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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Sermon at Stebbing today , Advent 3


The good news of God's judgement: Bob Dylan, “Change my way of thinking”, Zephaniah 3, 14-20 & Luke 3, 7-18.

The promise of salvation, and of God's reign of peace and justice, is good news indeed to the oppressed, the outcast, and all who have been treated unjustly. God will deal with those who have oppressed and shamed them. This must also mean, however, that the promise is a real cause of fear and dread for anyone guilty of having inflicted shame and sorrow on God's people. The passages set for this week encourage us to hold these two things carefully in balance. Zephaniah invites us to share in the joy of redemption. God has overcome the enemies of his people and now chooses to be with them – or should that be with us. On the other hand, in the Gospel reading, John the Baptist reminds us of the necessity of changing our ways. Whether we are like the outcast or the tax collector however, the message remains the same; God's judgement is good news because God has provided a means of taking away the judgement against the sinner. Those who live in fear of the wrath of God can be saved if they accept the baptism of repentance and live a life worthy of the gift of forgiveness that they receive from Christ. Event and Process.

We’ve been watching the DVDs from New Wine with Kenny Borthwick in the last couple of weeks at home group. This week he was talking about the coming of the Kingdom as event and process. This resonated for me with what we were talking about last week, the old cliché that God is for life not just for Christmas. We may have expectations that we will perhaps be refreshed and encouraged in our faith over the Christmas period – in a single event, and it is my prayer that that will happen, as it did for some people last Christmas Eve here. Yet, just as the coming of the Kingdom of God is a gradual process, as well as a single event in the incarnation of Jesus, so also our relationship with God is a process as we draw ever closer to him daily through our lives – not just at Christmas, and not even just at Church!

You might think it’s not very Christmassy to be thinking about judgement, but Kenny reminded us that when Jesus said to Mary and Martha at the grave of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection,” he was in effect saying, “I am Judgement Day, standing right here before you”.  For those whose hope is in the Lord, judgement day hold no fear. It is a time of joy.

Zephaniah means 'the one whom Yahweh has chosen'. He was probably prophesying to the people of Jerusalem at about the same time that Jeremiah was sharing God's judgement and words of comfort to the people of Judah. Few biblical prophets describe the wrath of God, or the joy of God, as vividly as Zephaniah does, and in this small section we are able to share something of his love and concern for the redemption of Jerusalem. The idea of God singing with joy reminds us that salvation is what God wants for us. Our salvation is a cause of exultation and rejoicing for God and that is the best measure of how much God loves us. Just as our individual salvation is both event and process, in our initial commitment and our gradual growth in faith and confidence – moving as we do, again in the words of Kenny Borthwick, from having enough light to die by to having enough light to live by, so also the Church’s journey through the Christian year is characterised by events – Advent Christmas, Epiphany and so on, at which we mark the milestones of faith, and a process, by which we journey together onward toward the eventual fill reign of God.

John the Baptist fascinates me. He clearly had issues with the religious authorities of his day, yet his preaching and prophecy was in fulfilment of everything they themselves were actually waiting for. The vitriol of John's question at the start of this passage may surprise us, but it perfectly demonstrates the difference between human judgement and God's grace. The unspoken answer, of course, is 'God warned us' by sending you. But of course it wasn’t just an unspoken answer, it was largely un-acted upon and ignored, unless we count people like Nicodemus. This was John's purpose in life, to call people to repentance, and here he starts with at the top. However, his baptism wasn't intended just for devout and righteous people who were already waiting for the day of the Lord. Neither was it restricted to the descendants of Abraham. Tax collectors, for example were often considered to be outcast from the law and from Jewish society because they worked as Roman agents. The soldiers mentioned would have been Roman soldiers, members of the occupying army. The good news is that all can be saved.
John stresses that baptism on its own is not enough. It marks the start, not the end, of the preparation for the coming of the Lord. It is an event that initiates a process, then as now. I’m not going to say there is nothing in the event, but it is incomplete without the process. Genuine repentance should result in a changed way of life. The repentant were therefore told to consider others and to give to them, as they were able; to undertake whatever work they had with integrity and respect for others. So although Bob Dylan and Kenny Borthwick were right to say that to repent is to change my way of thinking, it is interesting to see how John describes what his hearers need to do as part of their repentance – the event of the changed mind is accompanied by the process of living as redeemed people – what Dylan calls “make myself a different set of rules. So Judgement is not bad news for the repentant sinner. The promise of Christ's imminent arrival is good news to those who hear it. They have been given time to repent and amend their lives – a process so that they are ready to be baptised by Christ with the Holy Spirit and with fire – the ultimate event

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