Advent 3C: Wake Up! The Baby is Coming!

Morning SunOLD TESTAMENT: Zephaniah 3: 14-20

Read the Old Testament passage

Most of us have not read a lot of the Book of Zephaniah.  In fact, most of us have yet to find Zephaniah buried in the midst of all of those Minor Prophets. It’s only three short chapters, barely over three pages in my Bible. It’s one of those books that a minister friend of mine who shall remain nameless used to claim that they kept moving around in the Bible because that could be the only reason that he had such a hard time finding it. Yes, to be honest, Zephaniah is not part of our normal everyday lexicon.

But this is Advent. Things are about to change. The world will soon no longer be the way that it is and that may come as quite a shock to some. But remember, God seldom comes in the way that we expect or at the time that we had planned or to the places that we have prepared. God will be where God will be and the world will never be the same.

This short book sets itself in the seventh century BCE, during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Josiah is many times characterized as the last great king, whose only equal would have been King David. The identity of this prophet is really not very clear. His father’s name is Cushi, which could mean that he was of Ethiopian heritage (Cush being the name for what we call Ethiopia).

This short book is primarily a book of judgment oracles that proclaim and invoke the coming Day of the Lord. The prophet announces what is essentially cosmic destruction and demise and then at the end, the part that we read, unfolds a ninth oracle of salvation and renewal, a promise of some sort of final resolution of judgment and an assurance that the world will finally stop shaking and moving in what oftentimes seems to be an unnatural and even unbearable way. And the Lord, no longer a seemingly inaccessible mover of Creation, is with us. The Scripture, using the present tense (rather than the future), says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” In other words, it is a reminder that this is not something that will happen “someday”, some other world that is “out there” waiting for us to get our act together enough to get there. This is now. God is in your midst, bearing the shaking and teaching us how to hold together.

In the context of the writing of this virtually unknown prophet, “there is Jerusalem the unfaithful and corrupt placed alongside Jerusalem the city of universal rejoicing and [everlasting] justice; there is the contrast between idolatrous and purified—a city of violence versus a dove, [the city of peace].” (Angela Bauer-Levesque, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 55.)

The word Zephaniah means “Yahweh protects”. And, according to the book, like a good parent, God doesn’t just ignore the wrongs of the children. Instead, God takes them, judges them, and lovingly reforms and transforms them into what God intended for them to be. The Jewish Scripture translation, The Tanakh says that God annuls your judgments and will soothe us with love. “Will soothe us with love”: not wiping out destruction with more destruction but soothing it into something that works, something that fits in with the rest of Creation. The writing known as the Book of Isaiah says that “the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:4b) But remember, even though this Scripture that we read is talking about a day in the future, a day when all disaster will be gone, when the lame will be saved and the outcast will be gathered in to the realm of God, a day at some time that is yet to come, the passage says, using present tense, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.”—not coming, not waiting to appear, but in our midst. The world is still riddled with greed and war, our world community so often lacks compassion and caring, and all of us struggle with our own spiritual identity, our own understanding of God and how God moves in and through our lives. But this passage is a reminder of what our faith is all about: God is in our midst.

Perhaps Advent is about more than just waiting for something else to happen that is not happening now. Maybe it is more about opening our eyes to what God’s coming into our lives truly means. In an essay entitled, “The Coming of Jesus in our Midst”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer claims that “we have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.” (From Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas) God does not wait to come into our world until things are right; God is here, now, in our midst.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What does that mean for you that God is in our midst?
  • How does the realization that the passage uses the present tense change the meaning for us?
  • Why is it so hard for us to envision the restoration and renewal that God has promised?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 4: 4-7

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage

In many churches on this third Sunday of Advent, the Advent candle is pink, rather than purple or blue, symbolizing joy in this season. It is a call to rejoice in the “peace that surpasses all understanding. The genre of this writing could be characterized as a “friendship letter”. The Philippians are dear to Paul (who is indeed probably the writer of this letter). They have been generous in supporting his ministry. And yet, not everything is great. They have numerous challenges to their faith.

Paul mentions first “opponents”, which have apparently caused them great suffering. Whatever it is, Paul is concerned that the church might divide in the face of this conflict. There is also a concern that the people are being subjected to alternative teachings that would pull them away from the teachings of Jesus. The third struggle in Philippi is a conflict between two female leaders of the congregation named Euodia and Syntyche. (Regardless of the fact that they were in conflict, it should be noted here that there WERE female leaders in the church, putting aside interpretations that would claim otherwise.)

