Third Sunday in Advent: JOY

First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20

14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
  shout, O Israel!
 Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
  O daughter Jerusalem!
15The 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.
16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
 Do not fear, O Zion;
  do not let your hands grow weak.
17The 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 exult over you with loud singing
  18as on a day of festival.
 I will remove disaster from you,
  so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19I 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.
20At 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.

Psalm: Isaiah 12:2-62Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,
  for the Lord God is my strength and my might, and has become my salvation.
3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 
4And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on God’s name; make known the deeds of the Lord among the nations;      proclaim that this name is exalted.
5Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
  let this be known in all the earth.
6Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
  for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Luke 3:7-18

7John 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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.”
  10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers 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.”
  15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.”
  18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  Let us join our voices and sing a Christmas song I’m sure we are all familiar with:  Santa Clause is Coming to Town:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
O! You better watch out!
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
Santa Claus is coming to town.

Let’s pray:  May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Thank you for hope, for peace, and now we look to you for joy.

SERMON

 “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” was first recorded in 1934 and became famous when sung by Eddie Cantor at the height of the Great Depression.  Originally there were more verses encouraging listeners to be charitable and help the less fortunate at Christmas.  The version we know was an instant hit.  Orders for 500,000 copies of the sheet music and more than 30,000 records sold within 24 hours – according to Wipedia. Over 200 artists have recorded this song!  I think that would be considered a success and popular even by today’s standards. Today we hear this song played at Christmas time.

“You better watch out!”

         Our text today tells of another instant success story almost identical to this song.  The Prophet John the Baptist stands in the River Jordan and proclaims, “You better watch out!”  He was a little bit more crass in his speech.  He was not wearing a jolly red suit but equally unique in his camel skin clothes, and eating locust.  Our text says that he addressed his crowd as a “brood of vipers.”  He is not crooning the arrival of Santa Claus but announcing the arrival of the long anticipated Messiah.

         Our song goes on to share warnings of unacceptable behavior.  “You better not cry, you better not pout.”  John the Baptist equally warns, 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  As we prepare for the return of the Messiah, what might be some unacceptable behaviors John is eluding to that might block our relationship with God today?

“You better not cry, you better not pout.”

         John first starts by warning the Jews of a false dependence on their Jewish heritage. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’.”    Even we Lutherans have strong “patriarchal families” and roots going back to Norway, Sweden, Germany or perhaps Ethiopia and Tanzania today.  We do not flaunt our testimonials of conversion experiences with high emotions and dramatic changes and God interventions in our sinful lifestyles.  No, we are a confessional church reciting creeds that go back to the Middle Ages.  We say the Nicene Creed on High Church Sundays.  We baptize our babies and send our youth to confirmation.  These are strong family traditions.  For many, Bethany is the place where they married, raised their children, saw their children married and are now escorting and supporting each other on that final leg of the journey. I am not saying that is wrong.  John is saying that church attendance is not our passport to heaven or to relationship with the coming Messiah.  Our social history is not our spiritual identity!  At worst it makes it hard for new people to feel welcome and at best it is false security.  Claiming the rewards of Abraham without the faith of Abraham, claiming the rewards of Martin Luther without the faith of Martin Luther… we better watch out!

         Next John reminds us that God can change stones, hearts cold as rocks, into believers.  Like the Grinch whose heart grew three sizes the day he encountered the Who’s in Whoville, God can change hearts.  We look at how Christianity is struggling in the Western world but in many other places in the world Christianity is growing under severe persecution.  Our comfortable lifestyle may be deceiving us about the condition of our souls. To use a colloquial saying, “Are we on fire for the Lord?” or are we a bit luke-warm today in our devotion?  Perhaps faith has become a habit more than an active force in our life.  The song and John the Baptist encourage us to check the condition of our hearts today.

“What then should we do?”

