Advent 3: GOD IS RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW
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SET READINGS (Dec 16th)
- Zephaniah 3:14-20
- Luke 3:7-18
- Philippians 4:4-7
- Canticle: Isaiah 12:2-6
HOME IS WHERE THE PIANO IS!
Where do you think of as “home”?
For our family, there have been many different places which (at least for a time) counted as home. These would include (for Brian) Brightlingsea (until age 10), Colchester (age 10-18), Westminster (where Celia and I met and started our married life), Horwich, (where our 3 children were born), Mexico, Gibraltar, Spain, Cairo, Alexandria, and since retirement in Ulverston. Which one is really “home”?
When our children were young, we used to say, jokingly, that home was where the piano was, as much of their lives revolved around music practice. But seriously, home was more about where Mum & Dad happened to be at the time. It’s more about the relationships we form, the friends we make, the memories of special events that influenced our lives.
Think of the place that is your home right now, or somewhere that you look back on as your home in the past (maybe when you were growing up).
- What is it about the place you identify as “home” that makes you feel good about it?… that brings you back when you are away, or makes you nostalgic when you have left it behind?
In our OT reading, God tells his people: “At that time I will gather you… I will bring you home.” (Zep 3:20)
- What kind of feelings would you associate with “home” in the heavenly sense of the word?
CITY OF REBELLION AND IDOLATRY (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
Zephaniah’s prophecy begins:
The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah ….. during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah. (Zep 1:1 NIV)
Josiah, who became king at just eight years old, when his father Amon was assassinated, was one of the few good kings in the divided kingdom of Judah. The most significant event of his life was finding a copy of the “Book of the Law” in the rubble of the neglected Temple precinct (possibly a copy of the book of Deuteronomy). As a result of reading this newly discovered book, Josiah set about cleansing Jerusalem and Judea from all the corruption and idolatry that pervaded the land. To get an idea of how much idolatry had taken root – even within the walls of the Temple – read 2 Kings 23:4-20. The extent of Judah’s idolatrous practices is staggering!
But Josiah’s belated attempts to rid Judah of idol worship and false religion was not enough to change the course of God’s purpose. God tells Josiah:
Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people, ….. I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’ (2 Kings 22:19-20 NIV)
So in spite of Josiah’s righteous efforts, Judah’s sin has already gone too far for God to change his mind. And (Josiah himself excepted) Zephaniah’s message still contains a scathing condemnation of the civil and religious authorities of his day.
Her officials are roaring lions, her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are arrogant; they are treacherous men. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law. (Zep 3:3-4 NIV)
Yet within this city of rebellion, corruption and oppression, God is still a present reality:
The LORD within her is righteous; he does no wrong. Morning by morning he dispenses his justice, and every new day he does not fail… (Zep 3:5 NIV)
Even though the Temple itself has been desecrated with shrines to Baal and Asherah and “all the starry host”, God is still within her. His mercies are still “new every morning”. What an incredible sign of God’s unfailing love.
“I WILL BRING YOU HOME”
It’s against this historical background that we need to read the prophecy of hope and reconciliation in Zephaniah 3:14-20. When seen in context, there is such an amazing contrast between the reality of Jerusalem’s condition in the final years before its destruction and exile, and God’s promise for the future.
- Take time to read slowly through Zephaniah 3:14-20 and list all the different things that God promises to provide for his people.
- What do you think is the most significant promise in this passage?
- Which of these promises do you find the most encouraging with respect to your own Christian experience?
Verse 18 is quite a difficult verse to interpret:
“The sorrows for the appointed feasts I will remove from you; they are a burden and a reproach to you.”
A paraphrase of this verse might be:
“I will take away the sorrow that you felt, while you were in exile, because you were not able to attend the appointed religious festivals in Jerusalem. Your absence from God’s house in Jerusalem gave you a sense of guilt and shame which was hard for you to bear.”
Zephaniah’s prophecy seems to indicate that God will remove that sorrow by bringing the people back home to Jerusalem. This did happen, to a degree, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. But there is a deeper spiritual meaning, in which “home” can be interpreted not as a physical place, but as the state of dwelling in the presence and the peace of God.
Those Jews living in the “diaspora”, scattered around the former Assyrian or Babylonian Empires, learned that God could be with them wherever they lived, and that attending the feasts in Jerusalem (while the pilgrimage might be a blessing) was not an essential requirement. God could be just as near in Babylon, as he was in Jerusalem.
- Have you had some experience of knowing God’s presence in unexpected places? …. or in unexpected ways?
- How did these experiences change or grow your relationship with God?
HE IS STANDING RIGHT HERE AMONG YOU! (Luke 3:7-18)
John the Baptist uses two phrases in the Luke passage set for today which emphasise the immediacy of the coming of the promised Messiah.
- The ax is already at the root of the trees…
If you need to repent, you need to do it NOW! The response of the people shows that they appreciate they need to do something right away, in response to his message. Now is the time to get ready for the expected event.
- One more powerful than me is now coming…
The NIV “will come” is wrong here, since the verb in Greek is present indicative. The NLT has “Someone is coming soon…” which better expresses the sense that the event is very close at hand. But even better might be “Someone is coming right now…”
In John’s account of John the Baptists ministry, we read:
“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:26-27 NIV)
John is aware that Jesus the Messiah is already amongst them. Ready to begin his earthly ministry at any moment.
- How does John tell the different people mentioned in the passage to prepare themselves for this imminent coming of the Messiah?
- What warnings does he give to those who are not fully prepared?
THE LORD IS NEAR (Philippians 4:4-7)
Paul encourages the church in Philippi to keep a positive and uplifting attitude towards their life of faith. He tells them to
- Rejoice in the Lord …
- Let their gentleness be evident to all …
- Not to be anxious about anything …
- Present their prayers to God with thanksgiving …
All of these things depend on one very important fact, is which the basis for all these exhortations from the Apostle Paul: “the Lord is near”.
For discussion …
Each of the passages set for today’s liturgy focus on the theme of God’s presence within the community of his people. God is always with us, whether we recognise it or not, whether or not we are following his purposes as closely as we should. If we are not conscious of our close relationship with the Lord, it is our problem, not His.
- How can we be sure to keep our attention focused on “God with us”?
- What happens when we lose that sense of God’s presence?
- What blessings does Philippians 4:4-7 promise us as a result of God’s presence with us?
- How should we respond to God’s presence in our midst?
- How can we use this time of Advent to learn more and to grow in our experience of the presence of God?
For meditation and prayer …
The canticle set for today is the song of joy from Isaiah 12:2-6. Note the final phrase of this song, which echoes the theme running through the other readings for Advent 3: “great is the Holy One of Israel among you”.
Take time to meditate on the “glorious things” that God has done in the midst of his people, especially with regard to fulfilling his promises of a Saviour from the family of David, and all the blessings and benefits which that brings. Think about the things that God has done in your own life and Christian experience.
Let your heart flow with praise and joy that God is among us in this period of Advent. And pray that you may be able to share this message of joy and peace, so that it may be “known to all the world”.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.
The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
In that day you will say: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things;
let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.
(Isaiah 12:2-6 NIV)