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Sermon for Sunday 13 December 2015

FIRST READING Zephaniah 3:14-20

14 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.


PSALM Psalm 85

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the good fortune of Jacob. 2 You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins. 3 You have withdrawn all your fury and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation. 4 Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. 5 Will you be displeased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

SECOND READING Philippians 4:4-7

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

GOSPEL Luke 7:18-35

18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19 and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 20 When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'” 21 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. 26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29 (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 30 But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) 31 To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.’ 33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; 34 the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”


As I told the kids a few moments ago, in years past, the third Sunday in Advent was known as Gaudete Sunday. The name came from the Latin form of the first word of the Introit for today: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!” In a season in which we often stressed the solemn preparation for Christmas, Gaudete Sunday was intended as a little respite from seriousness. Advent is a season in which we stress the reason Christ came in the first place and His return and of our need to be prepared. And because of this added emphasis on the hope of Jesus’ return, the color of the day changed from violet to rose and flowers were allowed on the altar.
With the rise of liturgical renewal, Christians have stressed hope rather than repentance as the main theme of Advent, and many have turned to blue rather than violet as the color of the season. And our Old Testament reading for this Sunday follows this theme of Gaudete, the sound of rejoicing, which flows forth from our lesson from Zephaniah. Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! (v. 14). The reasons given for rejoicing are those usually given in oracles of hope from Israel’s post-exilic period: the enemy will be destroyed (vv. 18-19a), the exiles will be gathered (v. 19b), and there will be a glorious homecoming (v. 20).
Charles Swindoll wrote a book titled Hope Again, with the subtitle “When Life Hurts and Dreams Fade.” On the back cover describing the contents of the book the publisher entices the reader with the following words: Hope is more than mere wishful thinking. Hope is a vital necessity of life — a gift that God wants to give to you. And in a world that regularly writes dreams off as foolish and drains the hope from the heart with dark pessimism, Hope Again is a voice crying in the wilderness … a word of enthusiasm for life in the midst of any difficult situation you are in. Zephaniah’s audience could identify with that need for hope!
The Hebrew people were overwhelmed with grief from prolonged distress. For more than 50 years, king Manasseh, long considered the worst of Judah’s kings, and his son Amon, sat on the throne and encouraged despicable worship practices. Manasseh built altars for star worshipers in the temple and encouraged male prostitution as part of worship practices. Additionally, king Manasseh shed much innocent blood and even made child sacrifice a common practice. And his son Amon followed in his footsteps. Because of this, the people of Judah, by the time of Zephaniah, had a long history of defiance of God’s commands. God had been sending His word of judgement through several prophets, but the people, by in large, weren’t listening. God was now sending Zephaniah in the hope of shaking the people of Judah out of their idolatry, doldrums and complacency and calling them to return to God.
Zephaniah’s main theme is the coming of the day of the Lord, when God will severely punish the nations. It won’t be a day of rejoicing and celebration in which the enemies of God’s people will be destroyed and the people of Judah exalted. According to Zephaniah, the time is coming for accountability and judgment and it isn’t hard to see the progression of Zephaniah’s thinking in his short book.
In chapter 1, Zephaniah includes God’s thunderous judgment and punishment for all who defy Him. There’s wrath and pronouncement of destruction. “I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth, declares the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:3 NIV). As the Life Application Bible introduction to Zephaniah says, “We can sense the oppression and depression his listeners must have felt. They were judged guilty and they were doomed” (p. 1366).
However, as you move to chapter 2, there’s a whisper of hope from the prophet. He calls on the people to beg the Lord to save them and maybe, just maybe, God will listen and respond (2:3). Later in his oracle, Zephaniah writes that there will be a remnant of survivors from the judgment and calamity that will fall on them as a people. Even as we hear God’s word of judgement, we also hear God speak a word of reassurance that all will not be lost. In chapter 2 verse 7 we read, “For the Lord their God will be mindful of them and restore their fortunes. For the people listening to Zephaniah in the midst of judgement, “Restoration” is a word that’s hopeful!
Here in chapter 2, you can almost feel the peoples’ hope rising to an increasing surge of passionate care and love from God, who will bring salvation and forgiveness to those who are faithful to Him. In these passages of hope one can almost hear a cadence, a rhythm, as the prophet writes, “Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! For the Lord will remove his hand of judgment and will disperse the armies of your enemy. And the Lord himself, the King of Israel, will live among you! At last your troubles will be over, and you will fear disaster no more.” (3:14-15) These words of the prophet give the people hope to press on … hope to endure … hope to stay focused … hope to see dreams fulfilled … that’s what God is giving them in the midst of judgment and despair! And the need for this word of hope exists still today!
In a world filled with idol worship, violence, greed, apathy, hopelessness and abandonment, we need to hear the voice of God saying that He will live among us! We need to hear that God will bring hope in the midst of fear. We need to hear that there’s an answer to what ails the world. And God has given us that Word. He has given us the hope we so desperately need in the person of the Messiah, Jesus! And this is our hope in this Advent season. However, since not everyone is preparing as they should this Advent season, the message of Zephaniah, both good and bad, is one that’s important to hear.
Zephaniah has two themes in his prophecy … one’s negative and the other positive. As you browse through Zephaniah’s message to Judah you begin to feel a deep dark dread. A foreboding that elicits a variety of emotions which begins with God’s warning, “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, declares the Lord” (1:2 NIV). These words have all the earmarks of catastrophe and causes a feeling of fear.
