Describe the Time (December 16, 2018)
Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Luke 3: 7-8
Describe the Time
I want to engage in a thought experiment here. If you met a time traveler from the 1500s, let’s say, and you were tasked with describing the year 2018 to this person, how would you do it? Would you describe the technology we have; the wondrous technology we have? Would you describe light bulbs they didn’t have a back then? Cars? Paved roads? Heating and air-conditioning? Would you talk with people miles away? Maybe the abilities we have to travel the world: would you talk about how you can get from United States, which let’s assume they know what America even is, how we can get from the United States to Israel in less than 24 hours if we want? Would you talk about the fact that humanity has has moved beyond the earth, that there were things out above the earth and we as a species have traveled ourselves and landed on the moon; we have a species have put pieces of metal on Mars? Would you maybe talk about the Internet, how I can have face-to-face communication with people around the world? Would you maybe talk about phones, just the amazingness of this thing that we have in our pocket that records this sermon to be placed on the Internet and to be printed in seconds onto paper? Would you talk about all of these amazing and wonderful things, these big things that we have here in 2018? Would you talk about the number of diseases that were extremely problematic to them that we now almost laugh away?
Would you maybe talk about politics, the political era that were in, where it seems like the world is burning down around us? Would you talk about the tensions that have gripped this world, but especially this country, over the last several years? Would you talk about those kinds of things? In short, would you talk about the positives or the negatives if you were trying to describe 2018 to someone from 1500; and you only had a few minutes (let’s just put that on there too). What kind of things are you going to talk about?
Now let me ask you if you were trying to describe 2018 to your neighbor who you’ve known and who grew up around you grew up in Spring Hill as well, what would you talk about with them? What do you tend to talk about over coffee on Sunday morning?
Another question: if you were talking to the person from 1500s, would you talk about the big huge moments and days? Would you talk about the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor, 9/11? Would you talk about the massive wars that we’ve had? Would you talk about the important, big things? Or would you just talk about whatever was happening that day; whatever big news item was dominating the 24 hour news cycle on the day you happen to meet this individual from the 1500s? What do you talk about with your friends?
I know we have more time with our friends, and you don’t with this person from the 1500’s. I’m not actually even judging you with this; merely making observation that when we talk to our friends and we talk to people we see everyday, we talk to people from our own time, we tend to talk about things that are happening right now. We talk about things that bother us. We talk about things that we think could matter, someday. We talk about the weather. We don’t talk about the big huge things. But if we were trying to talk to someone who we don’t know, we’re going to talk about the big things, and we’re not going to worry about whether it was 35 or 31 today; if it was sunny, or if it was snowy.
I bring this up because I think that’s what’s happening in our scriptures for today. As I read the four lectionary scriptures for this week something stuck out immediately: there was a passage that didn’t quite belong. We had scriptures from Isaiah, and scriptures from Zephaniah, and we had scriptures from Paul even, writing to the Greeks about what had happened in Jesus; and they were lively, and bubbly, and wonderful. And they were talking about all the greatness that was God coming to earth, or that would be God coming to earth. And then you open the Gospel reading, the one depicting the actual point at which God was present on the earth, and you start reading with anticipation, wondering what wonderful thing am I going to read today? And it starts with “you brood of vipers, who told you to escape the coming wrath?”
Vipers? Wrath? There was no “coming wrath” in Zephaniah, or Malachi, or Isaiah! There was none of this wrath stuff! I was promised peace. I was promised prosperity. I was promised tranquility. I was promised rejoicing and dancing in the streets. What is this that you’re talking about John?
I think that part of it is part of why they rejected John; John was not in line with all the other prophets when talking about Jesus’s coming. But John was not like the other prophets. The prophets of old were describing the future, they were talking about 2018 to someone from the 1500s; and so they were talking about the big things. They were describing Palm Sunday. They were describing the feeding of the 5000. They were describing Easter. They were describing Pentecost. They were describing Saint Peter’s Square at the election of a new pope. They were describing these wonderful, big events because they were talking about future.
John was talking about the present, and so he’s not talking about the big events, he’s talking about the weather today, and he’s talking about the tension in the community. John is having a discussion over Saturday morning coffee with neighbors; the other prophets were talking to the people from the past about the future. John wasn’t describing the joy of three years from now, he was describing the here and the now because that’s his time. And what he saw in the here and now was not a people ready to celebrate the coming of the Messiah; what John saw in the here and now was Nazareth, not Capernum. What I mean by that is Nazareth, the town that would reject Jesus and try and throw him off a cliff, not Capernum, which was Peter‘s hometown where Jesus would spend most of his earthly ministry, and where many of his miracles occurred. This is what John was saying. John was speaking differently because John was in a different time.