Americans loved this song and recognized a truth in it.  We do not want a lump of coal on Christmas Day but we want a stocking full of goodies.  We want to live “happy ever after.”  Deep inside we believe we must “be good,” “not cry,” “not pout” or be beautiful or talented or young.  In spiritual terms  we believe somehow that living a good Christian life earns God’s favor.  And so we strive to be faithful and like the crowds ask John, “What then should we do?”   

         John focuses on our behavior also – beyond crying and pouting.  Advent, preparing for the coming Messiah, is not about getting but about giving.  John tells the crowds to share.  The song was written during the Great Depression.  Remember, John is standing in the Wilderness, faith lived in the hard places of life, in the middle of the pandemic, in the middle of refugee flights, wars and environmental challenges.  We are not to be pondering what we get but what we can give.  I note he does not say we are to give away all but we are to be generous.  We are to be generous not just to our family and friends but also to those in need.  John is warning us of greed, collecting “more than prescribed” for tax collectors.  There is a difference between “wants” and “needs!”  John warns of tit-for-tat thinking, for the soldier not to use their job to threaten or bully.  We are to “be satisfied” to be at peace with what we receive.  We are called to live out faith in the midst of our life, not flee to a “more holy” place.

         The song continues to describe Santa Claus’ character.  “He sees us when we’re sleeping.  He knows when we’re awake.  He knows if we’ve been bad or good…. So be good for goodness sake.”   Sounds a bit like God doesn’t it!  God knows and sees. 

         Here though we must insert the Gospel that brings joy at Christmas.  God knows that we are broken people living in a broken world and need a savior, the gift of the Messiah.  We can never by our own power live good enough lives to deserve a stocking brimming with gifts on Christmas morning.  Being good is never going to be good enough.

         This week in our Facebook devotions we looked at Mary singing the Magnificat as she arrives at her cousin Elizabeth’s home.  Both women are miraculously pregnant though Elizabeth is a good six months ahead of Mary.  The Holy Spirit fills Mary and she bursts into song, “My soul glorifies the Lord..” because

  • God sees and cares about the humble and poor,
  • God’s mercy ripples to the next generation,
  • God scatters and defeats the proud, including proud rulers,
  • God feeds the hungry,
  •  And God keeps his promises through the ages.

All three readings this morning Zephaniah, Psalms, and Philippians overflow with joy and praise, not because we have controlled our crying and pouting in the face of pandemics and threats of war, poverty and financial crisis but because we depend not on ourselves but on a God who sees, has mercy, power, and brings justice, keeping his promises through generations.

 …the people were filled with expectation…

         The crowds when called a brood of vipers and told that they must reform before the Messiah arrived, The text says that the crowds were filled with expectation.  American children when crooned to that they better watch out cause Santa Claus is coming are delighted.  We know there is something wrong with our world and we need to reform.  We, or at least the other guy, needs to change.  John baptized crowds of people with water as they responded to his message but he pointed to “one who is more powerful than I” who was coming.  The Messiah will make things right.  Perhaps even as people at Jesus’ time thought that meant the overthrow of the Roman Empire, we today have visions of full stockings and sugar plum farriers in our dreams.  If we just believe and have faith then the Messiah will bless us with health, wealth and prosperity. And so we return to the chorus of the song, “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town.” 

         We know the hollowness of stockings filled with candy that makes us sick to our stomach, shirts that wear out, technical toys that will be outdated in six months.  If we are honest with ourselves we know the materialism of Christmas only points to a God who blesses us, not because we are good but because he is good and he is love.  In Advent we are able to praise in the midst of life’s trials and challenges.  We find hope as prophecy is fulfilled.  We are at peace knowing God walks with us.  And we are filled with joy like Mary in “The Magnificat” because we know that God cares for the humble and poor, God is merciful, he is the source of blessings down through generations, he feeds the hungry heart and God is faithful to his promises.  That is true joy.  Santa Claus will visit at Christmas and then disappear till next year but the Messiah came, comes and will come.  He is active all year, and will return to take us to our eternal rewards. 

The people of God said, “AMEN!”

  

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