Sunday 16 December 2018: Third Sunday in Advent
Rejoice in the Lord always; … and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
By Ann Jack
Retired United Reformed minister
Context: a town centre congregation of mixed backgrounds and ages
Aim: to pause and reflect on the challenge our readings offer us as we prepare for Christmas and the coming of the Prince of Peace, in a world that is far from being at peace
Amid all our lists, our preparations and plans, we might well crave the peace that perhaps we imagine Paul is writing of in his letter to the Church in Philippi. It is so easy to lose sight of the significance of the celebration that lies at the heart of Christmas. So, when I was preparing this sermon I was shaken out of any possible lethargy by the readings from Zephaniah and Luke. However, the two prophets, Zephaniah and John the Baptist, have very different tones, and what is really interesting is that they have conflicting messages.
When I read Zephaniah, I am uncomfortable. I cannot read it without images of Israel/Palestine coming into my mind. I wonder about how the young people guarding the ‘separation wall’ feel. Do they read it from the perspective of the people for whom this is the promise of God’s favour and their special place in God’s salvation history for the world? This is a promise of restoration and vindication in the face of one’s enemies. What is more, this special place is their right, by virtue of their birth into the tribes of Israel.
As I read this text, I also wonder how different this reading feels to the Palestinian Christians living in Bethlehem, in the shadow of the wall and its watch-towers. As Christians they will read this passage in the season of Advent, a season of hope and promise of the coming of God’s Kingdom.
Of course, originally Zephaniah was written to offer hope to a people who had been scattered and who hoped for the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem. But, as I read this prophecy in today’s troubled world, I do not find in the Zephaniah reading the hope that so many commentators suggest is present. Rather it brings me a sense of foreboding, a sense that this and many other texts have the scope to be abused if they are read without thought for those who might be affected in our present very different times. It is crying out for some corrective in the way in which this text could be interpreted to offer hope to all people and not just to some.
That corrective we find in the teaching of John the Baptist, who is preaching in the hill country of Judea and gathering quite a crowd. As he ‘prepares the way for the Lord’ he warns of the punishment of God for those who do not live according to God’s law and God’s justice. John is quite clear that there is no birth-right that can save a person from judgment. It is a stark contrast to the reading from Zephaniah which promises restoration on the basis of their birth-right and not their relationship with God and with their neighbours.
In turn different groups ask John how they might avoid harsh judgment: to those who have surplus John says that they must give this surplus to the poor – that extra coat or food; to the tax collectors he advises that they only take what they have a right to; to the soldiers he calls on them to live on their salaries and not to exploit their power or the system to exact any more from the people. In a sense he is holding up a mirror to the people and saying that they should live in harmony with one another and be satisfied with their lot; that they should treat others as they perhaps might hope others would treat them.
That in itself is a challenging prospect, particularly at this time of year. Families who are already struggling are under pressure from advertising to spend more than they can afford in order that their children do not feel left out at school. It seems unthinkable to go into debt to buy the Christmas that the family expect, but how to lower those expectations is the challenge.
So it is, that each year as a community of God’s people we find different ways to support those whom we believe to be in need, particularly during Advent. This is one way of encouraging us, together, to respond to John’s call to be ready for the coming Messiah whose arrival he was proclaiming.
But for me Advent has always been a time of hope and of longing. Together we are looking forward to celebrating Christmas and the coming of God, in the form of the infant Jesus. But more than that we are looking forward to the fulfilment of God’s kingdom here on earth. I know it can seem a long way off, particularly as we hear the news and read the papers, but Paul was very clear in his letter that as Christians we are not to worry about anything (imagine what that could do to your blood pressure). We are to offer all to God in prayer, and to hold on to the hope of God’s promise of peace; a peace which is beyond anything that we can understand, but which can empower us to live out our Christian vocation with renewed vigour and enthusiasm in the year ahead.
Let us rejoice in the Lord always and may God’s peace be alive in our community now and always.
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