(Video of this service can be found here: https://youtu.be/IOd2NYgjGNk)
Should We Rejoice or Flee?
(Third Sunday of Advent)
December 12, 2021*
By Pastor John Partridge
Zephaniah 3:14-20 Luke 3:7-18 Philippians 4:4-7
What does it cost, and what is it worth to be a member of something?
Many of you will remember the advertising campaign that was used by American Express from 1974 to 1987 that said, “Membership has its privileges.” Membership, of course, cost money, but for many frequent travelers, the membership benefits were, and are, worth far more than the annual fee for the card.
Similarly, joining the local Country Club can be worthwhile if you like to play golf on a regular basis and if you use the benefits that come with membership.
If you just want to show off, you can probably find someone that will, for a small fee, make you a fake American Express Gold Card or a fake Country Club membership card that you can show off at parties. But your fake card isn’t going to give you any of the benefits that you get with the real thing. You won’t get 24 hour concierge service, or emergency airline ticketing, or collect reward points, you won’t get to play golf or even get in the door to eat in the country club banquet room. A fake card lets you pretend that you’re a member, but does not give you any of the benefits of actual membership.
All that may seem to be an odd thing to think about during Advent, but it may help us to understand some of the things we hear in our scripture passages this morning. We begin with God’s words about the coming messiah, to the people of Israel, recorded by the prophet Zephaniah (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The 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.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew youin his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I 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.
20 At 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.
God makes it clear that the coming of the Messiah will be a reason for rejoicing and happiness. On that day fear will be taken away and replaced with joy, gladness, and love. Shame will be transformed into praise as the people who have been dispersed around the world will return and be welcomed home at last.
That fits with the joyful themes that we expect as we prepare for Christmas during the season of Advent. But we might be a little confused when we discover that this isn’t at all the picture that John the Baptist paints as he preaches in the wilderness in Luke 3:7-18.
7 John 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? 8 Bear 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. 9 Even 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.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers 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.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John 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 withthe Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His 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.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
John starts with, “You brood of vipers” and a warning to flee from God’s punishment and anger, but still ends with Luke describing his words as “good news.” How does that work? Much of John’s message is about God uprooting unproductive followers, and a reminder that we cannot rest on the faith and work of our parents or other ancestors, and he cautions everyone to be fair to others regardless of their profession, and to honor God in all that they do. But still, how does this get summarized as “good news?”
And, as it that wasn’t confusing enough, Paul seems to echo the optimism of Zephaniah as he writes to the church in Philippi (Philippians 4:4-7) saying:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
So, which is it? Should we rejoice or flee? Should we have peace, or should we be worried about God’s wrath, anger, and punishment?
And the answer is just as simple as it was for American Express or the country club across town. Membership has its privileges but the card you carry in your pocket needs to be the real one. Coming to church on Sunday just so that you can tell your friends that you are a Christian isn’t going to be enough if you live the rest of the week as if Jesus, and everything that he teaches, doesn’t matter. Putting money in the offering plate won’t make a bit of difference if your faith doesn’t change the way that you live your life when you aren’t in the church building. Saying that you are a Christian doesn’t make you one. Being a genuine follower of Jesus Christ means living a life that models the teachings of Jesus. Love your neighbor, love those how hate you and who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and the foreigner, care for the poor, and all those other things that you find in the Gospel message that we talk about here every week.
We can’t just go to church; we have to be the church. We can’t just say that we love Jesus, we have to live, and we have to love, like Jesus.
Once we manage that, then we will be the people that Paul was describing. Our gentleness will be known to everyone, we won’t need to worry, and we can rest in the peace of God. John’s message is that fake membership cards aren’t going to be enough, but that genuine membership is free.
And it is for that reason that we rejoice. Because this is indeed good news, of great joy, for all the people.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.