Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Text: Zephaniah 3:14,17b
Sing and shout aloud for joy, people of Israel! Rejoice with all your heart, Jerusalem! .... The Lord will take delight in you, and in his love he will give you new life.

Rejoice with all your heart

"I want to make a confession." That was the first thing Jack said to me after we introduced ourselves. Jack was in his mid 20s. The hospital chaplain had contacted me because Jack wanted to see a minister.

"I've done some really terrible things. There are some things that I donít think can be made right again. Iíve done things that canít be forgiven," he said softly but firmly.

He continued saying. "I'm here in hospital because I have ruined my body. "It started when I was in high school. It never entered my head that I would be here in hospital because of the things I did back then." He went on detailing his rebellious teen years without making any excuses, as if he were a prosecuting attorney. He told me a story of bad sexual habits, drug abuse and even an attempt to end his own life through an overdose. He concluded by saying that his wayward life was the reason he was about to lose an eye when he was operated on for a brain tumour.

With tears welling in his eyes, he said finally after a short pause, "If I had believed in God more, gone to church more, and followed the advice of my Sunday School teachers, I wouldn't be in this mess. I got all tangled up in all kinds of wrong things and I couldn't get out of them. My problems are all my fault. With this brain tumour what kind of future do I have? "

I think we could say quite confidently that his lifestyle had contributed to his ill health, but there was still an even deeper pain. He felt that he had no hope. He openly talked about his rebellious life and owned up to his sin, but he still felt that he had no hope in the face of continued suffering because of the tumour and even in the face of death. Without a doubt this young manís guilt contributed to his feeling of hopelessness.

Guilt is something we all experience at some time or other.
We hurt someone with unkind words and we feel bad about what was said.
We do something we shouldnít and we feel guilty about it.
The young man felt guilty about what he was doing and how upset his parents were but he didnít listen to his conscience. Chances are that if he had listened to his guilt feelings he could have avoided the bad behaviour and the consequences that followed - a tumour that would restrict, if not eventually end, his life.

Guilt can be a terrible thing. Doctors and psychiatrists are aware that guilt and the upset it causes in our lives, is the reason that so many people fill their waiting rooms. Guilt is that kind of feeling that makes us feel bad about the way our lives are going. We want to do something about it but often our pride will not let us act on those feelings of guilt. We all know how that works. We fall out with someone but there is no way we are going to take the first step to make things right again. The other person started it and thatís the person who should come, cap in hand, and ask for an apology.

The management of a posh hotel reported how every year they received hundreds of items in the mail or by courier from people who had taken items from the hotel as souvenirs. In one year they received 85 silver spoons, 1 oyster fork, a silver sugar bowl, 2 silver candlesticks, and 243 towels. It seems that guilt had got the better of those people and they listened to their consciences and returned those items to relieve their guilt-troubled consciences.

Some of those guilt feelings go back a long way.
One person returned four 65-year-old spoons dating back to the early days of the hotel.
A woman returned a 49-year-old sugar bowl that she said had been taken by her mother.
Here was the realisation that Ďborrowingí or taking a souvenir was actually theft and many people had pangs of conscience about stealing such valuable items. Even after a long period of time unresolved guilt feelings can still haunt a person.

A man once told me the details of a conflict that he had with a fellow parishioner. Now, after many years, that unresolved conflict continued to follow him and, I dare say, will continue to do so until it can be resolved in some way. You see, when something like this happens, our guilt tells us that not only have we done something that is wrong, but it points out that something has happened to our relationship with the other person. The feeling of guilt warns us that something needs to be repaired and that we need to take steps in rectifying the situation.

A classic case in point is the story of King David. David had put the husband of the beautiful woman who lived next in the front lines of the battle. He was killed and this made way for David to take the beautiful Bathsheeba as his wife. Of course, it was his right as a king to have any woman he desired - so he kept telling himself.

