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To The Finish And Back: Today We Rejoice!
December 11, 1994

ZEPHANIAH 3:14-20; PHILIPPIANS 4:4-7; LUKE 3:7-18

There is a certain mystique about the little town of Bethlehem. The dramatic reading this morning carried us back in time to what it might have been like when the townsfolk realized the Messiah had been born in their midst. Kneeling by the manger, watching the baby coo or cry, realizing this indeed is the Son of God, captures our imaginations. There is something about a baby that brings tears to our eyes, delight to our chuckles, and joy to our hearts.

Our theme this Advent helps us realize that we indeed can rejoice in whatever happens to us, that we can rejoice through it all, because we know where the finish line is. Jesus has been to the finish and has come back to lead us to the goal. We know what the end of the drama is, so we can endure and enjoy the sometimes tedious, sometimes sad, plot line. Because we know what the kingdom of God is like, we want to be in on it, we want to be there, and we want to experience the joy of the end even now in our present existence.

The Scripture lessons for today, chosen by the lectionary, present a very interesting tapestry, weaving together two seemingly contradictory and exclusive themes. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice, wrote Paul to the Philippians (4:7) Repent, stormed John the Baptizer. Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Aren't joy and repentance mutually exclusive, we would like to think. Oh, no, says the Bible. You can't have one without the other. In other words, you can't get to Bethlehem without getting past John the Baptizer. If you want to practice law, you must pass the bar. If you want to play the piano, you must practice. If you want to play basketball, you must drill and drill. If you want to get to the joy of Bethlehem, you must get past John the Baptizer. If you want joy, you must repent! If you want true Christian joy, you must live as God wants you to. You can't do anything you please, you can't always have your own way. There are standards, there are commandments, there are time-honored practices that you violate at your own risk. You reap judgment, not joy.

I admit this is a theme we would rather not hear. Here we are, getting ready for Christmas, getting ready for angels, tinsel, carols, gifts, family gatherings, turkey dinners, parties with friends, the cheery glow of Christmas, and in comes the John the Baptizer, dusty, camel hair coat, reeking of locusts and wild honey. But, the church, in its wisdom, has always demanded that if you really want to see what's in Bethlehem's manger, you must first confront this crazy prophet from the wilderness, whose sermons are as bitter and wild as the terrain.

Somehow, John the Baptizer gets overlooked in the secular celebration of Christmas. How many Christmas cards have you received depicting John the Baptizer?

Greetings from our house to yours. Our thoughts of you at this time of the year are best expressed in the words of John the Baptizer, You brood of vipers! You snake! The axe is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown to the fire. Merry Christmas!

John is not a popular figure. Have you ever seen a ceramic figure of John the Baptizer, or his picture on a Hallmark card, or shaped by a sugar cookie?

Yet, there he is throughout every Advent season. The gospels have him at the beginning of the story of Jesus. You cannot meet Jesus until you have met John. You cannot understand why God is with us, until John tells you how desperately we need God. John preached that the Messiah is coming, and we had better clean up our acts. Repent, John preached. Repent means to look squarely at yourself, in utter honesty, confront what you see, and make changes. Turn from your sin and turn to God. Turn your life around. Stop doing what is separating you from God, and turn to God for new direction and power to live as God wants you to.

The world teaches us to find joy by trying to forget. The world teaches us to escape from what is unpleasant. Get away from it all, the world says. Take a pill, take a drink to help you escape, the world says. The Bible says, confront; don't escape. Face it, don't run. Stop trying to hide your sin. Confess it, confront it, repent, turn around--is the only way to find real joy. Superficial pleasure enhanced by alcohol is not joy. Real joy comes by way of the truth. Redemption comes as a gift of the grace honestly to see ourselves, and to do something about it by turning to Jesus, asking forgiveness, and for power to live a new life.

There is an interesting verse in Zephaniah, from the readings for today, that I had not noticed before. Zephaniah 3:17, God will rejoice over you with gladness. Zephaniah is talking about restoring the Jews to Jerusalem, taking them home from their imprisonment in Babylon. They will rejoice in God for the victory, rejoice in God coming to be with them. But, Zephaniah adds that God also will rejoice. God rejoices over his people. Imagine! God singing, shouting, rejoicing over you!

What is there about you that makes God smile? What is there about you that makes God swell up with pride and joy and exclaim, "That's my boy! That's my son! That's my daughter!" Is God happy with you? Of course, God loves you, but is there reason for God to be happy with you? If not, what would make God happy with you? What would make God rejoice over you? What are you doing or not doing that needs to change? What habit, or attitude, or deed hurts God? What are you not doing, what are you putting off, what calling are you rationalizing not doing, that you need to begin doing, to please and honor God? Do you completely belong to Christ, or are you holding something back?

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.

We will experience joy, real joy, when we go to Bethlehem via John the Baptizer. Joy and repentance go hand in hand.

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris