Sermon: Third Sunday in Advent, 13December 2015

St.Aidan’s West Epping,13th December 2015

Rev. Paul Weaver

“ZEPHANIAH: JUDGEMENT AND HOPE”

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Song of Isaiah; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

 

Most of us would probably struggle to answer many questions about the Book of Zephaniah, perhaps one of the more obscure books of the Minor Prophets. Nevertheless it has its place in the scriptures, and at least today we read a part of it – in fact, the last few verses – as our Old Testament reading.

Zephaniah prophesied more than 600 years before Jesus, during the reign of King Josiah. Judah had been going morally and spiritually downhill, and Josiah led a major revival of godly worship and reformation. Josiah was faithful and obedient as few kings had been before him. He sought to truly lead his people in the ways of God.

Yet his reforms turned out to be ineffective for any length of time: too little, too late, and too superficial. Few of the people were committed from the heart. Josiah’s successors were certainly not interested in maintaining Josiah’s reforms. And within a few decades, God’s judgement fell as Babylonian armies overran Jerusalem, and large numbers of people were taken into exile.

Zephaniah was the Lord’s messenger, and this book provides for us the substance of his message.

The prophet warns of coming judgement on Jerusalem for its idolatry, its immorality, its corruption, and its oppression of the poor. There had been prophets before Zephaniah, but the attitude of those in power had been arrogant: “God’s not going to do anything. He won’t do us any good if we change our ways, and he won’t do us any harm if we don’t.” Zephaniah makes clear how wrong these corrupt leaders are.

Josiah tried to change things, and to bring people back to the true worship of the Lord. It is not clear whether Zephaniah encouraged Josiah in trying to turn the people back to God, or whether he was commenting on the superficiality of it all. But commendable as the efforts of Josiah might be, nothing of deep significance actually changed, and Zephaniah’s warnings of judgement inevitably came to pass.

For God is a God who rightly condemns evil wherever he finds it. And while the first chapter of the book exposes the evil and the hypocrisy of the people of Judah, Chapter 2 focuses on God’s judgement against the evil nations round about Israel, nations that had oppressed Israel and Judah over the centuries.

Of course, many of us are not comfortable with the idea of a God of judgement. We want to think of God as a loving God, a God of grace: not as a wrathful God, a God who condemns, least of all a God who sends people to hell.

But if God is a righteous God, he must condemn evil, he cannot ignore the terrible things that people do, he cannot brush things under the carpet as if they do not matter. We see today the criminals’ victims who are furious if the criminal does not get the sentence they seem to deserve, and I’m sure we feel sympathy for these people. Evil must be dealt with. Yes, evil must be punished.

But if God is a God who is righteous and wise, we need to trust that he will execute justice in the right way. It will not be based on bad temper and rage, though of course the scriptures do use strong images to express God’s reaction to evil. It will take in the reality of the sin, but it will also take in all the circumstances. God will get judgement right.

But he is also a forgiving God. That forgiveness is not a cheap forgiveness that trivializes human sin: it cost God the death of his beloved Son on the cross. The cross is where God’s justice and righteousness and his condemnation of sin and his love come together to deal with sin in grace and forgiveness.

God’s warnings of judgement are never an end in themselves. They are always a call to repent. Remember the story of the prophet Jonah. He was called by God to warn the people of Nineveh that God’s judgement was coming. Jonah ran away to sea, desperate to avoid obeying God’s call to preach. Why was that? Because he believed that the people of Nineveh might repent and be forgiven, and that was something he could not contemplate. He hated Nineveh, and did not want them forgiven. If that was God’s plan, Jonah wanted no part of it. When finally he got to Nineveh despite his attempts to get out of the job, the people did indeed repent and judgement was withheld. Jonah sulked, but God rejoiced.

God condemns evil, but there is always the possibility of forgiveness. That of course is what the Gospel of Christ is all about. As Zephaniah says in Chapter 2, “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” The day is coming: prepare for it. Even if you are a sinner, even if your righteousness is far from complete, seek the Lord, says the prophet.