In John’s time his message was an uncomfortable message, and it is uncomfortable message in our time as well. This is not what we talk about when we talk about Advent. This is not how we celebrate Christmas. Many of us, I think, want to look at John, take him aside and say, “hey, did you miss the memo? It’s Christmas. You know, joy, hope, peace, love? Christmas: ho ho ho, presents, laughter…did you miss the memo, John?”
Or maybe did we miss the memo? John is, of course, a prophet. We are not. Let me ask you, what are you waiting for? Whom are you waiting for? For whom are you preparing? Years ago there was a movie called “Talladega Nights” that came out, and I am not going to recommend watching the whole thing as a pastor, but I remember the advertising campaign. The main character of that movie, a guy named Ricky Bobby, lifts praise to “Sweet Baby Jesus,” and I imagined this was because Sweet Baby Jesus is cute, and innocent, and lovely; and there’s no “love your neighbor” thing with the baby Jesus. It’s not as demanding, it’s not as needy.
Maybe I’m putting a little bit on him, but you get the idea. This Christmas, are you waiting for sweet little baby Jesus? Are you waiting for difficult, adult Jesus, that pushes us forward, and urges us toward perfection? Or maybe you’re waiting for the warrior Jesus promised in Revelation for the second coming? What are you waiting for? For whom are you waiting?
John seems to think that the people then, and maybe even us, need to be prepared for the adult, difficult, urging, prodding, pushing Jesus. I think we are in need of that one: the one that wants us to become better, to become more who were supposed to be, to become the best followers and the best disciples that we can be. John seeks to prepare those around him for that Jesus and to prepare for that Jesus well.
The Pharisees he was talking to believed that simply by being born of Abraham they would be saved without having to actually follow the commands and wishes of God. And they tell John as much; at least by their actions if not by their words. So John tells them that they’re foolish, that if God wanted, God could raise children of Abraham out of the stones. “you think being a child of Abraham makes you special?” he asks them. “You’re wrong.”
Most of us are not trusting of being a child of Abraham in order to save us, but I wonder if we make similar rationalizations. I wonder if we do similar things; if we aren’t Pharisees in our own way. I wonder if maybe the prayers have become that for us, if we think that just saying a few words, spending one minute, or sometimes less than a minute, and saying one simple prayer before moving on without changing. They spend one minute of our time, during which their life was declared to be dedicated to God, during which they say the prayer “God I’m going to follow you,” but then they leave and they never worry about it again. They’re trusting that that one minute is going to save them without having to change their lives at all.
I wonder how many people do that, because I think a lot of preachers preach that way. I am not one of them. That prayer is important, just as being a child of Abraham was back then, but that prayer is only important if you mean it. For God could raise from the very rocks outside our church people to say a prayer. God wants a changed life. That’s what all of it is about; that’s what Jesus is teaching about. He what’s the change within you: to perfect you, to mold you, to shape you and make you grow. That was true 2000 years ago, and it’s true today. That’s what God wants. God wants you to actually live the sinner’s prayer, and truly dedicate yourself, truly change, truly live as a disciple of Jesus.
The Zephaniah passage we read today is interesting. It’s bubbly. It’s full of beautiful visions of a far distant future; a future that was about 600 or so years away. But that’s not all the book is. Zephaniah chapter 4 comes at the end of the book, and for the first three chapters it is a prophecy of a much closer future that’s not so bright. It would be filled with war, and famine, and disease, and heartbreak, and death as the nation of Judah is punished for all the years it’s spent not following commands of God, and given a lesson in what being a true child of the promise means. And only after all of the prophecy of torment is done do we hear this prophecy of joy. That’s similar to John’s message: John is preparing the way for Jesus; and the people have to be refined before they can celebrate with God in their midst.
This week’s theme is Joy. And the joy of God comes to us in spite of, not because of, the righteousness of the people. These people have just tried to earn it for 2000 years and it doesn’t happen. The joy of God comes in spite of, not because of, our own righteousness. And the promise of Zephaniah lies in the troubles being removed, which means they were there to be removed. The promise of the joy of God lies in going through the difficulties. The good news of God is in deliverance, not avoidance of troubles; that through the troubles, through the trials and the stormy periods of life, God is going to work and shape us, and we will come out grown and stronger than when we started; we will come out better in spirit. The deliverance that the Lord promises is that good would come from hardship.
And so this Advent, listen to the Johns in the midst of the Zephaniahs as you go around the community. In the midst of all the joy, and the carols, and the laughter and everything I want you to listen to the John’s as well when you hear them. You can be happy, you can be dancing in the streets, but when the Spirit knocks and says “OK, it’s time to learn something here,” I want you to listen to that as well. Listen to the Spirit tell you your rough edges this week. And may God bless you through any trials you my face. Amen.