Sermon St Eustachius 9.45 12 December 2021 Year C Next Advent 3
Zephaniah 3v14-20 Responsory Isaiah 12v2-6 Philippians 4v4-7 Luke 3v7-18
Let us Pray:
More than 300 years ago, king Louis XIV of France asked Blaise Pascal, the philosopher and mathematician, to give him proof for the existence of God. Pascal answered, ‘Why the Jews your Majesty, the Jews’. And why do you think Pascal give that reply to king Louis? .. Because the Jews have survived for over 4000 years as a separate and coherent people, survived against all the attempts to destroy them. The time when Pharaoh required all the male babies to be destroyed, yet Moses escaped; the time when Queen Esther had to intervene for the Hebrew people to be delivered from the plans of the wicked Haman, a time still remembered today in the colourful festival of Purim; and of course the Shoah, the holocaust of the second world war, the pictures from which seem unimaginable. Yet today there are still regimes looking for the destruction of the nation of Israel.
You may be asking, ‘what has that to do with todays readings?’ Well, the prophet Zephaniah, prophesying during the reign of king Josiah in the late seventh century BC, denounces the arrogant leaders of the nation Judah for abandoning their worship of Yahweh, the true God, and accommodating foreign customs and false gods. They were seeking wealth and power through exploitation, violence and fraud, sounds a bit like our times to me. Zephaniah reminded them that Yahweh, their true God, was Holy and righteous, and greatly offended by injustice. But despite that Zephaniah had a message of hope for a coming time of deliverance, a time of restoration for the people.
Zephaniah’s preaching can be seen as referring to a new age of joy and liberation, a new age when Messiah would bring in a coming kingdom with God himself in their midst. A time when Zephaniah saw that God would gather and bring his chosen people home after their dispersion, a time that we are presently seeing fulfilled before our eyes today.
Is it any wonder then that many in Israel can today join with the words of Zephaniah when he wrote, ‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult, the Lord has taken away the judgements against you’; and we still await the realisation of that time. Yet sadly while we wait, we see even in this country, a rise in antisemitism. Yet it is the Jew Jesus, God incarnate, whom we come together to worship this morning as our Saviour, Lord and coming King. Let us then join in that vision with a renewed hope, looking forward to a future restoration that God, in his love and mercy, has promised to all those who will today believe and trust him.
But in the meantime, as we look around and see all the suffering in our present world, and especially as we remember, and hopefully try to help, the homeless and refugees at this coming Christmas time, with Zephaniah we look forward to the time he described in our reading, ‘I will deal with your oppressors, I will save the lame and gather the outcasts, I will change their shame into praise’. So while the Lord tarries, while he delays his second advent, it falls to us, Jesus’ present day disciples, we who are the ‘image bearers of God’, to meet the needs of these forgotten folk, those at home and those abroad. As Christians our call has always been to help others, to share our resources, and to be content with what we are fortunately blessed with.
Our gospel reading this morning reminds us that John the Baptist was a very fiery preacher. I just love those words that he cried out to those coming to him for baptism, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!’
Not exactly politically correct words for this day and age; and I wonder what would be the response from a family coming for baptism if I shouted out those words as we all moved towards the font at the back of Church?
Yet is not that same call still so desperately needed today when we look around at all the violence and heartbreak seen in much of our society?
And Jesus did not shy away from using similar words. Jesus said to the Pharisees (Mtt12v34), ‘You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil.’ Perhaps if those words ‘repent’ were needed to be said by both John and Jesus when preaching that the kingdom of God has come near, we also need to be bold as we call people to repentance. It is a call for all to stop, to turn around and make new lives, a call that God places upon every person’s life to worship and to follow after our Lord Jesus.
John had words for each group of people coming to him for baptism as to how they should put that call to repentance into practice. Perhaps you could think up suitable responses for the multitude of people who today still need to experience repentance, and accept God’s forgiveness before they can enter with us into his everlasting kingdom of love, peace and joy.
But John did not leave his preaching with just the need for repentance did he? Having made it quite clear to those Pharisees who wanted to know just who he was, and so with what authority he could preach such a demanding call for repentance, John made it quite clear that he was not the long awaited Messiah.
John pointed to one who was coming after him, to the one whose sandal he was not worthy to untie, John pointed to his cousin Jesus as the Messiah.
Jesus the one whom John was soon to baptise; the one who did not need any baptism of repentance for he was the holy and spotless ‘son of God’. John pointed to Jesus who we shall affirm in a moment is, ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.
No, the coming Jesus was for John, and for us, more than the one who could offer forgiveness of sin, he was to be, and still is, the one who can baptise us with the Holy Spirit from God our Father. You will recall that Jesus refrained from baptising with water, he left that to his disciples, but he was the one who promised, and then sent, the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire at Pentecost. And what was the result?
The Holy Spirit transformed those timid and fearful first disciples of Jesus so that they were enabled to preach with boldness to all those that they met. And Peter was then to see some 5000 converted as he boldly preached on that first day of Pentecost. I wonder if we desire to have that same boldness that the Holy Spirit imparted to Peter that Pentecost morn?
So how are we to make sense today of these things in our own personal lives as Christians? What would be your response? Perhaps, like me, you have found it impossible to live out the commandments of Jesus, and to produce the fruits of his Holy Spirit that Paul lists in his letter to the Galatians (5v22), the fruits of, love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Yet do we not all feel, and know deep in our hearts, that those fruits are exactly what Jesus has called each one of us to show and do in our lives as ‘image bearers’ of God?
And why do we find it so impossible to show forth all those fruits?
The simple answer is that we cannot produce those fruits, those virtues, through our own strength; we cannot produce them of our own accord, we need the presence of the Holy Spirit to dwell with us. It is only through the power that the Holy Spirit imparts to us that we become enabled to live the full lives that God intended for us as his ‘image bearers’.
So we need to constantly meditate and ask ourselves if we are experiencing that life giving presence and power of God within us.
Do you remember the story of Paul’s third missionary journey when he went to Ephesus which Luke describes in Acts 19? What did Paul find with those few disciples there?
When he asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ what did they reply? ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’.
Well, none of us here this morning can say that we have not heard of the Holy Spirit, but we do all need to ask once again, are we experiencing him in our lives? If not perhaps like those 12 early disciples we need to seek the Holy Spirit through earnest prayer, for when Paul laid his hands on them Luke plainly says ‘the Holy Spirit came upon them’.
With the Holy Spirit in our hearts we know the peace of God, that peace which passes all understanding, and He brings to us a new sense of power and purpose as we live out our lives as Christians. A time when God can bring to our hearts and minds a new experience of our Lord’s presence with us day by day. A time when you can follow in saint Paul’s footsteps and say, ‘I rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, rejoice’.
Let us pray: A form of the shorter collect for this 3rd Sunday of Advent
God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to speak your truth,
to hunger for justice, and to suffer for the cause of right.
So dear Lord, fill us with your Holy Spirit today and every day, we ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen