Sunday, December 16, 2018. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
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During this Advent season, we may pause to observe two perceptions that people sometimes have of the church, neither of which is very good. One is being judgmental and the other is being irrelevantly naïve. On the one hand, some people perceive that all the church wants to do is to make other people feel bad; these folks experience the church as looking down its moral nose at the world, critically picking apart all the things that are wrong with other people – they’re not dressed right, they don’t know the creeds, they don’t behave right. These persons never experience the church offering a word of affirmation, a word of hope, a word of promise that opens the door to a new future for everyone. On the other hand, other people perceive the church as not wanting to upset anyone, so the church fosters a spirituality of escape, whereby we close our eyes and whistle happy praise songs, so that there may never be heard a discouraging word. These folks never experience the church having its feet on the ground, getting its hands dirty with the pain and problems and conflicts of the world, putting itself on the line for a cause.
Now, we may say two things about these things. On the one hand, we may say that these are caricatures of the church, they don’t really get the essence of the church. But we may wonder whether there might be at least a grain of truth in these descriptions. And it can often feel like one must choose between being hopeful about the future and being critical about the present.
What I’d like for us to notice this morning is that our two texts this morning – from Luke 3 and from Zephaniah 3, and seriously – when was the last time you read the book of the prophet Zephaniah? When we take these two texts together, they give us the biblical words of promise and judgment, of hope for the future and critical reflection on the present, all rolled up together. And that is not an accident. Because Jesus himself, the One for whom we are waiting this Advent season, is both King and Judge, both Lord and Savior. In the biblical view, promise and judgment – whether applied to us as individuals or to us as a society – go together.
In Zephaniah 3, we are given two summons to exultation. Verse 14 says, “Sing aloud, daughter Zion! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O Jerusalem!” And Verse 16 says, “Do not fear, O Zion, do not let your hands grow weak.” You can’t read these verses without feeling the blood rush into your body. And why are we to sing out? Because – verse 15 – “The Lord is in your midst. You shall fear no more disaster.” Because – verse 17 – let’s say it again, “The Lord is in your midst.” “I will remove disaster from you, I will deal with your oppressors, I will save the lame and gather the outcast. I will bring you home.”
Zephaniah brings a word of promise, and that word is focused in the presence of God, and it is focused on those who are weak and without power. “I will deal with your oppressors, I will save the lame and gather the outcast.” This is the word that Jesus brought when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake.” God’s Messiah, and God’s church, must bring a word of promise to the world, and especially to those who are on society’s margins, those who are being oppressed.
There is an urgent need for this word of promise in our world of heartbreak, where the poor and marginalized are ground down by the circumstances of life; just this month, a little 7-year-old girl from Guatemala named Jakelin Caal Maquin died of dehydration in the custody of the United States Border Patrol. In her young life, she represents the brokenness of the immigration situation in our hemisphere. And while powerful people argue over who is at fault, God’s heart is breaking for the whole situation, and according to Zephaniah, the Lord is in the midst of the poor saying to them, “You shall fear disaster no more, I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will bring you home.” The church needs to be a community of hope for all who are broken, needs to be in the midst of these kinds of situations, working for constructive solutions to social problems.
In Luke 3, we get our second week-in-a-row with John the Baptist. “You brood of vipers!” he begins. Now talk about an opening line. Try dropping that at your Christmas party this year. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Now with John, we get a sense that his accent is not so much going to be on promissory hope, and more on critical reflection. But what is fascinating is that I would have expected people to run away from this. Whenever someone has called me a brood of vipers, I’ve tended to walk the other way. But not for these people, not with John. They are strangely moved by his preaching – something about what he says or the way he says it, gets to them, and they realize that they need to change their lives. “What should we do?” they ask him. Notice that when the people ask what they should do to respond to God, John doesn’t say anything about learning a particular doctrine, or even going to Bible study. “If you’ve got multiple coats in your closet, then you ought to get rid of some of them, because there are people who don’t have any. And if you’ve got a refrigerator full of food, you might have too much food, too, because there are hungry people in the city.” He talks about their behavior. John is not going to let anybody off the hook.
Then two groups in particular come to John, wanting to know what they should do: tax collectors and soldiers. Now in ancient Palestine, these two jobs – tax collectors and soldiers, who may well have been something more like mercenaries, selling their services to whoever would pay them – would not have been very popular. Tax collectors were known for being in the business of extracting money from people, and the mercenaries may have been seen as bullies in the local villages. John does not these folks to leave their jobs – we might have expected John to tell them to quit their jobs and follow him — but John simply tells them to do their jobs thoughtfully, with modesty, with humility, and with restraint.
And then John says that the Messiah who is to come will be powerful. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Now we Presbyterians are just learning to get more comfortable with a larger amount of water in our baptisms, and now we hear about Jesus who will baptize us with fire. That’s going to require a whole new set of equipment here in the sanctuary. Some of us may think that’s the kind of religion that we can do without, thank you very much.
But what we need to see about the baptism of fire is that fire functions as a purifiying agent. When you place a dirty needle in a flame, it does not destroy the needle, it cleanses it. When you put a lump of silver in the center of the flame, it burns away the impurities in the silver. And that’s what God can do for us; that’s what we want God to do for us. We want to subject ourselves to the purifying grace of God’s fire, allowing God to burn away all that is in us that is not of God. And if you’re like me, that may be quite a lot. But what will be left will be beautiful.
It turns out that we don’t need to choose between hopeful about the future and critical about the present; we don’t need to choose between promise and judgment. From a biblical perspective, we cannot choose between them. Advent brings us both Zephaniah’s word of promise, and John the Baptist’s word of judgment. Jesus brings the good news of deliverance and the good news of purifying judgment. The Christ child for whom we wait is the King who sets us free, and he is the Judge from whom no secrets can be hid. Jesus brings promise and judgment, all rolled up together. To God and to God alone, be all the glory. Amen.