December 13 2015

3rd Sunday of Advent
‘A Season of Repentance’

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Luke 3:7-18


Christmas is indeed a unique religious tradition. The image of God coming as a vulnerable baby lying in a manger during Christmas is something that is quintessentially Christian. And it evokes a sense of peace, calmness, and joy. We sing carols during Christmas. We buy gifts for others and indulge ourselves in fine food and drink. Indeed Christmas last year was the most fattening Christmas ever for me. Whether you believe me or not, last year I had five Christmas lunches, two Christmas barbecues, and one Christmas dinner! So if one day, God forbids, I die out of a heart attack after Christmas, you know who the real culprit is. Indeed Christmas is a time to be merry for most of us! This is the reason why the greeting during Christmas is Merry Christmas!

But this is nothing like the Jewish expectation of what will happen when God finally arrives to reclaim the world. For the Jewish people the day of God’s arrival - the Day of the Lord as they call it - is a terrifying day; a dreadful day. Zephaniah the prophet warned that the Day of the Lord would be “a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”[1]  For the Jewish people God would come not to proclaim artificial peace, but to bring judgment. God would come not to endorse the evil deeds that the people had done, but to right things that were wrong.

Indeed when John the Baptist proclaimed the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, he did not ask the people to prepare for a celebration! Unlike us he did not get ready for Christmas by preparing a Christmas banquet. No. He prepared the first ever Christmas by asking people to repent! He asked those who come to him to stop hoarding for themselves and start giving what they had to the needy. “If you have two clothes,” he said, “Give one to the poor.” He asked the tax collector to no longer collect money illegally and the soldiers not to use their power and authority to take money from others.

Indeed at the heart of John’s call for repentance was his concern for the poor and the weak in the land. These people were those who were the most disadvantaged by the injustices and the inequalities in his society. And John asked those who came to listen to him to do something within their power to rectify this unjust and unequal system.

Friends, Christmas season is indeed an opportunity for us to realign our life with the kind of life that God wants us to have. It is an opportunity for us to reflect again on how much we have contributed to the injustice and inequality that exist in our society today. It is an opportunity for us to approach Jesus’ manger once again with repentance and humility and to work for a just and equal life for us and for the world.

Recently one member of our congregation and her partner - whom I’m not going to identify - wrote a message to their family. In the message they told their family, especially their grandkids, that instead of buying Christmas presents this year, they have decided to donate to several charities. They gave their family the reason for their decision was because there are lots of less fortunate people than them who deserve just the basic needs in life.

Friends, last week we learn that the role of a prophet like John the Baptist was to straighten roads that are crooked and make smooth ways that are rough. Today we hear what does this straightening of crooked ways and making smooth of rough paths actually mean. It means to make right things that are wrong; to make an effort to create a more just and equal world that God intended it from the beginning.

Nowadays however when we meet together as believers we often ignore God’s demand for justice. I have heard stories of preachers in the past who often preached only about hellfire and brimstone at the expense of the overwhelming message of God’s love and forgiveness in the Scriptures. But now, I think, we have moved to the other extreme. When we meet together we only want to hear or talk about love and forgiveness at the expense of God’s prolific demands for justice in our Scriptures. Indeed for many of us God has become like a teddy bear whose only purpose is to bring comfort into our life.

But the God whom we find in the Bible is nothing like a teddy bear. The God whom John the Baptist proclaimed on the banks of the river Jordan was nothing like a teddy bear. The God whom he proclaimed was a God who demanded repentance from sins; a God who asked for accountability from all people. “When the Messiah comes,” John said, “He will bring fire that will cleanse everyone’s hearts from evil and impurities.”

No I’m in no way suggesting that we need to change our mood in Christmas from one of festivity to a more somber mood. Not at all. What I want to do is to challenge us all to somehow swing the pendulum back somewhere in the middle. Yes Christmas season is a time of celebration. Be may it also be a time for us to reflect again on all the injustices and inequalities that still plague the world. Christmas is a time for us to repent from our unwitting support or ignorance of the things that foster injustice and inequality in our world today.

Indeed the warning of God’s judgment is a threat only to those who do evil deeds. For the weak and the poor and the oppressed the news about God’s judgment is good news because when God finally arrives God will stop all the oppression and the inequality that plague our world today. God will stop all the privileges that people enjoy at the expense of other people’s well-being.

Such is the message that we hear today from the prophet Zephaniah. His message in our reading today is a contrast from his message of God’s judgment that dominated the other chapters of the book under his name.

So the invitation to be joyful in our reading from Zephaniah today must be read within the context of God’s judgment. Evil would finally be defeated and the oppressors would be punished. The people were to be joyful because God’s judgment would bring justice to the land.

Friends, every Christmas we often hear the proclamation that the angels made to the shepherds: glory to God in heaven and peace on earth (Luke 2:14). But God’s peace is not the same with human peace. The word for peace in Hebrew, shalom, means not only the end of war or violence, but also the establishment of justice in the world.

But God’s shalom will never happen without repentance. The Greek work for repentance is metanoia and it means changing our mind. In religious sense it means turning away from evil to God. Indeed shalom on earth will never happen without us turning away from our old life to follow the kind of life that God wants us to have.

The third Sunday of Advent is also known as the ‘joy’ Sunday. But today we learn that true and everlasting joy cannot be bought by all the wealth in the world. True and everlasting joy can only be created through repentance because without it our joy will be short lived and enjoyed by a certain group of people only.

Christmas season is an opportunity for us to make right things that are wrong in our life and in the world today. It is an opportunity for us to straighten roads that are crooked and make smooth paths that are rough. It is a time for us to repent from our old life and to open our life to those people around us who are not as fortunate as we are.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Zephaniah 1:15-16 (NRSV)