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Posts Tagged ‘Joy’

Advent 3 * Joy: A Home for All

          “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  15 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.  16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.  17 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  18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.  19 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.  20 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 

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          “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,  2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,  4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;  6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

7 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?  8 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.  9 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.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  14 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.”

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  16 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.  17 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.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” – Luke 3:1-18 

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Welcome to Week Three of our Advent series Close to Home!  This week’s focus in our series is “A Home for All” and the theme for the week is Joy. But as we listen to the two scripture readings for today, they almost seem to be saying opposite things: The Old Testament lesson in Zephaniah is full of joy; but John the Baptist’s message in Luke sounds harsh.

John the Baptist

Which of these scriptures is pointing to the truth? And which is more truly “A Home for All”? The answer is… both.  As the British theologian George MacDonald once said, God’s mercy and God’s justice are not opposites, but one and the same. If God’s kingdom, our home, is going to come, then we need to hear John the Baptists’ warnings, because his job is to “prepare the way” for the coming of the King. At the same time, when people are struggling, when day-to-day life isn’t easy, Zephaniah’s words of God’s favor are encouraging and we need to hear them.

Let’s take a closer look. In fact, actually, let me start at the end and work backwards, historically speaking, and start with Luke.

Luke’s gospel gives information on where and when John the Baptist’s ministry and prophecy takes place. (By contrast Matthew’s gospel would seem more peaceful and homelike.) Luke’s gospel almost sounds like we’re hearing the evening news.

As we enter into John the Baptist’s story, Luke begins by telling us this is the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias, which puts us somewhere around the year 29AD. (John the Baptist was preaching and teaching for a few years before Jesus began his public ministry at the age of thirty, which was somewhere in the early 30’s AD.)

Tiberius

The rest of the historical information Luke gives us is like a shorthand that people of the time would have understood. It’s kind of like saying “back when Nixon was President” – which for us would immediately bring to mind Vietnam, Watergate, and so forth. When Luke says “Tiberius was emperor, in the 15th year of his reign” people back then would automatically have thought of a leader who was in trouble. Tiberius had problems with the Senate, and he was paranoid about the possibility of being assassinated, and shortly before John the Baptist came on the scene, Tiberius basically walked away from Rome, leaving a few managers of controversial character in his place. So the political scene in Rome was unstable at best – and it certainly was not a good time to be announcing the coming of a rival king!

Meanwhile, Luke says, Pontius Pilate was the Roman praefect ruling Judea, and Herod Antipas was a puppet king in Galilee. (Just to be clear – because the scriptures mention the various members of the Herod family in the next few chapters and verses, and it gets confusing because the Gospel writers assume we know who they’re talking about.) The Herod who was king when Jesus was born, and who killed all the babies in an attempt to get rid of the Messiah, was ‘Herod the Great’. He died shortly after Jesus was born. When he passed, his kingdom was divided between his four children into what they called a “tetrarchy” (tetra = ‘four’, archy = ‘kingdom’) and we will meet these children in various scripture passages. They were: Herod Antipas in Galilee; Herod Archelaus in Samaria; Philip to the northeast, whose wife Herod Antipas took; and their sister Salome in what is today the West Bank and Gaza.

All that information is packed into – or at least assumed – in the first few verses in Luke!

Then Luke starts telling the story: John the Baptist came into the wilderness, and was preaching to the people about their need to repent and get ready for the coming of the Lord. As always, the word ‘repent’ doesn’t mean ‘you sinner you’ – it means ‘change course’ or ‘change direction’. Turn away from selfish actions and motives, and turn toward God, and be baptized as a symbol of repentance and the washing away of sins.

So the people came from all areas around: Galilee, Judea, the coastal regions; and they would come and confess their sins to John and be baptized in the Jordan River.

Jordan Baptisms today

(photo: Baptisms in the Jordan today)

John also did some preaching in between the baptisms. I have to confess I have never heard any preacher begin a sermon with the words “you brood of vipers”! I’m not sure how that would go over on a Sunday – but somehow John got away with it. It got peoples’ attention.

John was preaching that (a) the Lord is coming, and the Lord is not happy with the way people are running things here on earth; (b) God’s people need to bear spiritual fruit; and (c) we need to not rest on our religious laurels. Just because the people of Israel were descendants of Abraham did not mean they were automatically on God’s good side – any more than, today, going to church makes a person a Christian. We need to bear fruit that shows who we belong to.

