The words we sing in worship are important. When the sermon is done we hopefully have heard God’s word preached and the gospel proclaimed. But how much content from a 25 minute presentation will we truly remember? Something special happens with music. God has used music as a vessel to deeply embed in our hearts the truths of who God is and what God has done. The songs we sing in worship stick with us; great melodies can be carried around inside us our whole lives. And the words we attach to those melodies stick like glue as well. So the words we sing in worship have to be appropriate, beautiful, and richly convey the meaning of following Jesus.
14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15The 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.
16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17The 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
18as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19I 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.
20At 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.
7John 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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.”
10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers 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.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.”
18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Introduction – Already but not yet
Advent is the season of waiting. It is rich with symbolism. The season is marked by the color blue, which represents the color of the sky, just before the hopeful light of dawn breaks. The paraments on the altar table depict a crown and an olive branch, which reminds us that the One for whom we wait is the “Prince of Peace.” There is also the Advent wreath, its circular nature, with no beginning and no end, is reminiscent of God’s infinite nature and the eternal life found through faith in Christ. The branches of the evergreen are symbolic of the promise of new life that comes with the spring. The color of each of the candles holds special meaning as well. Purple symbolizes expectation, royalty, and penitence. Today we light the pink candle, which symbolizes joy. White symbolizes the purity of Christ’s light to the world.
This is also the season of “already, but not yet.” Call it a paradox, or an oxymoron, or whatever, but Advent tells us simultaneously that we are both “there” and “not quite there.” We experience the “already” because Bethlehem happened; Jesus has already been born. But we simultaneously experience the “not yet” because we await His coming again and the consummation of history. Through faith in Christ we experience the “already” because we are saved and made holy. But we simultaneously experience the “not yet” because we are still bound by our sinful flesh. We experience the “already” because Christ established His kingdom with His first advent. But we wait in the “not yet” for Christ to return to complete His promise and make all Believers co-reigners in His real, eternal kingdom.
C.S. Lewis quote
“When the author walks onto the stage, the play is over. God is going to invade all right. But what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe, melting away like a dream, and something else, something it never entered your head to conceive comes crashing in. Something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left. For this time it will be God without disguise. Something so overwhelming, that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you could choose to lie down when it is become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing. It will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen. Whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.” (Mere Christianity)
Cutting down trees, and sweeping out the chaff, and being thrown in the fire, and name-calling: where is the good news? Today’s Gospel from Luke ends a bit abruptly: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Being referred to as a “snake” by John the Baptizer doesn’t sound like good news to me.
John the Baptizer has earned his reputation for fiery and provocative preaching, partly because of his startling message to those who came to be baptized: “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS!” Comparing one’s own congregation—the same people who came to hear him preach and be baptized! — to a hissing and writhing mess of poisonous snakes probably doesn’t earn too many fans. John continues to antagonize the people by dismissing their claims to entitlement from having been born into a faith community. “Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants.”
And so we ask with the crowds that day, “What then should we do?” This is the same question that the crowd asked on Pentecost after Peter’s sermon.
Here is the good news. Here is the heart of the Gospel today: we are all snakes, we are all children of Abraham, and our lives are both wheat and chaff. And then we hear John tell the crowd about the coming kingdom. We get a glimpse of what the rules will be in the kingdom of the One who is on His way. God’s new kingdom is available to them where they are, requiring only enough faith to perceive the sacred in the midst of the ordinary. It is entirely within their reach. It’s doable: “Share. Be generous. Be fair. Be honest. Don’t bully. Strive for simplicity.”
The God Who Sings
We’re familiar with the image of God described in today’s Gospel. We’re familiar with the God who throws in the fire those who don’t produce good fruit. But there is another image of God. A powerful image comes from the first reading in Zephaniah. On this Sunday devoted to joy, we hear the words that depict God as the one who bursts into song with joy over God’s beloved: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (3:17-18).
Such joy is not subdued; it is not quiet or dignified. The Hebrew words used in verse 17 are used elsewhere in the Bible to describe great jubilation – leaping for JOY! The Lord rejoices over his beloved, over Judah and Jerusalem, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (Isaiah 62:5). As David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant, in exultation, so God rejoices over God’s people (2 Samuel 6). As the morning stars sang at the creation of the world, so God sings with elation over God’s beloved (Job 38:7).
We’re familiar with images of God as judge. But how often do we imagine God as one who rejoices? One who sings? Yet here, in Zephaniah, God and God’s people alike are caught up in a joy that overflows into song, a joy that springs from love renewed, and relationship restored.
This joy is not one-sided. It is not only God’s people who rejoice because of the forgiveness and restoration that God provides. That is an understandable reaction to God’s redemption. But God’s people aren’t the only ones rejoicing. God also sings and shouts with joy over this love restored. The divine heart overflows with jubilation!
So when you picture God, and you see the angry parent, finger on the zap button, ready to pound us for our sins, then look again. Or if your image of God is that of a distant and remote creator, who sets everything in motion and forgets to check in or intervene, then look again.
No, the God mentioned in Zephaniah is moved, is deeply affected, by human attitudes and actions. This God does not watch from a distance, but enters into the life of the world. This God “moved into the neighborhood,” in that mysterious and wonderful event we call the Incarnation. Because of the Incarnation, we experience redemption and reconciliation with God both now and in the world to come. And now we, the rescued ones, get to live our entire lives as an expression of God’s redemption. We get to spread this joy of recreation to all people. What then should we do? We who have two get to share one. We who have been healed can help the sick. We who have been provided for get to welcome the outsiders. We get to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It’s about your life. God cares about how you live your life.
Today is about joy, the joy of a people redeemed and restored, but also the joy of a God who is deeply invested in setting the world back in order. God sings. God shouts. God rejoices. And we, we who are gloriously and inexplicably chosen as God’s beloved, join in the celebration.
The “scripting” of preaching can, like a bad play, be pre-
dictable and dull. Even worse, it can be manipulative. A play is
said to be “preachy” when it uses the medium of drama to coerce
a certain (and unvarying) response. Good preaching is direct,
understandable, and dynamic, but it also has a certain quality of
open-endedness. It is evocative—it stirs and “opens up” without
substituting for the work of the Spirit.