So, Paul’s message pulls the Philippians out of these human conflicts that beset them and toward a future with Christ. Rejoice! While it is clear that Paul never gave up on the idea of the Parousia, the second coming of Christ, there is also a real present tense in the tone of this letter. Paul is reminding the Philippians that God is indeed here and because of that, we should truly rejoice.

Now don’t think that this is some sort of sappy, utopian call to be happy regardless of how bad things are going for you. Bad things happen. It’s alright (normal, I would think) to be sad, melancholy, even angry. (In fact, if you need to throw something, I have a dog that would love to play with you in the backyard!) This is not a call to be happy; it is a call to rejoice. Joy is deep, everlasting, abiding in the deepest part of your being. Joy is what comes from knowing that indeed God is here with you. It is a peace that surpasses any understanding that the world may have of what fills one’s life and makes it whole.

 

  • How does this passage speak to you?
  • Sometime true, unadulterated joy is difficult for us. Why is that? What stands in the way of our “rejoicing in the Lord always”?
  • What, for you, is the difference between happiness and joy?
  • What does the “peace that surpasses understanding” mean for you?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 3: 7-18

To read the Gospel passage

Once again, we have another week of John the Baptist. You have to admit that he was passionate. He truly believed in the “good news” and wanted to tell people. Some of us may get a little offended at what seems to be a rather harsh warning in the midst of this lovely season. But the crowds that heard him didn’t respond that way. Instead, they ask a very simple question: “What, should we do?”

After announcing eschatological judgment, John’s answers to each group seem pretty simple. To the crowds, who were probably for the most part lower middle or lower class, he said, “Share”; to the tax collectors, who made their living off of taken advantage of people, he said, “Be fair”; and to the soldiers whose job it was to keep society in line, he said, “Don’t bully.” The point is that there are always opportunities to do God’s work, to be who God calls us to be, and to be a part of ushering in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

This is a sermon on judgment and messianic consummation and yet the crowds hear John speak of a role they can play in our ordinary lives. It is the way that God’s presence is here now. (Notice that it’s in present tense.) Interestingly enough, there is a radical inclusiveness here. Everyone in their own way has a part to play. There is truly an invitation to all. Truth be told, John was not about welcoming the baby in the manger (I mean, remember, he was only six months old or so when that came to be!) John is much more to the point, calling us to repentance, to change, shaking us and yelling at us to WAKE UP! As Alyce McKenzie puts it, “He’s about delivering a ‘Welcome to Advent’ sermon that shakes our nativity snow globe so hard it cracks and all the water flows out along with the little white coconut flakes. The baby has escaped from the hermetically sealed snow globe of our cultural Christmas. John is about welcoming Jesus to the Jordan River and the people standing by it.” (From “Welcome to Our World: Reflections on Luke 3: 7-18, December 16, 2012, available at http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Welcome-Our-World-Alyce-McKenzie-12-10-2012.html, accessed 10 December 2012) And the point is that in our repenting, in our entering, in our doing and in our being with God, there is always space to rejoice. It’s called Incarnation—the becoming. So, immerse yourselves in the preparation. It’s time to get ready. The baby is coming! And so are we!

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does the point about the “inclusiveness” of the message mean to you?
  • So why does John the Baptist get such a negative, “fire and brimstone” reputation?
  • What does it mean to prepare ourselves for the Lord’s coming?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

 

Joy has no name. Its very being is lost in the great tide of selfless delight—creation’s response to the infinite loving of God. (Evelyn Underhill)

 

 

The announcement is the great joy that the Lord is present and living in the world: that the Lord is with us. Dominus vobiscum, the Lord be with you. This is what we are constantly announcing in the liturgy, that the Lord is present in the world. (Thomas Merton)
Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are. (Alfred Delp)

Closing

 

In each heart lies a Bethlehem, an inn where we must ultimately answer whether there is room or not. When we are Bethlehem-bound we experience our own advent in his. When we are Bethlehem-bound we can no longer look the other way conveniently not seeing stars, not hearing angel voices. We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily tending our sheep or our kingdoms.

 

This Advent let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that the Lord has made known to us. In the midst of our shopping sprees, let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts. Through the tinsel, let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star. In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos, let’s listen for the brush of angel’s wings. This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem and find our kneeling places.

 

(Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 19.)

Advent 1C: Surely the Days are Coming

OLD TESTAMENT: Jeremiah 33: 14-16

To read the passage from Jeremiah

In this season of Advent, we are reminded to wait and prepare for the coming of Christ. It is a time of new hope and new birth. But these words from the prophet Jeremiah are spoken into a world that is filled with uncertainty and despair. Situated somewhere around the middle of the sixth century before the common era, the powerful Assyrian nation is threatening to overrun the small community of Hebrew people. At this time Judah was literally squeezed between this powerful and foreboding Assyrian nation to the north and Egypt to the south and the west.

So, the rulers of Judah had to often deal with the prospect of making alliance with Egypt to avoid the destruction from the north. But this would of course shake the political, social, cultural, and even religious foundations of the fledgling nation. It often seemed as if there was nowhere to turn. And so, like all of us, they were looking for answers. But Jeremiah’s words do not speak of national survival but of a future of promise and hope.

The time is not now but they are surely coming. Jeremiah wasn’t promising that he would be with the people; he was promising that God would. He was not promising that everything would be “fixed”; he was promising new life. Jeremiah would speak these words under three different rulers. He told King Josiah not to side with Egypt. He preached warnings against false prophets promising false hopes under Johoiakin’s rule. He forewarned the destruction of the nation if this continued. And he urged King Zedekiah not to engage in a fight with the Babylonians. No one listened. The temple would fall. The people would be carried into exile in Egypt. The nation lay in ruins. But the promise remained.

This is no different a scenario than we often experience. We want God. We yearn for God. We want to be the people of God. But often that feeling of God’s presence eludes us. Has God deserted us? Or have we somehow deserted God? We want God but we want God on our own terms. We want to somehow control the Divine and fit God into our already-formed lives. We want to experience a Presence of God that is comfortable and familiar.

So the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that God’s work is nothing less than the inauguration of a new world. And as we look for the coming of Christ, we look for the one who will point us in the direction that we should be looking for that new world. It is not what we have planned. God comes in ways and places that we do not expect God. That’s what this season of Advent is about. We are not called to plan for God’s coming the way we plan for our Christmas festivities. We are, rather, called to open ourselves to the way that God will be revealed in our lives. We, like these anxiety-ridden people, yearn desperately for God. We beg for God to come into our lives. And, yet, we too, are out of step. God’s coming does not begin with light. God’s coming begins with darkness that the light enters. So, perhaps if we turn out all the bright lights that we insist we need, we will finally see that light that is just over the horizon.

God does not come because we are ready or because we are prepared or because we’ve gotten all our shopping done. This Lord of Righteousness, this Creator of Hope, this God of unfathomable love who desires nothing more than the best for all of Creation comes into our waiting, into our wilderness, into the darkest of days. So, wait with the anticipation not of how God will come but that God will.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What gets in the way of our anticipation of God’s Presence in our lives?
  3. What does this passage say to us about waiting for God?
  4. How can this passage speak to our world today?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13

To read the passage from 1 Thessalonians

Paul has founded the church at Thessalonica and before he was really able to solidify its existence, he was whisked away to prison. Paul was, of course, concerned about the fledgling community. He was probably worried that they would turn their backs on him and what he had taught them, that the surrounding culture and the surrounding environment would just be too much.

In order to find out how the Thessalonians were faring, and to determine whether they still looked upon him as their founder, the apostle sent Timothy to Thessalonica. Timothy returns with a very positive report (possibly even a letter from the congregation), and Paul writes this letter to the church.

Paul begins by thanking God for them, affirming who they are and the work they do. And then he holds his own love up for them to imitate. He reminds them who they are and who they should be. He reminds them of the practices that they should keep—thankfulness, prayer, and community. He reminds them that they grow together, that they support each other and encourage each other.

In a way, these few verses sound a little sappy. Are we ready for the big group hug? But, seriously, you have to think about this in light of the environment in which these believers lived. It was not easy. There were always other powers pulling them away, cultural norms that were easy to fall back into. Paul’s exhortation was not a sappy, feel-good letter. It was a reminder that there is something more, something better. It was a reminder to hold on, to persevere, and to open one’s eyes to the signs of God’s Presence that surround us even in the midst of all these things that get in the way.

It is a way of saying that this work of God, this Presence of God’s Spirit, has begun in us. Like God’s vision, they are not complete. They have to be developed. They have to be lived out in community. They have to be used to build up the Kingdom of God. We still have to wait for the full revelation. We still have to wait for the promised coming of God’s Kingdom in its fullness, but in the meantime, we have been strengthened and given the gifts that we need to live as the people of God.

Now keep in mind that these first-century people assumed that God was going to return any day or any minute. The possibility that our generation would still be waiting for the fullness of God’s Kingdom would have been positively anathema to them. And as time went on, they, like those Israelites centuries before them took matters into their own hands. Waiting is difficult for all of us though. Our world tends to operate on instant gratification. When we don’t get the “answer” from God that we think we need, we too tend to try to take care of things ourselves. In fact, we admire people that “get things done,” that take hold of the situation and make things happen. But that’s not what faith is about. Faith is about expectation. Faith is about anticipation. In fact, faith is about waiting. A life of faith is one of active waiting, believing that God will come when God will come and living a life with that vision in mind, a vision of peace, and justice, and unity within the Presence of God. But don’t wait to begin.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How does this passage speak to the concept of “waiting” that Advent holds?
  3. What does this notion of “active waiting” look like for us?
  4. What would Paul’s letter mean in our time?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 21: 25-36

To read the passage from The Gospel According to Luke

We begin this Year of our C Lectionary year with a reading from The Gospel According to Luke. It’s not what we were expecting. I mean, really, what are all these signs? But our redemption is drawing near. To put it another way, “Surely the day is coming…”

The “parable” is really more of an observation and a warning. It heralds the coming of the Son of Man, calling the listener to have eyes to see the signs, and the good sense to be ready. Jesus tells us that there are signs that indicate the arrival, the advent, the presence, and the power of the Kingdom of God. Like leaves on a fig tree, such signs can show us our redemption, and our Redeemer; this is an important part of what we need to be about as children of that Kingdom: looking for its signs. Patience, it seems, may be exactly what is at issue for the fledgling Christian community as it awaits the day of the Lord. The need for patience, endurance, and trust may well have been amplified when to all appearances the promise that “all things have [will have] taken place” (verse 32) during that first generation, has proved untrue.

But we have skewed our understanding of Advent a bit. I think all of us know that. But, really, can you blame us? The world is so bent on being prepared for what comes next that it tends to live one season ahead at all times–the Halloween decorations go up the end of August, the Thankgiving decorations go up the end of September, and the Christmas decorations go up the end of October. The twelve days of Christmas tide, will of course, be filled with merchandise sales, a couple of unreplaced burned out Christmas lights, and and a flowering of little red hearts filled with candy to make sure we’re ready for the next thing. Somewhere in there, Advent is lost. Oh, we Christians, do alright with it. We faithfully light one candle at a time while we begrudingingly ward off the singing of any Christmas carols. But Advent is not merely a season of preparation for Christmas. It is much, much more. It is from the Latin “Adventus“, which means arrival or coming. It is not really meant to be only a time of shopping and checking off our “to do” list for the December 25th festival. Rather, Advent is our awakening to the realization that the Divine is even now spilling into our lives, even now a new humanity is being birthed, and even now all of Creation is being reformed and recreated.

And here’s a thought…all of those questions that we each ask ourselves when we read this passage (you know, like “what’s going to happen to me?”)…well, it’s not about us. This passage is about seeing something beyond ourselves, about seeing something bigger than us or the little lives that we have so carefully carved out for ourselves. It’s about waking up to the realization that God is bigger than we imagine.

We cannot live one season ahead. God will come when God will come. The full revealing of what God has in store is yet to be. But this season of Advent, this season of waiting, awakens us that we might see that it has already started to be. The feast has yet to be set but the dancing has begun. All we have to do is learn to stay awake.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How does this passage speak to us in our world today?
  3. So what does this concept of “staying awake” mean to you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

One needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges. It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful… [One] cannot be satisfied until [one] ever thirsts for God. (Alexander Baillie)

 

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

 

First, we see God, the void, the incomprehensible one. Second, we draw closer: we tremble in the presence of God, the enemy. Our own unworthiness is revealed in the holiness of God. Third, there, in encounter, through repentance and forgiveness, we may behold God, the Friend. Then we come alive! (Alfred North Whitehead)

 

 

Closing

 

Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child. Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary. Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability. Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living. Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us. When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem. Watch…for you know not when God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. Amen.

 

(Ann Weems, “The Coming of God”, Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 13.)