A sermon preached Sunday, December 16, 2013 at Peakland United Methodist Church. Scriptures were: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18.
The wilderness. It was the place where the Hebrews wandered for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. It was the place where Jesus would go and be tempted for forty days before officially starting his ministry. And it was the place where John the Baptist lived and preached.
The wilderness is dangerous and inhospitable. It is barren, rough, and rocky. It is a place that is unstructured and chaotic. The wilderness is a place of fear. We have been in the wilderness this weekend. We were forced into the reality that the world is not safe and is unpredictable. We have roamed in fear, grief, and horror after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school.
Sometime Friday, a clergy person I know posted on his facebook, “WHY!?!?!” We have probably all asked the same question at some point. Why did this happen? Why does this keep happening? Will we be safe?
But if we let the words of John echo through our wilderness, we may find the next steps. John calls for repentance and change. He calls for the people of God to bear good fruit. It is not enough, he tells them, to claim your heritage to Abraham, you must act like who you say you are. To us we hear it is not enough for you to say that you are a Christian, you must act like who you say you are.
In the midst of the barren and inhospitable, John calls for reprioritizing. In the midst of chaos, John calls the people to focus their lives on God’s love. And we, like the people in the wilderness of John’s day, ask, “What then should we do?”
John’s answer is preschool worthy. What then should we do? We should share. John gives examples of what to do. If you have a lot, and your neighbor has nothing, you should share what you have. It reminds me of the saying, “Live simply, so others may simply live.” But this sharing goes beyond our material things. We who claim the Christ Child as our Lord and Savior are to share the love of God with others. We are to share grace and forgiveness. We are to share our hugs. We are to share our prayers.
In Philippians 4, Paul tells the church, “do not worry.” At a time like this, that seems like a tall order. If anyone knew anything about what it meant to worry, it was Paul. He had churches that were being bombarded with false theologies and pagan ideas. The churches were infested with conflict and confusion. They were looked down upon by the rest of the society. All of this is tough when you are responsible for one church, but Paul had them scattered all around. Oh, and Paul was in prison. Paul knew about worrying.
But Paul goes on to say in Philippians 4, “but handle everything in prayer.” For Paul, the opposite of worry is prayer. Instead of worrying and being anxious, Paul says, pray! Prayer should not be the last resort when we are panic-stricken. Instead, we should be so tight in our relationship with God, that we open ourselves up to God on a daily basis, so that when we are panic-stricken, we are in a place where we naturally hand things over to God. We do no worry, we give it God. Because, at the end of the day, God is in control, not us.
My Dad was an example of this for me. While he was in the hospital sick with prostate cancer, the meds were leaving him in such disarray that he did not always realize where he was. So, we took turns staying overnight at the hospital with him. On the night I stayed, I was a young 20, Dad thankfully was alert to his surroundings. During our conversation that evening, he lifted his hands as high as he could and said, “It’s in God’s hands now.”
It would be easy to say that my Dad was giving up, and to be honest, that’s what I feared was happening. But the reality was that he was opening himself up to God in such a way that it was natural and easy for him to say, “It’s in God’s hands. I’m not in control. God is in control.”
This experience was a wilderness one for me. It was a time full of fear and uncertainty. It was a time of sorrow, and a time of hopelessness. It was difficult to see my Dad, whom I had never seen sick during my childhood, in a hospital bed, barely able to lift up his own hands.
Every year during Advent we come to the wilderness to hear John’s story and his message of repentance and change. It is a message of transformation and renewal. There is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet, little, baby born in the manger without first going through the wilderness.
There is a Native American proverb that goes like this. A grandfather told his grandson about two wolves who were constantly battling inside his heart. One wolf was greed, hatred, and fear. The other was love, peace, and kindness. “Which will win?” asked the grandson. The grandfather replied, “The one I feed.” When we open ourselves up to God and live in this tight relationship, we are feeding the wolf of love, peace and kindness.
Paul goes on to say, in Philippians 4, to rejoice! That too seems like a tall order in moments like these. We can rejoice, however, because the Lord is near. One Bible translates as “God lives among you.” This is a word of comfort, no doubt. In the midst of our grieving, God is with us. In the midst of our sorrow, God is with us. In the midst of loss and tragedy, God is with us. In the midst of healing, God is with us. These are all causes for rejoicing. Because God is with us, we discover joy.
This is perhaps why the words from the prophet Zephaniah are so profound. The Israelites of this generation were surrounded by destruction and exile. They had failed to listen to God; they had strayed; they had not trusted God. They were need of renewal and change.
What Zephaniah pronounces is that the crises we face are best addressed in community. Change and transformation, healing and renewal happen best in community. Nurturing our relationship with God as well as with others is essential to the Christian faith. We need each other. The Christian faith is not a solo, rather a choral arrangement. And at the center of this community is the God who comforts.
Despite the conditions and challenges we face, the pain and disappointment, God is a God who comforts, consoles, and nurtures. God is a God who hears the cries of God’s children. God has not abandoned God’s people.
The events on Friday showed us that in a moment everything changes. In a moment 15 first-graders were taken from us.
In a moment a teacher, protecting her students, lost her life. In a moment the lives of ten individuals in Chicago ended.
In a moment, a father loses his job and a family struggles. In a moment, an accident leaves a mother in a wheelchair.
In a moment a light begins to shine. In a moment we discover joy.
And it only took a moment for a baby boy to be born. A baby boy who will change everything.
Go from this place and share. Share the love and grace of God. Share your prayers. Share a hug.