Then one day Nathan the prophet came for a visit, asking the king to decide on a certain matter. He told the story of 2 men, one rich, the other poor. The rich man had great flocks and herds. The poor man had nothing but one little lamb - the family pet. When a traveller came to visit the rich man; instead of taking one of his own sheep for a feast; he killed the only lamb of the poor man.

Of course, David became angry at the rich man for doing such a cruel and heartless thing. David could clearly see the rich manís guilt and it was only when Nathan said, "You are that man" that David realised his own guilt. He confesses, "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan immediately replies saying, "The Lord forgives you" (2 Samuel 11-12:15).

Todayís gospel reading tells how John the Baptist blasted away at the crowds. He was a straight-to-the-point kind of preacher, exposing the sin in his hearersí lives. You see sin and the accompanying guilt create a split between two individuals whether that other person is the God we have offended or a friend or a relative. Guilt separates people, creates a division and that division will stay as a scar in our lives unless it is dealt with.

In the Old Testament reading to day, Zephaniah calls Godís people to rejoice, and sing, and shout on the tops of their voices. He says, "Donít be afraid. Ö "Donít let your hands hang limp" in guilt and discouragement. Sing and shout for joy, people of Israel! Rejoice with all your heart, Jerusalem! St Paul in the second reading joins in with a similar tone, "May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord, I say it again: rejoice!" (Phil 4:4)

Why this unusual combination of readings for today? On the one hand the stern preaching of John the Baptist. He spared no one when he preached about sin, repentance and showing the kind of fruits that belong to the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand we have Zephaniah and Paul calling for "rejoicing with all your heart"?

During the Advent season we canít by pass John the Baptist and his call for repentance, but neither can we bypass the joy that comes from knowing the God who saves. Along with repentance there is the good news that we are forgiven. This good news of forgiveness is so important as we prepare for the day when Christ will come again. On that last day we can be sure of eternal life because we are forgiven.

We may be a sinful brood of vipers but we are also Godís chosen and forgiven people. We are sinners and saints - disobedient and yet saved by the blood of Jesus. And so we have the call to shout and sing. Zephaniah was speaking to people who had come to realise their guilt and sin while in exile from their homeland. And the prophet declares to them that their sin has been forgiven, their guilt taken away and they have been made as white and clean as new snow.

As long as we keep on thinking, "Thereís nothing wrong with me", as long as we try to ignore what kind of people we really are, we will never really see who is lying in the manger. We will never see that this baby is different to all other babies. This is God come down from heaven to die for our sake. If we want to experience the real joy of Christmas then we must first repent, recognise our sinfulness, let go of it, turn away from it.

Jesus told the story of the lad who was sitting in a pigsty thinking how stupid he had been to leave the warmth and security of his fatherís home. He repented. He realised his foolishness, changed the direction of his life and went back home. His first words were, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." His father welcomed him with open arms. And likewise our heavenly Father welcomes us home and forgives all of our sin because of Jesus.

It is true we can't really know and appreciate what God has done for us in Bethlehem unless we taste the bitter castor oil of the Baptist. He calls us to account, measuring our lives, not by what nine out of ten Australians think, but by what God Almighty commands. He reminds us that there is no getting away from the fact that we are sinners and that without help from God we would be damned forever.

Before we rush headlong into Christmas joy, let's take a moment to stumble over abrasive, rough, straight talking John the Baptist. Joy, real joy, gospel-evoked joy, only comes because we can happily put all of our sin behind us. We know that at Christmas God's love sent to us a Saviour who would cancel our debt of sin totally and completely. There in the manger is a child, a very ordinary looking, plain and simple child, but the infant boy is our saviour - he died on a cross for our forgiveness.

And so today we have this call to rejoice and shout aloud. We may be sinners but we have a Saviour.
"Sing and shout aloud for joy! Rejoice with all your heart! ....
The Lord will take delight in you, and in his love he will give you new life."

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
17th December, 2006

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