Advent 3C, 2018, December 16, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This week as I was reading through the Bible passages assigned for this Sunday, I noticed a common theme running through all of them: the Good News coming in unexpected places, for unexpected people, in unexpected ways. God’s kingdom is breaking in to the world, and it is different from the world we know, and it is good news, but not always in ways that fit with our views of the world. There are so many little surprises and so many things that are good news from odd angles that I couldn’t choose just one.
Let’s start with the first reading, from Zephaniah. Now, Zephaniah was a prophet, but one of the less well-known ones. Like all the ancient prophets, Zephaniah was concerned with injustice and the way people were abusing one another and turning away from God. And he gave people searing warnings about the destruction of all the world that would happen on the Day of the Lord, as judgment for all the evil things that people did. But the last half chapter is different. Yes, the world deserves destruction because of its evil, because of the way they have hurt one another. But the destruction is not the last word. Rejoice, the prophet says, because God forgives, because God is a strong warrior who brings victory.
Now, this is unexpected in two ways. First, we are called to rejoice in the midst of death and destruction? We are called to rejoice even knowing there are terrible things in the world? Destruction isn’t good news … unless you know how bad the thing being destroyed is, and you also know that it’s going to be replaced by something better. The destruction of your country is not good news unless your country has oppressed you and treated you terribly and the new world that will replace it will treat you with justice and mercy. And then there’s the message of forgiveness. Yes, being forgiven brings joy … but only if you’ve done something that needs to be forgiven. Forgiveness only brings joy if you acknowledge what you did that was wrong. So, yes, Zephaniah says, rejoice. Rejoice, all you who have done things you shouldn’t; and rejoice, all you who have been abused by the world. You will be forgiven and granted a part of the new world. Something better is coming. We don’t rejoice in destruction for the sake of destruction but for the sake of the better thing that God will build to replace what cannot stand before him.
The second surprising thing about our reading from Zephaniah is that when God calls Godself a mighty warrior and king, this is not the sort of mighty warrior or king we tend to see in the world. If we look at the world around us, people who are powerful—mighty warriors, great leaders, the rich and powerful—tend not to be very nice. They often got where they are by attacking others, or taking advantage of them, or sometimes they abuse their power. And even if they don’t intentionally hurt or abuse those with less power, they often ignore or don’t even see how their power and might affects those around them. Where does the elephant in the room sit? Anywhere it wants, and if that just happens to be on top of a mouse, the elephant may not even notice. Or decide that it’s the mouse’s fault for being below them. Power tends to corrupt, and we see that all the time. If God were a mighty warrior and king like the mighty leaders of our society, that would be bad news for most of us. But God is different from the powers of this world.
God is a mighty warrior who fights for the poor and disadvantaged. God will fight against the oppressors and bullies, God will remove the disaster especially from those most hurt by it, God will bring together and heal and serve the disabled, the outcast, the ones who are most likely to be abused. As I read this I thought about Captain America. If you’ve ever seen the first Captain America movie, the doctor who is developing the super-soldier serum asks sickly Steve Rogers why he wants to join the army. “Do you want to kill Nazis?” he asks? “No,” Steve Rogers replies. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” Steve is chosen to be Captain America because he wants to protect those who cannot protect themselves. He doesn’t do it for power or fame or wealth or revenge or hate or fear or to make America great, but to stand up for those in greatest need and danger. God’s power as a warrior is similar. It’s not like that of most powerful people. God uses God’s power to protect, to heal, to save those who cannot save themselves. It’s a different sort of power from the world we see all around us. God’s power and might are not about gaining more power, or about might for its own sake. God’s power and might are about protecting and healing. It’s good news for those who have been abused, or oppressed, for those who are alone or hurting or disabled or on the outside of society looking in. But it’s not good news for the abusers, for the powerful who use their power for their own benefit and hurt people in the process.
Let’s move on to our second reading. And, again, the theme is joy. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice! The surprising thing here is that Paul is in prison when he wrote these words. And he was writing to a congregation that was beset by enemies trying to destroy it. Prison is not a joyful place; it is designed to be as degrading and as punitive as possible. And having enemies attack you is not something that generally brings happiness or good cheer. These things are not recipes for happiness. And yet, Paul says, rejoice! Put your trust in God, and thank God for all the good things that are happening even in the midst of the bad. No matter how bad things may get, we know that God is with us, and we know that God will continue to work in us and around us until the day when Christ comes again and all the living and the dead will be judged and all things and all people will be made new. No matter how bad things get, nothing can separate us from the love of God. And as long as we cling to that love, there will be times of joy.
And then there’s our Gospel reading. John the Baptist is calling all people to repentance with a hell-fire and brimstone message condemning sin. “You brood of vipers!” he calls those who have come to hear his message, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Like Zephaniah, John the Baptist believed there would be a day of wrath, a day of judgment, a time when all people and nations would have to account for the evil that they had done. The surprising thing is that his listeners heard him call them snakes headed for destruction, and considered it good news. Now, judgment might not sound like good news, but there are three kinds of good news in John the Baptist’s message. First, for anyone who has ever experienced injustice or been sickened by the evil in the world, the good news is that injustice and evil will not last forever. The second bit of good news, for those who have done things worthy of condemnation (which is pretty much everyone), is that while the day of the Lord is surely coming, repentance is possible. We can choose to repent. We can choose to turn our hearts and minds away from the ways of the world and toward God. And the third piece of John’s good news is that those concrete acts of repentance are actually things we can do. Be generous. If you see someone who needs help and you can help them, do so. Treat people fairly and with justice. Don’t hurt, abuse, cheat, or oppress people. These are things that you and I can do.
In the sure and certain knowledge that Christ is helping us, and that what we have received, we are also called to pass on. As we prepare for the coming of Christ, both at Christmastime and when he comes again in glory, may we turn our hearts and lives so that we live according to the will of God, and not the will of society.