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Monday, December 17, 2012

God Wins

Third Sunday of Advent  
            The title of this sermon is absurd for two reasons.  First “new world, where God wins,” implies an old world where God did not win.  God has always been sovereign – all powerful.  Even in the days when God’s chosen people, Israel were enslaved in Egypt, God’s power was seen as Moses worked God’s wonders.  There is no world where God doesn’t win.  It might appear to an individual that God has no power – a slave who has no hope of freedom; an abused child who sees no way out.  But God is all-powerful even there.  We don’t know why God who can stop all evil does not choose to simply do that, to eradicate all evil.  Though God does not, he can.  God is unbeatable in all places.

            The second absurdity – is the old-new dynamic.  Just as there is no place where God lacks power, there is no time when God was weak.  Human beings are weak and experience truly dark times, none darker than Jesus in Gethsemane praying that he not have to endure the torture of the cross.  But even in darkness, God is supreme.  God always has the capacity to win.  There is no time or place when God is not up to the task, whatever the task may be.  It is absurdly foolish to suppose otherwise.

            Maybe I am feeling absurdly foolish, but I stick with this title, and I invite you to join me in this new world where God wins.  Humor me.  We can be stupidly silly for a few moments because this will, without being too intense, usher us to the place in our minds where we realize how much we need God’s victory.  We have to love in order to experience God’s triumph. 


            God is here.  Since we began listening to the prophets on the first Sunday of Advent two weeks ago, I have said God is here and we see and feel God’s physical presence in three ways: primarily, we experience God as God, the Holy Spirit.  Next, in the church’s gathering and the church’s work of worship, evangelism, and compassion we see God’s activity.  Finally, in the word, we meet God in a transformative way.  Spirit, church, Word.  Incarnation is the theological concept that Jesus was God in human flesh.  The incarnation continues to be a reality even though Jesus has gone bodily to be with the Father until the final judgment.  He is here.

            In the Christmas season, we foster an air of anticipation.  We wait for the birth of Jesus.  We re-tell and re-experience the wonders of our savior’s birth – angel choirs, a virgin made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, shepherd witnesses, wise men visiting.  We enter the story. 

For Christ-followers this re-living of the birth is but a beginning.  Our anticipation is of his coming in glory.  At the end of time, Jesus returns, the dead are resurrected, and the living are transformed, their bodies made new.  We believe this is going to happen.  We don’t doubt it.  Advent anticipation goes beyond anticipating Jesus’ birth; it goes to our waiting for our rebirth and our resurrection. 

            I also believe Advent must be a time of anticipating and seeking the new works God does right now through the Spirit, the church, and the word.  Just because God is coming at the final judgment does not mean God is sitting on a sofa somewhere, waiting for the time to pass.  God is here, working now. 

            Are we involved with Him in His work in the world?

God allows us to choose to ignore Him.  That choice has awful consequences, but we can choose the destructive way of life without God if want to.  For those who choose to submit to God’s authority, now is the time of His rule.  Old Testament prophet Zephaniah says God is Lord and God is King.  Because of Jesus we know the Lord and King has come and is here.  But before we live presently under His rule, we have to go through an ordeal.

Zephaniah is a short book of prophecy, just three chapters.  The final chapter is good new – gospel – as wonderful a depiction of God’s activity as any in the Bible.  But we dare not begin in Zephaniah 3.

In chapter one a different tone is set and it is not good.  “The day of the Lord is near,” says the prophet, “the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter” (1:14).  Through the prophet, God speaks directly.  “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord” (1:2).  And who receives such a horrible prophecy?  “I will stretch out my hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (1:4).  For Zephaniah’s original audience, this was the worst possible fate.  To undo the covenant made with David – that was unthinkable. 

And yet, it is possible that most of those listening yawned when Zephaniah uttered this word God put in him.  Though Israel had been consumed by the mighty Assyrians, that would not affect Jerusalem.  Israel was the Northern kingdom of Jews.  Judah in the south would carry on even if their Jewish countrymen in the North were no more.  Zephaniah’s words cry judgment, but few could see the impending doom.

One exception was King Josiah, a righteous man who served in a dynasty of idolaters.  Josiah the King enacted the greatest religious reform movement in the Old Testament.  He was a monarch set on turning the hearts of the people away from sin and back to God.  The reforms of Josiah were great … while they lasted.  But then the kings following him did not accept the religious component of their calling.  They wanted to be rich, powerful kings.  They did not want to be servants, not even servants of God.  So Zephaniah’s prophecy of “Day of the Lord” and of doom was ignored and Josiah’s reforms did not hold.

Zephaniah chapter 2 continues the prophetic word of judgment and catastrophe, but in this second round, the foreign nations surrounding Judah are the objects of the prophecy.  God condemns his own people in their sin.  He also condemns other nations when they rebel against God.  Of the Assyrian capital Nineveh Zephaniah says, “Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city!  … It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God” (3:1).

Zephaniah chapters 1 and 2: these words from the prophet who descended from the line of David are shocking if we listen and we should listen because, in truth, we are that soiled, defiled city.  When we sin, we turn away from God.  We say essentially that God’s ways are optional for us and God’s rule has no authority in our lives.  Soiled.  Defiled.  Our nation feels the sting; our church, imperfect as it is, recoils knowing we have places of sin.  And as individuals, each one of us hears God’s truth, the judgment of sin, and we know we are guilty. We have the filth of sin clinging to us. 

This is a crisis because the wage of sin is death.  Romans 6:23 in the New Testament is easy to understand.  Our sins lead to death and our death is necessary.   When life is going well for us, this is hard to see.  People own their own homes, pay their taxes and give money to charity.  People stay married and enjoy relationships with their children.  It is hard to how our sins are killing us and destroying the world God has created.

This is why it was important for us to start saying that when we anticipate Jesus coming in the season of Advent, we anticipate him coming today, in this hour.  In Spirit, in church, and in the Word, He is here.  God is here to show us.  We don’t see how bad our sin is, what a reeking odor it is in God’s nose.  So Jesus shows us.  When things are going well, we don’t realize the world is dying.  Every sin you or I commit is a repeat of Adam and Eve falling from Paradise, cut off from God. 

Sins happen in society and in the lives of individuals.  Sin is seen in our deed, but sin is really a heart in rebellion against God.  Zephaniah chapters 1 & 2 show God’s frustration and we cannot appreciate the Gospel of Zephaniah 3, if we don’t hear the judgment that comes before it. 

“Jesus Christ is risen!”  That Easter cry comes at the end of the Gospel story.  We cannot begin at the end of the story.  We cannot start out on Easter Sunday. 

The virgin birth; the nativity scene – these images are thoroughly Christian and for many people the only sample of the Christianity they get all year.  We celebrate these familiar details, but we cannot remain at the beginning of the story.  We cannot stay in Christmas and we cannot start on Easter.  In our Advent anticipating, we visit the manger and we worship in wonder at the newborn, baby Jesus.  Then we go with Him through his life.  We have to go to the cross where we see our sins in their fullness.  Our Advent anticipation, the coming of God, is an anticipation of death.  Only those who die are born again.  And only those who are born again enter the eternal kingdom of God.

That entering begins when we come to faith.  Christians, often thinking of a future heavenly eternity, miss that this new birth in Christ, means we begin living under His rule long before the end.  We begin living under his rule when we turn away from the world and turn ourselves completely to Him.  We spend our lives as disciples serving God in the world, calling the lost into His kingdom, and stepping toward and into His perfect eternity.

In this life we see what Zephaniah described – the actions of the victorious God.  Look at Zephaniah 3:14-20.  The winning God is a present God.  The prophet says, “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst” (Zephaniah 3:15c).

And this present God is “… a warrior who gives victory” (3:17a-b).  What else?

Zephaniah 3:15, first stanza of the verse: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you” (3:15a).  We know Jesus accomplishes this on the cross. 

The second stanza of Zephaniah 3:15.  “He has turned away your enemies” (3:15b).  Jesus accomplishes this in the most creative of ways.  He teaches us to love our enemies so they are no longer enemies.  The victorious warrior God defeats hate with grace, forgiveness, mercy, and love.

What else?

Zephaniah 3:19, second stanza: “I [God] 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 that time when I gather you” (Zephaniah 3:19b-20a).  God saves, gathers, and changes.  God changes our shame into praise.  Think of when Jesus gave sight to the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead.  That story is a foretaste of the resurrection we will all share because we do go through Good Friday, we do leave the cross and head to the empty tomb.  Jesus did conquer death and invites us to new, eternal life, lived as His followers, sons and daughters of God.

I appreciate your willingness to walk in my absurdity with me.  By now I am sure you know how we get to that new world, the place where God wins. We have to die.  Walter Brueggemann, commenting on the prophetic imagination of Jesus, says that the life and teaching and death and resurrection of Jesus is “the death sentence upon those who live fully and comfortably in this age” (Prophetic Imagination, p.104).  That is us until we see Jesus who is here.  He makes us uncomfortable with the worldliness around us.  At that point, we are ready for new life. 

So then, what are we supposed to do with what we’ve heard?  I think what we are supposed to do is open our hearts, which means we  we commit to unfiltered honesty with God.  We share our warts, our skeletons in the closet, and everything else.

Also, we are to see the world differently.  We respect the voices of authority – government, family, culture.  But, all those things, potent as they are, fall in line we meet God in the Spirit, in His church, and in the Word.  In that meeting, we give ourselves to Him and live under His rule. 

Christmas is almost here.  Watch and see what God is up to.  Under His rule, there is forgiveness, salvation, and enemies turn into brothers and sisters. 


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