Weekly Preaching: December 16, 2018

December 10th, 2018

“For lo, the days are hastening on.” We have lovely readings this week — well, at least two. I adore this obscure text, Zephaniah 3:14-20. Philippians 4:4-7 isn’t particularly Christmasy but it can be used to great advantage. But the Luke 3 text? John the Baptist, this late into Advent? Year C bungles this badly I think… so I will use preacher discretion and adhere to the pink candle, speaking of Mary, the rose, the virgin, the mother of God so great with child.

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First, Zephaniah 3:14-20. Singing may be the most remarkable thing Christians do together. It’s not because we enjoy songs or because they stir a little emotional flutter in the heart. It’s defiant; it’s gathering up more than spoken prose to extol God and declare subversive realities we grasp eagerly while the world scoffs or just doesn’t hear. Sing! Shout! Rejoice and exult! And why? Not ‘tis the season to be jolly. “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.” “The King, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more.” This banishing of fear is the Gospel; judgments on you and others and the world are nullified. “Fear not!” the angels, Paul, Jesus, and Zephaniah sing in raucous harmony. It’s an invitation, a permission, a counter-cultural shocker. Such a relief, and joy.

“Let not your hands grow weak.” I remember dreading the greeting line at the end of worship at my first two parishes. The men were mostly laborers, with huge, muscular hands, which would inevitably crush my small, weak hands (sometimes making me wonder if they were making a point).

What are weak hands? Zephaniah is urging the people on in their work, of course. But I wonder if we misdefine hands and their functions. In my first book, Yours are the Hands of Christ, I asked What did Jesus do with his hands? as a clue for what we might do with ours. I told the story of my Aunt Zonia, who had some disability in her hands. They were gnarled, and she couldn’t really hold anything. But I adored her hands. She held mine when I battled a fever while staying with her. She would point to the groceries in the car and ask me to carry them, making me feel useful and needed. She folded those hands in prayer and managed to flip through her Bible to find stuff. Weak hands? Strongest I’ve ever known.

Why not let our hands grow weak, but continue to pray, hold onto one another, and do whatever we’re able to do in hope? Zephaniah says “He will rejoice over you in gladness” and “He will exult over you with loud singing.” Our singing echoes not just the angels, but Christian congregations and choirs through the ages. God sings. In my sermon, I’m just going to ponder this, marvel over it, invite my people into a quiet space to relish the thought.

The power of God’s song is the Gospel music. Martin Luther King, Jr., once preached on “How the Christian Overcomes Evil,” deploying an illustration from mythology. The sirens sang seductive songs that lured sailors into shipwreck. Two, though, managed to navigate those treacherous waters successfully, and King contrasted their techniques. Ulysses stuffed wax into the ears of his rowers and strapped himself to the mast of the ship, and by dint of will managed to steer clear of the shoals. But Orpheus, as his ship drew near, simply pulled out his lyre and played a song more beautiful than that of the sirens, so his sailors listened to him instead of to them.

Zephaniah’s last word from God? “I will bring you home.” In Why This Jubilee? I wrote a little reflection on “I’ll be home for Christmas,” noting how many of our carols mention “home.” We have a hankering for home. In our uprooted, mobile society, many don’t know where home even is, or parents have died and the old homeplace isn’t home any more. God placed this yearning in us so we might seek after God, realizing at some point that even the best home, the homiest home anywhere here isn’t quite home enough for our rich, God-instilled cravings. We wait, we long, we yearn for God to bring us home. That’s the message of Advent, right?

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Philippians 4:4-7 is my parade example for beginning Bible students on the virtue of reading slowly and interrogating the text as it interrogates us. In quick succession, Paul says Rejoice always. Do not be anxious. With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. These three are tightly knit together. Let’s ponder how,  now as we prepare to preach and in the sermon itself.

Phil. 4:6, the least obeyed command in the Bible: “Have no anxiety.” We are anxiety-riddled, and the very demand not to be anxious feels like piling on. I was anxious. Now I’m anxious about my inability to be non-anxious and I’m failing God. How should we have no anxiety?

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“Let your requests be made known to God.” Okay, Lord, cure my anxiety — or fix the situation giving rise to my anxiety. But read Paul more slowly: “With thanksgiving let your requests be made known…” Paul must be mixed up: it’s supposed to be we file our requests, and if God complies, then we give thanks — right? No, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known.” We begin with gratitude. Jesus invited the crowd to be rid of anxiety by pointing to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field: they are arrayed in beauty, God provides for them (read Matthew 6:25-34!). Notice what God has done, feel the blessings you neglected to pay attention to (which is probably why you got into the anxious mess you’re in…). Could it be that gratitude is the antidote to anxiety? What would one ask for during this season of making lists?

The psychiatrist Martin Seligman has written about anxiety (in his great book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being). He shares that studies show how gratitude alleviates anxiety and depression (not entirely, but by a significant, measurable percentage). My personal observation is that it is impossible to be anxious and grateful at the same time. Something about gratitude — and not merely feeling thankful but actually expressing it in a note, a phone call, whatever — calms and even reverses anxiety, at least in the moment.

That’s when the joy comes in: “Rejoice always.” How? By not being anxious. How? By sharing your requests with God – with thanksgiving.

And then, when this becomes habitual, and natural, we get to the goal of the thing: Peace. “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). The Roman emperor boasted that he was the guarantor of peace, the pax romana. But how did he keep the peace? By wielding a bigger sword than anybody else. If you marshal enough well-drilled troops with clashing armor, you get peace — right? Or was Dorothee Soelle right? “Armed people have no peace.”

God’s peace is never won when the vanquished cower before threatening spears, or when everybody in the house walks on eggshells, fearing the one who demands on peace at home. God’s peace is a gift; it lifts up and ennobles the weakest, it delivers justice and hope. God’s peace is all love, compassion and that curious strength that embraces rather than strikes. It thrives in the soil of gratitude; joy is its flower.

How intriguing that Paul dictates out loud, with the emperor’s Praetorian guard listening through the bars, that God’s peace will “keep” your hearts: the Greek word means to “guard.” Paul is in prison, guarded by men with weapons... but who’s really free, and who isn’t? In God’s hidden script, it’s the armed soldiers, and the emperor himself, who are not free but are in chains, while Paul is free as a bird, protected from them by the peace of God.

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And finally, Luke 3:7-18. It's way too late for John (for my tastes), so I’m ruminating on Mary: her Yes to the angel, her humility, her holiness, what she felt in her womb, the shame and questioning she surely endured, her journey to Elizabeth. If you do Luke 3, it’s worth noting that John upbraids those coming as a “brood of vipers” — fuming at the very people who came out to be baptized by him, after a hard, hot, dusty journey, clearly buying into his agenda! His “ax to the root of the tree” would push me toward retelling Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (which works well at Christmas with a cut tree in your house, right?). Then, after his fuming is done, Luke reports that “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” We sure believe in preaching as Good News, but clearly for John the Baptist and Luke, the “good news” isn’t something sunny, positive, cheerful, or happy. It’s about vipers and axes, giving away one coat if you have two. Maybe a closet purge is in order?

What can we say December 16? Advent 3 originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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