Sermon delivered by Rev Sydney Maitland on Sunday 13 December, 2015.
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The Lord’s vindication of Zion.
Philippians 4: 4-7
Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to all. Do not worry about anything but in everything with prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Luke 3: 7-18
John’s message: Repent, do not take descent from Abraham for granted; share what you have with others; do not defraud tax-payers; do not extort from civilians; The coming messiah will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
There is something profoundly off-beat in the life of the believer, and this is only made worse when he or she then tries to appear to be “modern” or “relevant”.
The urge to match the mood of the times can lead us into all sorts of accommodations which more considered and wiser thoughts would seek to avoid even if we look old fashioned.
We can end up marching with a particular cultural or political trend far more closely than the gospel message would support and so end up looking as if we are endorsing either the “progressive” or the “reactionary” or “conservative” forces in society.
But when we look at John the Baptist, we find him calling on the Pharisees not to rely on their descent from Abraham or on their meticulous legalism, while tax-collectors whose living came from taxing more than the rate demanded by Rome were told just to charge the mandated rate of tax. Soldiers who relied on pillage for their bounties were told to lay off and all were told to share with those in need.
There were no exceptions and all had to turn their lives around and live with the fruits of repentance in their hearts, and this is indeed a strong brew for those who prefer to comment on the faults of others while excepting themselves.
So what about us? What kind of repentance might John have looked for in the church?
Paul gives the clue when writing to the church in Philippi, he tells them to “Rejoice in the Lord always”. He would have known perfectly well that for those in difficult times, how could people be expected to rejoice when living under suspicion at best and possibly under persecution.
This was when they were considered to be the lowest in society and were routinely despised and ridiculed.
But the instruction is as valid in our time as at any other, because it calls on us to place God front and centre in our lives, and we are reminded that in Jesus we have been given the image of God and the model of how to live.
This is because it is by worshipping the Lord above all other priorities that we are going to thrive.
It is by putting our trust in Him first of all and above all other feelings or circumstances that we celebrate His provision.
And that means that when times are difficult, and we are afflicted by sorrow or by loss, when we are being assailed by doubts and when the very fabric of our beliefs is being undermined by the current fashion in society, that we are called to make our rejoicing the most forceful.
There are some points in this that we have to hold onto.
First, this is an act of obedience to a command, and it prevails regardless of our feelings and inclinations. It is not a blind faith but it is a determined faith that we are told to hold onto. But it does show that our commitment in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
But secondly, it is an act of worship, and the more costly the offering in worship, then the more it stands in the presence of God. It is when we are not inclined to praise, to trust, to make the offering that worship becomes sacrificial.
As the old liturgy says, it is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that we are rendering, and this cost is measured in terms of the deepest things in our hearts rather than in any financial sense.
Then thirdly, it is an act of faith and of trust. It lays our hearts open before the Lord as we make our prayers and supplications before Him in that we are trusting Him from within our own circumstances and inclinations.
Of course none of this is easy at first and requires a determined and a committed will.
It is indeed highly counter-cultural as there is no direct or evident return to this kind of investment of obedience and of personal inclination. It yields no cost-benefit analysis and for many may look remote and impersonal.
The truth however is that worshipping God is both highly personal and indeed deeply intimate, for it places before Him the deepest aspects of our lives, especially those aspects that we would prefer to keep hidden.
But there is something else in our readings that makes us take heart in Zephaniah’s writing to the people of Jerusalem during a time of affliction. Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians, and Jerusalem was beset by enemies without and by doubts within.
King Josiah was reforming the cult and this was a time of deep uncertainty and discomfort.
But Zephaniah’s words were determined in their confidence in God who would never repudiate His people, and would never deny His own covenant.
That remains true today, and if God will not abandon His covenant with Abraham and with Israel for ever, then neither will he abandon or repudiate that which has been sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ.