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.)

Proper 23A: You Are Cordially Invited…

"Parable of the Great Banquet", Brunswick Monogrammist, c. 1525, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland
“Parable of the Great Banquet”, Brunswick Monogrammist, c. 1525, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland

OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 32: 1-14

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

For forty days and nights, Israel is without Moses and, for them, without access to God. (Now remember that Moses is up there on the mountain trying to hammer out what God intends for the people to do, what God intends for the people to be. Moses is up there working hard to understand. And so he leaves Aaron in charge. And, apparently, he has lost control at the foot of the mountain! I guess they just thought Moses was taking too long!) The people are so anxious about Moses’ return that they seize an initiative of their own to have access to God, without reference to Moses. They appeal to Aaron, who, for them, is probably the next best source of theological authority after Moses. So, one could argue that the idol was in place of Moses rather than God.

And yet, without access to God, they desire to make gods for themselves and Aaron obliges. He authorizes the offering and the religious act of building the calf. Now some would characterize this as the anticipation of a rival to YHWH. But maybe Aaron was trying his best to maintain order, to show that God WAS still there and just made some slips in judgment. Don’t we all? I mean, back away from it a bit. Aaron was the consummate “people pleaser”. He was just trying to make everyone happy.

The “great sin” here, though, is to substitute an available, produced God for the one who is not, in their view, immediately available. The first and second commandments require receiving, accepting, and obeying God. All of that is broken with this act. This is their attempt to domesticate God into something manageable, something they can control. It reduces faith to something palpable. They wanted a visible substitute for God.

We, too, neglect sometimes to sense God’s presence. One could say that it is because we are not looking in the right place (but then, isn’t God EVERYWHERE?); one could say that it is because we are not approaching God in the right way (but, then, what happened to that grace thing?); or one could say that we are turning our backs on God (but, again, isn’t God EVERYWHERE?). Maybe it’s because this God in which we believe is not merely a far-removed deity but is rather a God of relationship. God wants a relationship with us. So perhaps the reason that we do not sense God’s presence has nothing to do with God at all. Perhaps we are just not willing to do what it takes to be in relationship. It takes openness; it takes willingness to change; and it takes seeing beyond ourselves. Rick Morley, in a blog on this, makes the observation this “the root of the problem in Exodus 32 isn’t idolatry. It’s patience.” (available at http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1025?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=proper23a-gospel-2) I think that may be our biggest problem too. We understand that God means the best for us. But we’d rather have it now!

Well, can you imagine what Moses’ reaction was when he came down from that mountain? After all, he was tired. He was looking forward to being back with his people and was excited to relate this newfound knowledge of God to them. And there they were—burning fires, melting jewelry, a half-baked golden calf, and Aaron in charge. Geez! So, he begs God to forgive them. And God does. The plan for disaster is thwarted. You see, even God is open to change, open to the future. Sign me up for a relationship with that God any day over this golden calf thing!

Albert Outler defined sin not as falling short of God’s expectations but rather the act of “overreaching”, of trying to get in God’s business, so to speak. He speaks of it as “our unwillingness to be radically dependent upon God “for life and breath and all things.” It is, therefore, the idolatry of preferring to be “gods” rather than truly human.” (Albert Outler, in Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 40) We all do it. But once again, God does not give up on the people. God just moves in their direction. You see, God truly WANTS to be in relationship with Creation. Just be patient…

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this passage say about Aaron?
  3. What are our “golden calves” today?
  4. Do we have “visible substitutes” for God? How does that play out in today’s church?
  5. How does this passage speak to you about “sin”?
  6. What does patience have to do with our faith?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 4: 1-9

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

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 otherwise.) I think the sad part is that we don’t even know what the conflict was about and yet the ONLY reason these women are remembered is that they were having an argument. Ouch!

But Paul is very careful not to take sides and he pushes for unity in the name of Christ. He urges the Philippians to rejoice and he does so himself. What he refers to is not a superficial cheerfulness but a deep joy in what God has done in Christ and is continuing to do through the saints. The fact that this joy is “in the Lord” reminds us not only that it derives from the Lord, but also that it is shared by those who live in Christ. How else do you experience the joy of the Gospel?

Paul is very concerned about the relationships of those within the Christian community, but he also contends that consideration of others is to be shown to everyone, not just to fellow Christians. He is urging the Philippians to live their lives as a proclamation of the Gospel. It is this way of living that gives us the composure that we get from relying on God. Karl Barth claimed that this joy of which Paul wrote is a joy “nevertheless”. It is a joy that takes root even in darkness. This does not mean that Christianity or living the life of a Christian is unrealistic or unaware of the hardships in life. It is, rather, a way of living by seeing everything that has been made as good, just as God created it to be. 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.

Joy is probably pretty elusive for us. In fact, we probably confuse it a bit with happiness. Joy does not mean that all is right with your world; it does not mean eternal happiness. It’s about embracing life; it’s about living the life that is here; and it’s about being able to see beyond yourself. Joy is about relationship with God, with life, with Creation, with others, and with yourself. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. Sometime true, unadulterated joy is difficult for us. Why is that? What stands in the way of our “rejoicing in the Lord always”?
  3. What does joy mean for you?
  4. Do you think joy is possible in this life?
  5. What gets in our way of that actually happening in our own lives?