One hot July day, a farmer sat on the porch of his shack, smoking his corncob pipe. Along came a stranger from the city who asked, “How’s your cotton coming?” “Ain’t got none,” he replied. “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid of the boll weevil.” “Well, how’s your corn?” “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid o’ drought.” “How about your potato garden?” “Ain’t got none. Scairt o’ tater bugs.” Puzzled, the stranger finally asked, “Well, what did you plant?” The farmer answered, “Nothin’, I just played it safe.” Sadly, this is the attitude of far too many today. There are those who are too afraid to act because there may be something out there in life that they’re not prepared to meet, so they play it safe and do nothing. It’s a paralysis that grips them. And before long the fear turns into despair.
Despair is a horrible feeling of being overcome by the sense of futility and defeat. It’s a feeling of being alone and thinking that no one cares. Despair alienates and isolates leaving a person despondent. “I am now the most miserable man living,” wrote a famous American leader. “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there wouldn’t be one cheerful face on earth. To remain as I am, is impossible. I must die or be better.” Anyone recognize who said this? It was Abraham Lincoln.
In his book, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Ray Basler comments that in the darkest days of the Civil War, Lincoln constantly wrestled with unrelenting depression and despair. Basler writes about those twin feelings … “It can strike anyone. No one is immune. Not even a nation’s president. Here’s this marvelous man with magnificent character, feeling absolutely alone … Surely, the president ought to sleep well because of his protection, because of his wise counsel, to say nothing of his financial security. Yet there he was, tossing and turning through the night, haunted by dark and debilitating thoughts.” And the same could be said for the people of Judah who were haunted by those same feelings as they tossed and turned at night. Their fear had turned in to despair which brought on feelings of regret.
Webster defines sorrow as “Mental anguish or pain caused by injury, loss or despair.” Because of Judah’s unfaithful behavior and action, both as a nation and as individuals, they were feeling more sorrow than they could stand. Add to their feelings of regret natural calamities and you have a recipe for deep depression. And, like the people of Judah, there are people today who are experiencing these same feelings of sorrow that come as a result of their own foolish decisions not to mention experiences they have no control over … illness, death, financial reverses on Wall Street, war, and hatred that come to our streets. Is it any wonder that they’re filled with negative feelings in life? However, in the midst of judgement and gloom there comes a shift, a change of focus from the negative to something more positive.
In the last half of his prophecy, Zephaniah loudly exclaims that all is not lost! The day of judgment has turned to the day of hope! The prophet warned the people of Judah that if they refused to repent, the entire nation, including the holy city of Jerusalem, would be lost. Zephaniah held out hope and blessing for the people of Judah, telling them their punishment for sin would be a means of their purification. Even as God sends words of judgement, He also sends words of encouragement. The prophet is telling the people to Fear Not! He’s telling them that their fear is dispelled because God will bring them strength.
John Ogilvie calls strength an “inside secret.” The innermost being of God is His Holy Spirit. He supplies limitless power, strength, fortitude, and help, and His well never runs dry! When we need strength to overcome fear, He dips His hand into the well and brings up a bucketful for us to drink. In chapter 3 verse 17 we read, “the Lord takes great delight in you.” In spite of all our failures, God chose us and He cherishes us and the Lord quiets us with His love. The unqualified, untiring love of the Lord gives us silent confidence, security, and peace. When we obey God, He sets us free from overwhelming fear. Salvation has come! Salvation and Hope came over 2000 years ago as a babe in the manger and Salvation and Hope will return to judge the people. And when He returns, the faithful will receive their eternal reward and the unfaithful will be condemned.
When God comes, He brings salvation from destruction … hope for the future … forgiveness for the penitent … presence with His people. God says to the people of Judah that He has come to bring them life. The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor wrote: “What God cares about, with all the power of God’s holy being, is the quality of my life … not just the continuation of my breath and the health of my cells … but the quality of my life, the scope of my life, the heft and zest of my life … fear of death turns life into a stingy, cautious way of living that isn’t really living at all … to follow Jesus means going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety. It means receiving our lives as gifts instead of guarding them as possessions.”
God told the inhabitants of Judah that He had come to bring them meaningful life and to get up from their degradation and follow His leadership. It started from the top down. King Josiah caught the vision. When Josiah took the throne after Amon, he instituted reforms that swept away the idols and unfaithfulness and the people agreed. Salvation was the result! And with salvation comes rejoicing and encouragement.
These positive attitudes continue as we fear not and receive salvation from the heart of God and with that we experience rejoicing results! True joy comes with knowing that God is happy to see us! The story is told of Brennan Manning who met his spiritual director at a retreat center at a secluded destination several years ago. Manning’s usual habit was to park a mile from the meeting location. He would leave his car to begin the one-mile walk toward the center’s entrance where his mentor would be waiting for him. The highlight of the whole week for Manning was the greeting from his mentor.
As Brennan came into sight from his trek up the side of the mountain path, his mentor would begin jumping and shouting “Brennan, Brennan it’s so good to see you!” He would continue to shout and jump until they finally came together in a spiritual embrace. God is with us on the journey and aware of our coming to Him as He is jumping, shouting, and calling our name in anticipation, because of His great love! We can’t help but rejoice at our homecoming, knowing that we will be greeted with such exuberance by God himself.
As Swindoll said on the back cover of his book, “If you want to smile through your tears, if you want to rejoice through times of suffering, just keep reminding yourself that what you’re going through isn’t the end of the story … it’s simply the rough journey that leads to the right destination.” Amen.

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