself speaking…
Verses 18-20 – the six “I wills”
- I will – gather those of you who mourn
- I will – deal with all your oppressors
- I will – save the lame and gather the outcast
- I will – change their shame into praise and renown
- I will – gather you in (one translation says “I will gather you home”)
- I will – make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth
How’s that for good news?
In the original Hebrew these promises are set in a special kind of poetry. It’s a poetry that would have been recognizable to the ancient Jews, just like we would recognize a haiku. This type of poetry was called an ‘enthronement song’… something that would have been read at the crowning of a king. And Zephaniah describes God as ‘a King in our midst’.
That’s what John the Baptist knew, and that’s the King he was preparing the way for. And all the people of the earth would be included in the King’s blessing. This is tremendously good news, because WE are included in that blessing.
Notice that the last three words of the book of Zephaniah are “says the Lord”. This is the same God who back in Genesis 1 said “let there be light” and light happened. The words that God speaks become reality.
Which brings us to the question that John’s hearers asked: “what should we do?”
* First, believe the good news. Jesus once said “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Believing in good news can be really difficult when we look around and see all the wrong in the world, sickness and pain and greed and violence. Just watching the evening news, it can be difficult to imagine a world where these things don’t exist. But God is faithful and His words are true, and His kingdom is close at hand. Believe the good news.
* Second, thank God for His love. In Zephaniah verse 17 the prophet describes an amazing love. God – rejoicing — over us. God — singing — over us. It’s hard to imagine. I think maybe one of the hardest things in all the Christian faith is to grasp how deeply and intimately God loves us. Zephaniah gives us a glimpse of it… and the Messiah gives us a far clearer picture. Thank God for that love.
* And third, as you get the opportunity, share this truth and share this love with the people you know.
May you have a blessed Advent and Christmas season, full of good news. AMEN