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“Change My Shame Into Praise”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-18

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
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.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you[d] in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.[e]
I will remove disaster from you,[f]
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
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.
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.

Luke 3:7-18

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? 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. 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.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 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.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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 with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


 

When I read these verses from Luke about John’s ministry to the people in the wilderness, I am a tad perplexed when this chapter wraps up with the words, “So,…he proclaimed the good news to the people.”  It feels wrong.

 

All my life I’ve been hearing this story.  All my life, I’ve heard the good news of Jesus, and honestly, this story of John’s words and ministry does not sound to me like good news.  He proclaims a hard word.  He does not mince words.  He is a strait shooter.

To those who have been swindling others for personal gain, he tells them to stop.  He tells them to curb their own insatiable desire for more and to be content with what they have.  To those who have food and clothing, he commands them to share with those who have none.

When folks come overconfident and haughty – reasoning that they don’t need to worry about their souls because they are children of Abraham & thus heirs to the promises of God – John shoots right through their false sense of security.  Yes, God is faithful, but God also prunes away the branches that do not bear fruit.  The ax lies at the foot of the tree.  And God can raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones of the earth.  In other words, God does not need them in order to be faithful.  If they are unfaithful, God is still faithful, and God will do the work God intends through others.  And indeed God has done this – raising up descendants of Abraham from among the Gentiles – raising up all – whomever they are – who believe in him as children of God, members of the family of God.

 

From the beginning of time, we humans can become complacent.  And when we have known the love and belonging of God, we can take that for granted.  We can think that nothing we do really matters anymore.  But God continues to teach us that what we do DOES matter.

It’s not the kind of mattering that keeps us strung out on a thin thread of good grace.  It’s not the kind of mattering where God threatens to stop loving us, in order to get us to behave

No, it is not the kind of mattering that we’re used to – where grace is extended conditionally, where love is shown with strings attached.  It’s the kind of mattering that says our actions and inactions matter.  We have purpose in the world.  Our lives have consequence.

We matter.

 

And so God is continually inviting us to put the blessing of our lives to do good in this world.  And not to do evil.

 

And so here is John stirring the people out of their false sense of security, out of their complacence, and reminding them that their lives matter.  He implores them to do justice.  He implores them to live rightly, to change their crooked ways and return to God.

IF they are truly returning to God, truly repentant, their lives will bear the fruit of repentance, in justice, in goodness, in mercy, in righteousness.

And John is calling each one to take a hard and honest look at their lives.

 

Are their lives bearing the fruit of repentance?  Or not?

 

God is faithful.  God is sending someone more powerful than John, but will the people be a part of it?  Will they see him when he comes?  Will they receive him when he comes?

Or will they continue in their complacent, blinded, self-righteousness?  Will they persist in sin?  Will they harden their hearts and miss God’s voice, breaking through cloud and space, saying, “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Christ is on the way, but the gift of this child will only be received by those who are ready – by the wise men who have watched the night sky and waited and journeyed for this very night – by the shepherds who are staring at the night sky (and not at their phones) and hear the angels of heaven proclaiming the Messiah’s birth – by Anna and Simeon who have waited, trusting God’s word that they would see the Messiah in their lifetimes…

The gift is here for the taking.

But who receives it?

 

We may think that there is nothing to do while we cry out to God to make things right in this world.  We may think that because we are Christians that our eternity is pretty much set & we don’t really need to be concerned with questions of right and wrong.  We may think that God is far more concerned with big ticket sins than with our seemingly small and insignificant lives.

But John is here, reminding us that our lives matter.  Our lives matter.  And that if we are not actively participating in God’s work in the world, we are likely working against it.  God will still be faithful, but we just may miss out.  And he is here, crying out in the wilderness our aimless busyness for us to stop and listen, for us to look ourselves honestly in the mirror.

Do our lives bear the fruit of repentance?

Repentance is a 180 degree turn.  It is a turning away from sin and a turning back toward God.  Repentance is not a way of earning God’s love.  Repentance does not make us holy.  Repentance isn’t our litmus test of holiness.

No, repentance is simply the one thing we can do to be ready for God.  It is the way we open our stubborn selves, again and again, to the Holy One, who loves us with a never-stopping, never-giving-up love.

 

Everyone wants John to give them the magic ticket to eternal security.  Folks want to know what they can DO.  And John points them to the only thing they CAN do, repent.

Repentance does not make things right, but it points us back toward the ONE who makes all things right, the ONE who heals all our infirmities, the ONE who came from heaven as a little babe that we might know the GOD SAVES!

