Expressed In rather beautiful language in Zephaniah and Philippians, the overriding message is one of the joy, comfort and peace that will be ours when “The Lord himself will be in our midst”
Listen again to beautiful way in which this is expressed in Zephaniah;
“The 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
As on a day of festival”
That excitement, joy and comfort is ours. The “day of the Lord” that Zephaniah looks forward to has already been inaugurated in the revelation of Jesus Christ. A joyless church is simply a church that just hasn’t understood the Christian gospel. Gospel means “good news”. The good news is that the plan for the salvation of the world has been inaugurated. We now know the truth of what Zephaniah was writing about six hundred years before Christ.
God the warrior has defeated death and we have eternal life. He rejoices over us, he renews us and he exults over us.
Take a moment to think about you and your relationship with God because this is personal.. Say to yourself in the silence of your heart; I have eternal life; God himself rejoices over me; He renews and remakes me; he exults over me.
The joy of our worship is reflecting back to God what he first lavished on us.
Your fortunes will be restored and I love this phrase in verse 20. “I will bring you HOME.”
Our Home is with God forever. With our Father and our brother Jesus at the heavenly feast.
As we all know “Home” is where we can most truly be ourselves, home is where we feel most secure, Home is our refuge and strength. Home is with God.
When we know we have an everlasting home we can relax and rejoice, for the Lord is near (Philippians 4:5).
And that sense of joy at what God has done for us is the well spring of Saint Paul’s exhortation in our reading from Philippians today to
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice” (4:4-7). The Lord is near. Just like Zephaniah prophesied about God being in our midst.
Then Paul gives us some hard won advice that I know we could all do with at some time or other. “Do not worry about anything”. How on earth do we achieve that?
Well we are not puppets and God is not going to do for you what you should be doing yourself so everything you can do to affect a worrying situation you must try to do.
But there comes a time when there is nothing else we can do. It is at that point that the constant worry and anxiety becomes debilitating and can really affect your overall health and wellbeing. There is a point where we should recognise that you cannot affect anything by further worry.
At that point Paul says essentially “Trust. When there is nothing else you can do Take everything to God in prayer and just trust”. After all, The only one being hurt by all the worry is yourself and you can’t affect anything by it, so pray and trust”. Lay everything at God’s feet and say “Thy will be done”. If you can surrender in that way, the peace of God which passes all understanding will be yours. It will descend upon you, and will find peace.
Jesus said “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28)
Another way of putting it is “Let go and let God”. Now such surrender, such total reliance is a hard place to get to and our sense of ego and self-reliance gets in the way of such surrender so for a lot of us it probably won’t happen until we are really at our wits end, but try it before then. There is a well worn prayer that is as true now as it was when it was written by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1951 but this is a longer form of it.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
That of course is known as the serenity prayer subsequently taken up by AA in its shorter form.
Accepting this sinful world as it is, changing or affecting what you can, but crucially knowing your limits and placing the rest in God’s hands is the path to peace.
Now let move to the gospel reading. The stand out phrase John the Baptist uses for me is “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8)
And of course the whole content of Jesus’ preaching is recorded as “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”
Repentance is supremely important then. In this service I have already said “God forgives all who truly repent” Repentance means to stop! And turn your life around. Turn around your life from doing that which was contrary to the word of God and consciously turn to God. Mend your ways, show sorrow and contrition for what you’ve done (which stings but is absolutely necessary), and determine to follow God’s way, ethics and morality and attitude to life.
Baptism is the outward sign of repentance. Those who are baptised should respond by aligning their lives with God’s purpose.
John here alludes to the fact that a new people are being formed but it is based on the response of lives lived in a manner appropriate to God’s call, not on inherited descent.
We are not Christians by right or because our parents decided to have us baptised as children - we are Christians in the manner to which our lives are aligned to God’s will and morality. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them” and even more tellingly, “Not everyone who says Lord Lord will enter the kingdom of God, but only those who do the will of my Father” (Matthew’s gospel)
God’s kingdom includes even soldiers and tax collectors. John’s advice to their future behaviour is; be just, be true, be responsible. The response is changed behaviour.
All this suggests that salvation is universally available but not universally applicable.
The relationship between salvation and judgement is also evident in John’s statement that Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In Christian baptism God’s Spirit lives in our heart and at the same time what is expected is that the chaff, our fallen shabby immoral ways will be burned in the fire even as the Spirit cleanses empowers and guides.
This for me alludes to the fact expressed so well by Alexander Solzhenitsyn that good and evil runs not between peoples or nations, but cuts right through the heart of every human being and when we are baptised in the Spirit, our sin is dealt with at the same time as we are made one with God.
We are building a renewed, joyful, moral, Holy community. We are modelling what a community can look like in a society where community is breaking down. Our community mustn’t be a reflection of our broken society! We are to be salt and light where rights come with responsibilities; We are here to model and change society to bring more and more of it under God’s rule!