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Sermon for Sunday 12 December 2021

First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20

14“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. 18I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. 19Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; 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.

Psalm 85

1You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, you have restored the good fortune of Jacob. 2You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins. 3You have withdrawn all your fury and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation. 4Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. 5Will you be displeased with us forever? will you prolong your anger from age to age? 6Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you? 7Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. 8I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. 9Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. 10Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. 11Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. 12The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase. 13Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Luke 7:18-35

18The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, 19calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 20And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” 21In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” 24When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. 26What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29(When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.) 31“To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’ 33For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”

The Unbreakable Christmas

Well we’ve made it.  We’re halfway there.  We lit the pink candle this morning which signals that there’s only 2 more weeks until Christmas.  For the past couple of weeks, we’ve listened to John the Baptist and his message to prepare the way; we’ve been told to get ready.  And the constant question being asked is, what are you preparing for?  I read about a class of six-year-olds who were putting on the annual Christmas concert for family and friends.  For several weeks teachers and parents worked with the children to help them prepare for the Christmas Eve pageant.  As the program came to a close, the kids were singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” with gusto.  They came to the line “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”  One child, of course the loudest singer in the group, belted out, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners dressed in style!”

Speaking of kids saying the darndest things…Cecille Hansen tells of driving her young daughter through their neighborhood during mid-December to look at all the decorated houses.  They came to one house where the homeowners had clearly “gotten in the mood!”  They had every possible light and decoration dripping off their house and crowding their front yard.  Hansen’s daughter peered out the window at this house and said, “It looks like Christmas threw up.”  Interesting observation!  Now I agree that decorating for Christmas is a matter of choice and taste, but one does have to ask, when looking at some of these homes, where is that line between tasteful and well, gaudy, I’ll let you answer that.

The truth is, the only preparation we really need, the only thing that will make Christmas real for us, is to prepare our hearts to receive Jesus.  No matter what your Christmas preparations may look like, my hope this Advent and Christmas seasons is that we don’t get so caught up in the pageantry and commercialism of the secular holiday that we miss out on the love, joy, hope and peace of God this Christmas and throughout the New Year to come.  It goes without saying, Jesus is the reason for the season!

We all know in our hearts that there is no gift that can compare to the gift of God’s love and mercy.  That’s why our Bible passage for today is so relevant.  These words were shared by a man who knew what it was like to have every form of worldly success and comfort, and to lose it all.  But what he found was something by far better, Jesus Christ.  Because of his one-on-one meeting with Jesus and the resulting conversion, his writings are full of the love, joy, hope and peace of God that changed his life.

St. Paul begins our Epistle reading for this Sunday with, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4: 4-7).  In this festive season, these are words that seem easy to hear and follow.  However, if you’ve read Paul’s other letters, of his hardships and imprisonment, you might be tempted to ask, “How did he do it?”

How did Paul live with joy and peace under such stressful circumstances?  Verse 7 in our passage is another benediction, or blessing, in the church.  “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Then in verse nine, Paul inverts two of the important words in that benediction. Instead of saying “the peace of God”, he says, “And the God of peace will be with you.”  I think we found the answer to the question of how Paul lived with joy and peace in the face of suffering and stress.  The peace we seek isn’t a peace that comes from pretty lights and parties and things, it’s a peace that comes from having a one-on-one relationship with God.  I hope you find that same answer this Christmas season.

But sadly, there are far too many folks for whom the glitter of Christmas is a reminder, not of their wealth as children of God, but of their poverty in a materialistic culture.  As someone has wisely noted, if you and I lost the many blessings that we enjoy and then had them restored, we would have a new appreciation for how much we really have.  Yet deep in our souls many of us are tortured by the demon of discontent.  Pastor Ken Shamblin tells a story many parents can relate to.  

When Shamblin’s son was five-years old he wanted a red toy truck for Christmas.  All he talked about was red toy trucks.  He prayed for a red toy truck.  He pointed out pictures of red toy trucks in catalogs.  His letter to Santa was focused on only one item: a red toy truck.  When Christmas morning arrived, Ken Jr. was overjoyed to receive a red toy truck!  He ignored all his other gifts to play with it.  A few hours later, Pastor Shamblin heard his son crying.  He looked for his son and found him holding his red toy truck in one hand, and the truck’s wheels in the other hand.  The poor little guy looked up at his father and cried, “Daddy, my Christmas is broken already!”

Ken Jr’s whole Christmas was wrapped up in that one gift, the red toy truck.  But if we’re honest, are we that much different?  Far too many of us judge our Christmas by external, materialistic standards: is the house well-decorated?  Did we purchase the right gifts?  Could the Christmas dinner make the cover of Southern Living Magazine?  If all those things fell apart, would our Christmas be “broken”?  And then there are those for whom materialism isn’t the struggle, instead, they experience a poverty of the spirit.  We all need something to put our hope in, something that’s far more meaningful and lasting than decorations and parties and gifts.

A few years ago, Joanne Long’s father became very sick.  She visited him as much as possible.  At one point, she tried to share the gospel with him, but he wasn’t interested.  Before she left to return home, Joanne prayed for her father.  Not long afterwards when Joanne told her father that she was praying for him, he responded simply, “You keep doing that.”  It was the first, tiny sign of hope Joanne’s father was open to the idea of God.  So Joanne sat down and wrote her father a letter.  And she closed the letter with, “My prayer this moment is that you will take from God the gift of eternal life by receiving Jesus into your heart.”  Three days before Christmas, Joanne Long’s father died.  

After the funeral, her father’s caregiver approached Joanne.  She wanted her to know that her father had found peace with God.  Christmas is a good time to remind ourselves that the “more” we desire has nothing to do with gifts.  The “more” we need has nothing to do with money.  For far too many people, their true poverty has nothing to do with money or things.  Their true poverty is a poverty of spirit.  What we really long for, what we really need, what would really make a difference in the lives of so many this Christmas and every day of the year, for that matter, is to know God more.  And that’s the greatest gift of Christmas: The peace of God comes when we know and share the God of peace.  Think about the first Christmas ever.

No one—not Mary and Joseph, not the shepherds, not the wise men, not Elizabeth and Zechariah—no one fully understood what God was planning.  No one knew what to expect.  But they knew the Almighty God had come to them.  The Great I AM had chosen them.  They knew the God of peace, even though they didn’t fully understand His plans, they still experienced God’s peace. 

At the start of World War II, the city of London was preparing for bombing raids by Nazi forces.  The government decided to protect their most vulnerable citizens, their children.  Approximately 800,000 children were evacuated to the countryside and placed temporarily with rural foster families for their safety.  The government wanted to protect the children from the frightening facts of war, so they didn’t tell them why they were being sent away or where they were going.  As the children were loaded onto the trains, someone asked a young boy, “Where are you going?”  The child hesitated a moment, then said, “I don’t know, but the king knows.”  Would that we all had the faith of that child.  In a troubling and uncertain time, that child found peace in trusting that his king knew where he was going.

Advent and Christmas are seasons when our minds naturally move toward the hope of peace on earth, good will toward men.  That was part of the great messianic hope that Isaiah described hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth.  The Spirit inspired the prophet to write, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (11:6).  Every year at this time, we rekindle our hope for peace.  We look forward to that day when there will be peace in the world, when innocent children will have no reason for fear.

We long for peace—peace within our own hearts, peace within our homes, peace within our world.  We long for the peace of God and we long for the God of peace.  And the peace of God comes when we trust God with our present circumstances and thank God for our future.That’s what the Apostle Paul was teaching us in this passage.  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

St. Paul wrote these words when he was under house arrest for preaching about Jesus.  He had lost everything from his previous life—his status, his religious community, his home, his safety—all when he became a follower of Jesus.  But his letters reveal a man who was filled with joy and completely at peace, even when he faced difficult circumstances and an uncertain future.  He felt this way because of his one-on-one meeting with Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us.  And Paul knew that he could trust every moment of his life, his present circumstances, and his future challenges, to the hands of a God who loved him enough to humble Himself and come to us in the form of a baby, to walk in his shoes, and to die for his sin and to give him eternal life.  Because of this, Paul could live with peace in the present and in gratitude for the future.

A few years ago, a man named Glen McCarthy stopped by his local Walmart to buy a cup of coffee.  The employees at this Walmart were conducting a toy drive for underprivileged children.  McCarthy wanted to help out with the toy drive but he had fallen on hard times himself.  In fact, he was homeless, and had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.  Under those difficult circumstances, most of us would be thinking about our own needs rather than the needs of others.

But after he left the Walmart, he couldn’t stop thinking about those kids who might not get a gift on Christmas.  So, he returned to the store, dug deep in his pocket and bought a few toys and even a new bike to donate to the children’s toy drive.  He spent nearly all his money on these gifts.  What could have possibly inspired this was homeless and sick individual to spent almost all his money to buy Christmas gifts for children he didn’t even know?  As Glen McCarthy said, “. . . this is probably going to be my last Christmas.  I’m no one, so might as well make some little kid happy.  It took my losing everything to realize that I’m happier now in my life than when I had big money.”

Please don’t miss the true reason we celebrate Christmas.  God came to bring us peace.  A peace that transcends, or rises above, all understanding, and it guards our heart and mind.  God’s peace rises above our circumstances and guards against our fears.  Hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, God promised that He would send a Messiah to save His people.  We’re just a few days away from celebrating that great moment in history, the moment when the only Son of God became Immanuel—God with us.  

No matter how out of control our lives may feel, God’s purpose for us never changes and God’s promises to us never change either.  Jesus came to bring us peace—peace in our lives, peace in our families, peace in our world, and finally, peace with the Father.  So let us take seriously the words of John the Baptist and let us go from here and prepare the way for Jesus’ return.  Let us go forth and share God’s message of hope and peace with the world.


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