When John talks about ‘bearing good fruit’ he isn’t necessarily talking about being successful or accomplishing things. Spiritual fruit can come with success or accomplishments; but the fruit of the Spirit has little to do with the things of this world. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so forth – are not material things. In fact they’re not even necessarily practical. They won’t get you anywhere, they won’t land you a job, or get you a house, or win friends or influence people. But to bear good fruit is to do what we were created to do, and to be who God created us to be.

As John preaches these things the crowds begin to ask him, “what should we do then?” and John gives them some examples: if you have two of something – like a coat or a sweater – give one to someone who doesn’t have any. If you have more food than someone else, share it. He said to the tax collectors (and, I assume, anybody else whose job it is to collect money) – collect no more than what’s owed. Don’t charge extras. And John said to the soldiers (and, I assume, any others in power such as police, lawyers, judges) don’t take money from people by false accusation or by threats; be content with your wages. Bottom line, whoever we are, and wherever we are, we’re not to grasp for “more” at the expense of others. This includes even those who might say “but I’m not rich” – the point is, no matter what we have, we need to share what we have.

The Close to Home study for this week takes this teaching a little further. It says: “Instead of accumulating, share with others what you have. Instead of being indifferent or selfish, show consideration and compassion. Instead of taking advantage or preying on the vulnerable, be satisfied with what you have and treat others fairly and with dignity. . . even if you work for the empire.” (Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri)

So pretty much across the board, John the Baptist is saying share as much as possible of whatever we have that’s extra. And when we get down to it, God has blessed us very richly. If we do all these things, we are helping to create a place that feels like home for all: a place that is a reflection of, and has the nature of, our heavenly home that is to come.

When John taught all these things, it filled the people who were listening with a sense of expectation. They felt in their hearts something BIG was about to happen. In spite of the fact that John’s words sounded a little  rough and his camel-hair outfit was rough, the people received his words as Good News.

And John gives the people even more good news. He tells the people about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Most likely most of the people listening to John would not have heard of the Holy Spirit, or would not have thought much about the Holy Spirit, because at that point in time the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost hadn’t yet happened. In order for God’s Spirit to be poured out on all God’s people, Jesus would have to go through the crucifixion and resurrection. So we’re pre-Pentecost here. In Old Testament times only certain people were ‘filled with God’s Spirit’ – usually prophets – but John is prophesying that the Holy Spirit will now come to all of God’s people – that we would all know the Spirit, and we would all be able to commune with God directly and hear God’s voice directly.

Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is often symbolized by a dove

The Holy Spirit would work in us, John said, just like fire – purging and cleaning out all the old stuff and making room where God could work in us and live with us.

The apostle Peter gives more detail about this in his letter to the early believers. He says in I Peter 1:7 that as we pass through various difficulties in life, our faith, combined with the Holy Spirit, will be “refined as if by fire” and “will result in praise, and glory, and honor when Jesus is revealed”. When he says this, Peter means praise and glory and honor for us when Jesus is revealed. God will use every difficulty, every negative thing in our lives, to get all the gunk out of our souls so we can shine in glory.  Our job is to trust and to encourage each other with these words.

As the folks from Close to Home say: “John the Baptist’s good news sounds harsh, but… ultimately John’s message is one of joy.”

Which brings us to Zephaniah’s prophecy. This prophecy is a message of total joy!  “Rejoice and exult” he says “with all your heart – the Lord has taken away the judgements against you. Fear disaster no more.”

“Fear disaster no more.” – imagine the effect those words would have on the women of Afghanistan… on the people of Myanmar… on the people of Haiti… or the Ukraine… or the peoples of Africa… or the peoples of color in our own country… or even the people downcast and deeply saddened by this pandemic.

Zephaniah says: “The Lord has turned away your enemies… the Lord gives you victory… the Lord exults over you with singing!” This kind of joy is not quiet or dignified – it is heartfelt and free.

How often do we think of God as rejoicing? How often do we picture God singing? (Leonard Bernstein, the late great conductor, once said he didn’t believe that God said ‘let there be light’ – he believes God sang it.)

He rejoices

God is not, as the old song says, “watching us from a distance”. God is, as the old prophet says, “rejoicing over us the way a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.” And we rejoice together in our God.

This is our home – and it truly is a home for all, a home where all are invited and all are welcome.

God doesn’t stop there. As Zephaniah continues, God says to us: “I will make you renowned” – that is famous! – and I will make you praised among all the peoples of the earth… and I will restore your fortunes,” says the Lord.

For all of God’s people everywhere, Zephaniah says: “God will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.” Picture that, imagine that. God will rejoice over you. God will lavish his love all over you. Can you think of anything better than that?

This is our joy. This is our forever-home. It’s a home for everyone who says ‘yes’ to God. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/12/21

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