Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Peace be with you!
As our national security heightens following ISIS’s attacks on Paris and around the world and their promise for similar attacks in Washington DC, one has to wonder where is God in all of this. Travelers have to watch the national security levels and be alert to their surroundings. Facebook even has a safety check notification when there is an international crisis, so individuals can let friends, colleagues, and family members know they are safe quickly if they are in the area. The Homeland Security Agency has a cybersecurity department, which is concerned with attacks on the national power grid causing blackouts across the nation. This kind of attack would shut down the government and make it difficult to communicate beyond the local community. Even if you do not pay close attention to the news, you cannot help but get a knot in the pit of your stomach. Teenagers have to worry about their peers bringing guns to school or being bullied by others. People are stealing packages from their neighbors’ front doors. When did the world become so dark?
Even though we romance about the past, like the 1930s or even the first century, the world was not any safer then than it is now. People still killed others over money or out of jealousy. There were international threats, like Nero and Hitler. There have always been the homeless, the poor, the naked, and the disabled. The world has always been a dangerous and scary place. It is in this darkness that John the Baptist, Zephaniah, and Paul enter the world as activists to bring about change.
Zephaniah was a prophet when Josiah was king over Judah. Zephaniah called for change in Judah by changing who and how the Israelites worshipped. In the book of Zephaniah, there is a call for the Israelites to stop worshipping idols and going against God’s commandments. In the opening verses, the prophet speaks about the Lord undoing the fifth and sixth days of creation by wiping out everything from the earth (Zephaniah 1: 2-3).[i] John the Baptist continues this message of the Lord’s work of undoing by calling us “brood of vipers” who are going to see the wrath of God (Luke 3:7-9). Both Zephaniah and John the Baptist have harsh messages for us to hear.
But despite the harsh judgments and messages, there is good news. Zephaniah sings praises when King Josiah repairs and renovates the temple where idols had been installed previously. In the temple, King Josiah finds the Deuteronomy scroll or something very similar, which sends him on a mission to purify the temple and tear down places where idols were worshipped (2 Kings 22:3-23:25; 2 Chronicles 34:3-35:19).[ii] Zephaniah was the strong activist who caused Josiah to reform Judah. After the reforms are in place, Zephaniah sings praises to the Israelites:
The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exalt over you with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17 NRSV).
The Israelites have once again found favor in the Lord’s sight by living accordingly to his commandments. However, it is impossible for us, the human race, to keep all of the Lord’s commandments. We are broken from the fall of humankind in the Garden of Eden. Watching the news at night shows how broken this world is, with its images of murder and terrorism. It is difficult not to be fearful of individuals who are different than us, especially those who look like those terrorizing us. Just like not every African American is a murderer, not every Muslin and Syrian Refugee is a terrorist and not every terrorist is Muslin or from Syria.
In the midst of a broken world like our own, John the Baptist enters the scene, bringing us good news and hope. John the Baptist points out our flaws—hoarding clothes and food, taking more than we deserve, lying, and making threats (Luke 3:10-14). No one is going to be able to avoid God’s judgment when he will judge the living and the dead (Luke 3:17). Although we are broken, there is hope through the baptism of repentance (Luke 3:8a, 16). John the Baptist calls us to repent and be baptized with water, because the Messiah is coming and he will baptize us with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16). We are given new identities through baptism when the Lord takes on our brokenness and makes us his children. God the Father makes a way for us to be in a relationship him, despite our brokenness, through the Messiah. Jesus Christ comes into the world to experience life in the darkness of the world, to feel our pain, sorrow, and joy, and to die for our sins in order to conquer the grave.
In order to spread the good news, we subject ourselves to pain and suffering, not because God abandons us but because we are faithful to our calling (Philippians 4:4-7). Out of our suffering, we are able to hang onto the hope and promise of salvation and eternal life. We are able to rejoice, because God loves us enough to forgive us for our brokenness. We are able to rejoice, because there is something more beyond this life and even this world. We are able to rejoice, because this is not the end but just the beginning.
There is hope in the baptism of repentance, because God the Father knows the world is scary place. He understands we feel hopeless, fearful, and lost. God the Father does not want us to grow accustomed to the dangers of this world. He does not want us stand up on our own. Our hope in the Messiah opens us up to the fear of disappointment, because no one has ever loved us that deeply in the past. But God really does care. God the Father wants us rely on his mercy and love for the world and for us, because he loves us unconditionally. He freely and willingly gives us a new identity through our baptisms. This is why God sends John the Baptist and ultimately Jesus Christ into the world to call us back to him. This is the way Jesus Christ comes into the world, to be crucified, die, and be resurrected from the grave. This is how we are able to share the good news that there is hope in the darkness.
Thanks be to God!
Dear Heavenly Father, Thank you for sending Zephaniah, John the Baptist, and Paul as activists. Prepare us to accept your son into our hearts, so we may understand your gift of salvation and eternal life. Continue to challenge and shake our fundamentals. Remind us of your love for us when we get lost in the darkness. Lead us to the baptismal water to be made new again, and lift us up to new life. Thank you for our new identities in Jesus Christ. Amen.
[i] Christopher L. Webber, The Gift of New Hope: Advent 2015: An Advent Study of the Revised Common Lectionary (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 45.
[ii] Ibid, 45.