The second half of the final third chapter of Zephaniah sounds very different: there is a real change in the mood. For judgement is not necessarily the end of the story. There can be forms of judgement, forms of punishment, which are ultimately redemptive. Judah would indeed experience judgement in the form of invasion and defeat by Babylon, with many inhabitants going into exile. But that would not be the end of the story: there was hope even beyond judgement. This would not be ultimate judgement. Beyond the exile, which Zephaniah knows is coming, there is hope and blessing.

The enemy’s power over Israel would come to an end, the punishment would be completed, fear would be a thing of the past, and the people would again be in a secure relationship with God. The temple festivals would once again be times of joy and thanksgiving, not opportunities to take advantage of the poor and make profits through corrupt dealings. The Lord would save his suffering chastened repentant people even out of the deepest darkness.

Of course if the people had taken Zephaniah’s message seriously at the time, all that suffering would have been unnecessary. But they did not heed the prophet’s message. One day perhaps they would learn.

As we look at the words of this morning’s joyous passage that closes the book of Zephaniah, we see that judgement has now been turned away, that God’s people are again safe from their enemies, that salvation is a reality.

One of the recurring themes of the Old Testament is the idea of the Day of the Lord. This is the day or the time when the Lord acts in a decisive way to make clear that he is indeed the Lord.

The people of Israel had always been tempted to think that the Day of the Lord would be a wonderful time for them: peace, security, prosperity, good times. But the prophets kept on warning them that the Day of the Lord would also be a day of judgement on evil and evildoers. For evil itself was an affront to the Lord who is a righteous God.

The promise of the Day of the Lord was always a call for people to repent, to turn back to God in obedience and faithfulness. When the Lord asserted his authority on the Day of the Lord, it could well mean that Israel would receive its deserved judgement. And yet, when Israel experienced that judgement, it did not mean that God was finished with them. There was still hope.

Sadly the people missed the point of Zephaniah’s message, and they experienced God’s punishment as Babylon overran Jerusalem. They missed the point six centuries later as Jesus came, God himself coming to inaugurate the Day of the Lord in its fullness. John the Baptist had come, as Zephaniah had come, to prepare the way of the Lord. He also called people to real repentance, a genuine acknowledgement of the wrongs they had done, an openness to God’s forgiveness, a real decision to live a new life with the help of God.

And that call still comes to all of us today as the Day of the Lord unfolds. The Lord is King. The Lord is at hand, as Paul reminds the Philippians, for the return of Jesus in glory could be at any time. The people of Zephaniah’s day were not ready, and were not willing to consider the importance of being ready. We are called to live as people who are indeed ready for that great day.

Through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are given assurance that through God’s forgiveness we can be ready for the climactic event of that great day, when the Lord Jesus comes in glory as King and Judge, as well as Saviour. So we hear the call of God to live as people who are ready for the great day, people who find hope in that day.

Let us then hold our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us to live lives of repentance; Christ who brings us not only eternal hope, but the assurance of forgiveness, peace with God, in fact that peace of God which indeed passes all understanding. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Second Sunday in Advent, 6 December 2015

St.Alban’s Epping,6th December 2015

Rev. Paul Weaver

“HEARING THE PROPHET’S VOICE”

Malachi 3:1-14; Song of Zechariah; Philippians 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-6)

The problem with God is that he doesn’t make himself obvious.

Different things point to his existence and what he is like. Creation reveals his power and wonder and wisdom, his grandeur and beauty. But we aren’t forced to believe that he made it. Human nature seems to have the sense that there are actions which are right and actions which are wrong, even if we don’t always want to act in accordance with them. But some will claim that these principles simply reflect the evolutionary necessities of life. Human nature also displays the desire to worship, that worldwide sense that there are divine realities as well as physical realities, that there is a spiritual dimension to life. But some say that in due course we will all grow out of that childish belief.

We might say that God has raised up many people in this world to be his messengers – prophets and teachers and others. But others will say that they are liars or deluded people. And Christians will point to Jesus, in whom God revealed himself in person, sharing our humanity and our limitations and our pains and even our death. But of course there are those who see the New Testament as little more than a fairy story.

Perhaps we wonder why God doesn’t reveal himself in all his power and glory, so that no one can be uncertain, and no one can mock. But I suspect that if God did that now, it would be so overwhelming that there would be no choice. And while we live on this earth, he gives us the power to choose, the power to make our decisions; the privilege of believing without being forced to believe; the opportunity to seek and find, or to refuse to seek him at all. God doesn’t force himself on us, but there are reasons to believe.

This was the case also with Israel in the days of the Old Testament. The people were taught about Adam and Abraham and Moses and David: they knew the stories well. And they had the Torah, the teaching of Moses and the commandments handed down through him. They knew about the Covenant, the unique relationship they had with the Creator Lord as his people. And yet so often they drifted away from the Lord.

Prophets would rise up, taking the people to task for their faithlessness and disobedience, and calling them back to the Lord. Sometimes the people listened and responded, but too often they ignored the prophetic message, or even attacked the prophets sent by the Lord. Often it took a crisis to wake them up: a drought or a plague or an invasion would at least sometimes get them asking why God had allowed this to happen to them. And then they might acknowledge the need to repent and turn back to God.

We tend to think of the prophets as people who predicted the future. But in many ways they did the opposite. Their message so often looked back as much as looking forward. They constantly pointed the people of Israel back to Moses, and to God’s covenant with Israel made at Mount Sinai. They insisted that Israel was in a unique relationship with the Lord: a relationship which brought great blessings, but also involved particular responsibilities. The prophetic call was to remember, to remember the covenant, and once again to live by that covenant. Of course the prophets did also look forward: they pointed backwards reminding the people that God had promised wonderful blessings to them if they kept their side of the covenant, but they also pointed forward warning of coming judgement if the people did not turn back to God.

And so we come to today’s reading from the prophet Malachi, who preached his message about 400 years before the birth of Jesus, in what seems to have been a time of drought or locust plague when many people were struggling. Actually we don’t know the real name of this prophet: Malachi simply means “my messenger”, and the name was picked up from the first verse of our reading today, although its words are definitely not trying to tell us the name of this challenging preacher.

It was a time when the people of Israel had once again given up any real commitment to the Lord. They went through the motions of religion, but that was it. The living Lord didn’t seem all that real or all that close: why should they take him all that seriously?

The book contains a series of accusations against the people of Israel. The priests were accepting second- and third-rate sacrifices – lame and sick animals for instance – indicating that it didn’t really matter what you offer to God. The prophet castigates the people for a growing pattern of divorce and unfaithfulness in marriage, with many men leaving their wives in favour of foreign women.

In the leadup to today’s passage, Malachi attacks the attitude that says “It doesn’t matter whether I do good or evil. God’s not going to do anything anyway. He treats the evil the same as the good. Where is this God who is supposed to judge the evildoer?”

Malachi’s response to this dismissive attitude is that God is going to send a messenger. But it won’t just be Malachi with his warnings. It will be a messenger who is truly preparing the way for the Lord himself to come. Yes, says Malachi, the Lord himself is coming.

The job of this new messenger will be to purify the people, to put them through the refiners’ fire, to get them truly ready for the coming of the Lord himself. We see this prophecy fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist, of whom we read in today’s Gospel, and about whom we will hear more next Sunday. Isaiah had already given the call to prepare the way of the Lord, and now Malachi took up this phrase and looked forward to one who would do just that in preparation for the coming of the Lord himself.

But when the righteous Lord comes there are those who will need to watch out: and Malachi gives his warning to sorcerers or soothsayers, to adulterers, to those who give false evidence, those who oppress the powerless, those who thrust aside the alien.

The prophet insists that God’s commandments must be taken seriously, not set aside as if they are without value or point. Malachi was also clear that evil must be dealt with, and that God would give judgement against the evildoer. And even now the Lord was using the tough times that the people were going through to call them back to himself, and to call them to godly living.

In today’s passage, there is another challenge to the people. They are robbing God, says the prophet. How is this? Because they are not giving full tithes as commanded by Moses. These tithes were not only for sacrifices to God: they were also the way that the priests and temple workers were provided for. If people didn’t pay their tithes, these servants of God would not have the necessities of life. Perhaps it is not surprising that the priests had lost their commitment to true worship.

Malachi challenges the people to pay their full tithes: then the Lord will truly bless them with full harvests. If they become faithful again, his generosity will overflow upon them.

The New Testament does not have specific teaching that Christ’s followers must give tithes, that they must literally give one-tenth of their income to the church or to missions or to charity. But it does teach very clearly the importance of generosity to those in need. Are we generous givers? As we begin a new church year, and also a new year for those of us who use offertory envelopes, it is a good time for us to ask ourselves how generous we are with the income that we have. As I said, I don’t believe that the traditional commandment of one-tenth is specifically demanded of Christians. But the spirit of generosity might lead us to give much more if we are in a position to do so!

What is important is that we ask the questions, and seek in the light of our circumstances to be generous. As Jesus puts it, “Freely we have received, so we must freely give.”

John the Baptist came with his message calling people to be ready for the coming of the Lord. And then the Lord himself did come in the person of Jesus. His message did not sidestep the reality of judgement, but he made it clear that God’s call, his invitation, was for all people, even those who might seem furthest away from God. For the righteous God of judgement is also the loving God who freely offers forgiveness to all who truly turn to him.

So in this advent season let us hear again that challenge of the prophet: the challenge to take God seriously in our lives, and in particular to be generous in supporting the ministry of God’s church and extending help to those in need. Our government in its foreign aid budget is working on the assumption that the people of Australia will let them get away with what is really extreme stinginess: how can we call for a more generous attitude to those in need from the Government if we are not generous ourselves?

So let us seek to cultivate a generous heart as we prepare to celebrate at Christmas the humble love of God who came to share our human life. And let us seek to live lives of readiness for that day when there will be no more questions, no more uncertainty, for we shall see God in all his glory, and hear his eternal call to us all. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Christ the King 22nd November 2015, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping,22nd November 2015

“STIRRED UP ABOUT CHRIST THE KING”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-12; Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37)

“Stir up, we pray you O Lord, the wills of your faithful people, that we, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by you be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”.

Next Sunday is Advent Sunday. We usually think of it as the beginning of the Church’s year, and over the four weeks of Advent we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, born at Bethlehem, and we also look towards the second coming of Jesus, when he comes in glory at the end of this age.

Indeed the old Book of Common Prayer had two names for this Sunday: it was the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Trinity, and also the Sunday Next Before Advent. However the collect of the day, which I used to introduce this sermon, gave the Sunday a nickname. Some of you probably recognized the collect, with its striking opening words, and you may remember when people called this day “Stir-up Sunday”. In the collect, we pray that God will stir us up to do good works, but I discover from that fount of all knowledge called Wikipedia on my computer, that this Sunday is also the day when people traditionally stirred up the mix for their Christmas puddings. So it might be a time to get on to organizing the Christmas pud, if that is your responsibility, or perhaps to get down to the supermarket before they run out of them!

However that famous collect is not often used on this day any more. You are more likely to hear it at a weekday service nowadays: perhaps that is a pity. But there is a good reason.

This Sunday next before Advent is now called the Festival of Christ the King, as we see from our bulletin and reading sheet. Where did this festival come from? It actually began in 1925, when Pope Pius XI instituted the feast on the last Sunday in October, the Sunday before All Saints’ Day. It was a response to growing nationalism and secularism, and sought to emphasize that every one who wields power in this world is ultimately subject to Jesus Christ, who is the true king of all the world.

I wonder whether it was an attempt to reclaim some of the lost power of the institutional church, but certainly the message of this festival was a very important one: kings and rulers and wielders of power will come and go, but Jesus Christ is the true universal eternal king.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved the festival to this final Sunday before Advent, and many other churches including our own began to recognize the feast.

In the Australian Prayer Book of 1977, this Sunday had the inspiring title The Thirty-Fourth Ordinary Sunday, but it had the subtitle Christ the King. And this theme was evident in the selected readings for the day.

Pope Paul wanted this Sunday to have a real impact on lay people as well as clergy. He said: “If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire.” And he went on to say that Christ must reign in our minds, our wills, our hearts and our bodies. We must truly and in a practical way honour and serve and follow him as our King and our Lord.

So here we are on this Feast of Christ the King. And what do our readings tell us as we celebrate this festival?

Our first reading from 2 Samuel brings us some words of King David, the great but very fallible second king of Israel, as he reflects back on his life. He acknowledges his dependence on the God who exalted and anointed him, and who gave him his Spirit. And he also acknowledges that a good ruler, a good king, who rules with justice, who seeks to serve God as well as his people, is a great blessing indeed. And he acknowledges God’s everlasting covenant: David was not able to build a house for God, a temple in Jerusalem, but God did indeed build a house for him, a family, a dynasty to faithfully lead Israel over the generations and over the centuries.

David also acknowledges that those who turn against God and his ways will ultimately be rejected by God: they will be useless in serving his purposes. Sadly too many of David’s descendants did turn away from God, and the dynasty eventually failed.

But 1000 years later, a descendant of David was born who would be not only a great king, but truly king of the universe. David was a very imperfect king, but his descendant Jesus of Nazareth, is truly and worthily King and Lord of all. Our Psalm this morning picked up some of these themes too, and pointed us to God’s eternal purposes fulfilled in Christ.

Our New Testament readings bring out the theme of Christ the King in very different ways. In Revelation 1, John, the author of this book, greets his readers in the name of the eternal God, the sevenfold spirit of God, and Jesus Christ, God’s messenger who died and rose and rules over all. It is really a greeting in the name of the Trinity, although I don’t think that John was trying specifically to help define the doctrine of the Trinity!

This book was written in difficult times, when Caesar claimed divine powers and demanded that all people honour him as Lord. Christians who were not prepared to worship Caesar as Lord were subject to punishment, even imprisonment or death. Many of course, found it too hard, and did what was required by the system. They compromised their faith. But others saw that Jesus alone is Lord, and they refused to worship Caesar – at terrible cost.

And John continues with a great outburst of praise to Jesus himself. He loves us; he died to bring us forgiveness; he brought us into his kingdom, far more wonderful than the Roman Empire; and he has given us free access to the holy God, as priests in his service.

And John looks to that day when all people will see Jesus the Lord coming in glory: those of us who are his people will rejoice as we see him, and we know that we shall share in the life of his glorious kingdom of love and light and life. We are told that those who have rejected him shall wail in fear, knowing that he is the judge of all.

John in these verses then reminds us of God’s love to us shown in Jesus, of the One who whom we owe our faithfulness and service and thankfulness. He points us to the eternal hope we have, because Christ is truly king of all.

John wants his readers to see that even when things are tough, even when the world seems to be in a mess, God is still working his purposes out, and God’s wondrous promises in Christ will come to pass. And so John encourages his readers – and us – to keep going with faith in the Saviour, in loyal obedience to him who is the true king of all.

And then our Gospel from John 18 appropriately takes us to Jesus’ interview with Pontius Pilate on the first Good Friday. Where did power lie that fateful day? It certainly seemed as if power lay with the Roman governor, but the power he exercised was in fact very limited. There were other power brokers that day in Jerusalem, but the one who truly had unlimited power had allowed himself to be placed in the hands of Pilate.

Was Jesus the King of the Jews? In a sense he was, as the promised Messiah. But as Jesus indicates to Pilate, his kingship is not merely political or nationalistic or military. It is not merely of this world. And over the past 2000 years, the church and its leaders have too often missed the significance of this: they have confused the kingdom of Christ and its purposes with political and military and nationalistic power. Over the centuries, whenever those who call themselves Christians have tried to use the violent methods of the world, they have got themselves into a mess and brought disrepute to the name of Christ.

The kingdom of Jesus is not like this at all: it is a kingdom based on truth and love and grace, a kingdom whose ends are never achieved by violence and hatred. And surely this is a message people need to hear today! The kingship of Jesus is real right now, but it will be seen by all people on that day when he shall come in glory to finally do away with all that is evil, and to establish God’s kingdom in all its fullness.

So it is worth getting stirred up about Christ the Universal and Eternal King of all: stirred up to faithfulness and loving service, confident that his promises will indeed be fulfilled, and that his kingdom will indeed come in all its glory and blessing. Amen.

Paul Weaver