 

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 22: 1-14

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This parable is packed with many different levels of understanding. You have to remember that for the writer of the Gospel According to Matthew, this was sort of part of an indictment against the religious and cultural establishment and their hypocrisy. There is another version of what is probably the same story told in the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s version of the Gospel that not only does not include anything about the wedding garment, but also is missing any statements of violence and harsh judgment. Most contemporary scholars would say that it is probable that those sections were not in the original story and were added by later redactors because they’re not really in line with our image of the non-violent Jesus.

But, that said, the writer of the passage that we read today places this parable after Jesus has already announced the arrival of God’s rule. In effect, Jesus has already announced the great messianic banquet and the onset of God’s rule in the world and has invited everyone to follow him to it. And there was probably some disappointment and frustration at the number of people who had not gotten on board.

So he uses the very tradition of the time to tell a story. The custom was that you announced that you were having a party on a certain day. When all of the planning was done, you sent word to those who had been invited. It would be mortifying if no one came. And that’s what happened here. The king had prepared an incredible feast for the wedding of his son and it was all going to go to waste. So, the host decided to invite anyone in the village that he saw. The hall is filled and the party begins.

But then a guest shows up without the proper attire. (Apparently, he had not read the small print on his invitation!) Now, there’s another cultural norm that we need to know here. It was not that everyone was required to own a garment appropriate for this occasion. Wedding hosts provided garments to their guests in much the same way that an upscale restaurant provides coats and ties so that everyone will be dressed for the occasion. From that standpoint, the focus changes from what we thought was just a snobby host to a guest that didn’t respect himself or the host enough to prepare to come.

Well, as I’m sure you’re already figured out, this story is not a treatise on how to dress but is rather another allegory about the Kingdom of God. The king, of course, is God. And the wedding banquet is the great messianic banquet, the incredible Kingdom party to which we’ve all been invited. And God, the perfect party planner, provides us the garment to wear.

Dressing, of course, has a lot to do with identity. When you and I read this story, most of us probably have the image of the guest as someone who was a bit underdressed for such an auspicious occasion. But it doesn’t say that. What if the guest was a bit overdressed (overreaching, again)? What if the reason the guest refused to don the wedding garment was because he or she did not want to cover up a new and expensive outfit that really looked good? What if those trappings of the material world had so taken over the guest’s life that the person that he or she was called to become could not be. The garments that we choose to wear depict who we see ourselves to be. They also affect how others see us.

This parable has nothing to do with dress codes as we know them. It has to do with being who you are and who you are called to be by God. It is not merely limited to emulating what Jesus would do. It is painted on a much larger canvas than that. We are made in the image of Christ and we are called to be and to become the Body of Christ. That image is the garment that we are asked to wear to this incredible banquet that God has planned. It’s about more than us.

But most of us come a bit dressed down. Most of us come clothed in the trappings of our lives, holding on to those earthly things that we have so carefully collected and continue to hold onto for security or safety or just to look good. But look at what God has done. God has set the most incredible table you could ever imagine. God has invited every single one of us to come and celebrate at the party. And as we enter, feeling a bit humbled, a bit like we don’t really belong, we are handed a garment that is made just for us, a garment made in the image of Christ. And then God waits. God waits for us to respond. All we have to do is put it on.

Now don’t get me wrong…it’s a hard thing to wear. The buttons sometimes do not line up easily and many times we step on the hem and rip it. And it’s heavy. Because, you see, grace is heavy. It’s hard to wear. And it’s hard to move around, much less dance, when you’re having to worry about carrying justice and righteousness and everlasting peace. But the garment and the banquet hall are so incredibly beautiful, that you will want to stay. And the garment gets lighter and lighter as it becomes more and more a part of who you are. It takes a little work. Change always does. But it is meant to fit. And after all, the word is that the host dances with each of us forever.

The image of this party is a truly incredible one. It is because it was not planned haphazardly. It’s been God’s plan the whole time. We have been moving closer and closer and closer to the great celebration from the very beginning. And now Jesus has shown us how to wear the garment.

R. Paul Stevens says “the last thing we do is the first thing we think about.” He goes on to say that “if we want to have a party with a cake, we first think about the party, then the cake. Then we obtain ingredients and turn the oven up. We do not first turn on the oven, go out to buy the ingredients, and then plan the party. God envisioned the final party and then “thought up” Creation. [God envisioned your place at the table and then created you and the garment that fits.] The whole of our human existence makes sense in the light of the end.”

You see, the party is not in full swing yet, but we have the invitation and we hear the music wafting over our lives. And there really is no fine print. Here…here is the garment for you to wear. Wear it so that you will be what God calls you to be and so that when you sit down to the feast, you will be dressed to experience the joy of the occasion. So, now, “go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Where do you see yourself in this story?
  3. What are our excuses today for not having time for God?
  4. What, for you, is your wedding garment?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Patience is the companion of wisdom. (St. Augustine of Hippo, 5th century)

 

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)

 

Functionalism is lethal when it is not balanced by a sense of reverence. Without reverence, there is no sense of presence or wonder. (John O’Donohue)

 

 

Closing

 

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.

We come here in search of a God we know,

whose expectations we anticipate,

whose demands we can tolerate.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed!

Here we encounter a God unknowable,

with an intensity that is both blinding and liberating,

with a pervasiveness that is inescapable.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come;

‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.

Now we proclaim a God experienced

in the hints of ecstacy found in human love,

in the haunting challenge seen in vulnerable eyes.

The Lord has promised good to me, God’s word my hope secures;

God will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.

 

 (By Katherine Hawker, written for the Union Church UCC of Tekonsha, MI, 1996, available at http://liturgyoutside.net/Pr23OT28P21Outside.html, accessed 4 October, 2011.)