 

As we prepare for Christmas, may we hear again this strait-shooting, wilderness call to look ourselves truthfully in the mirror and to return to God.

 

The Lord of Heaven and Earth awaits, ever yearning to gather us in, to welcome us home and rejoice over us with singing.

You are of great worth to God.

Your life truly matters.

 

May you ever return to God,

repenting and returning,

and may you know the sweet joy of our Lord God,

rejoicing over you with singing,

as God renews you in God’s love

and changes your shame into praise.

 

 

The Good News of God!

 

Let us ready ourselves.

“Rescue by Invitation. Are You Ready?”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 3:2b-6
Malachi 3:3-7a

Luke 3:2b-6

…The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Malachi 3:3-7a

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.  Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.


 

When Isaiah made this prophesy that we hear John the Baptist later quoting, what do you imagine Isaiah thought of it?  How did he see this playing out?  All those years later when John begins quoting Isaiah in the desert, did John have a vision of what God was doing?

How did the people of Israel hear this prophesy?

 

I hear it in two ways, and I wonder what we are to take away.

First, I hear this call to each of us to prepare the way of the Lord by making the Lord’s paths strait.  In this I hear that familiar call and caution:  to be ready so I do not miss God, when God comes.  We human beings are notorious for cluttering up our hearts and lives with lessor things.  We are notorious for our mistakes and errors.  We insulate our hearts from the touch of of God, shut our ears to the voice of God, close ourselves off from the light of God simply in our stubborn willfulness to go our own way.  And the more we sin, the more we insulate ourselves apart from God.

This is the tragedy in which we find ourselves crying out to God, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!  For indeed, we need God to come and rescue us.  For we are captives to our own sin and the sins of one another.  Against all our better judgement, again and again, we find ourselves in the same spots:  broken and distracted.

 

And so the prophets Isaiah and later John both call for us to wake up to God’s presence.  For God is coming.  The Savior is coming!  And we do not want to miss out, distracted in sin, blinded by defensiveness, numb to God.

Make God’s paths strait.  Prepare the ways of God into our hearts and lives.   Be ready!

 

In the second half of this prophesy, however, I hear a shift.  Instead of hearing it as a directive to us, the listeners, I hear a shift as the prophet begins to state what will happen, what God shall do.  They say,

“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

It is as if to say, that God is removing every kind of obstacle SO THAT all flesh shall SEE the salvation of God.   God is doing it, and the prophet speaks to this radical coming of God in which every obstacle shall be removed.

 

Do you hear the relentless love of God?  Do you sense the lengths to which God is going to so that ALL will know God’s salvation?

 

And our second scripture reading today speaks to what shall happen when Christ comes.  It speaks out this truth that none can stand on the day of our Lord – since all have sinned and fallen short – and that Christ will purify and refine us, with fire.  Christ will bear witness against all who do not fear God but rather persist in sin.

But Christ’s fire will purify us until the offerings of our lives and labors to God are presented in righteousness.

I love this verse.  Though the thought of the fire of God is a scary thought, I invite you to entertain another way of imagining it.  The image here is not a raging wildfire.  It is not a firey furnace.  No, it is the refiners fire.  It is fire for a purpose.  The object being refined is not consumed and no more.  Rather it is made more pure.  The excess is burned away.  What remains is fine and beautiful, pure and useful.  In this image, God’s fire is not to smote us from the earth, but to heal us – doing what we cannot do on our own.

And this image shows the persevering love of our God.  It is not a persevering love that tolerates evil and injustice.  It is not a perseverance that sits passively by, ignoring all that steals, kills, and destroys.  No, it is a fierce love.  It is a purifying love.  It condemns sin and evil, all that wounds and breaks.  It is a love that will not let us go and tolerates nothing less than holiness.

 

And God is making a way,

Removing every obstacle,

That ALL might know God’s rescue.

 

But our loving Lord does all this through a vulnerable, little child.

Our loving Lord does all this through a humble carpenter from the back-water town of Nazareth.

Our loving Lord does all this through the invitation, “Come, and follow me.”

 

We are invited.

Not controlled.

Not wiped out.

Not kept down.

…Invited. 

 

“Come, and follow me.” 

 

And yet another invitation comes to us in this scripture verse from Malachi:

“Return to me, and I will return to you.” 

 

God is assuring the people that GOD WILL DO IT.

God will make the paths strait and the mountains level.

God will eliminate every obstacle.

GOD will make us righteous before the throne.

GOD WILL DO IT.

 

Our job is to return.

Our job is to follow.

 

 

“Prepare ye, the way of the Lord.”

The Lord comes. 

Are you ready?