Third Sunday in Advent Zephaniah 3:14-20, Psalm 85, Philippians 4:4-9, Luke 3:7-20
Christmas isn’t magic. Christmas is a miracle.
I prefer to believe in magic. I want it to be the case that with my words and incantations, by owning special objects or talismans, by having some professional witch wave a hand over me, that I can be changed or made new. Magic means that whatever pains or problems I now endure can be fixed by drinking some potion or with a wish upon a star. And once I have my enchanted transformation, I can tell others that they too can have their fortunes reversed by some precise saying of some words, or by entering an ecstatic trance, or by throwing themselves down in front of some altar.
See, if magic could fix what is broken in me, I would never need to be honest with myself or anyone else. If someone comes to me with some way I have hurt them, I can go away privately and perform a spell to make it right. If I have been offended by someone, I need never tell them because in the magical world I can manipulate metaphysical forces to get justice or change the nature of someone else.
When I first embarked in following Jesus, I thought of him as a magician. If I say the right prayer, in the right way, with the right people. If I feel a certain way or read enough of the Bible, if that song is played one more time, if I cry enough or spend long enough in a trance, perhaps the cogs of the universe will be moved such that things will be different.
But the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ is not magic. There is no spell to fix whats amiss in my soul, and no talisman I can wear which will prevent my sinning, nor is there some elegantly dressed wizard who can wave away my pain.
No, the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is a miracle.
The Prophet Zephaniah ministered during the reign of Josiah, who was on the throne from 649–609 BC. This was about 100 years after the kingdom of Israel to the north had fallen to the Assyrians, according to the warnings of the Prophets and the Torah. The Kingdom of Judah had been saved during the Reign of Hezekiah and the Assyrians had kept something of a distance. You’d have thought that God’s deliverance of the people of Jerusalem from the hands of the Assyrians would have caused them to change their ways, but the two kings before Josiah had abandoned the God of Israel.
It might be thought that the passive atheism of today’s wealthiest countries is a new phenomenon, but it appears to have always been the case that love and obedience to God never comes without the intentional work of prophets, priests, and kings, who will establish his worship and Law and lead others to follow these things.
But Josiah was different. He sees God’s house in disrepair and he understands that if he wants the people to come and participate in the proper worship of God, the place of this worship should be orderly and beautiful. He empties the treasury and gives all the wealth of the temple to artists and craftspeople, and he doesn’t even ask for a receipt because “they deal honestly”. During the work an old book is discovered, the book of God’s law. When Josiah heard the words of God’s law he tears his clothes because he realizes that all the discipline that had ben visited on both kingdoms was promised within the book of the Law. He sought out a Prophetess who helped him understand what he needed to do and together the King, the Prophets and the Priests destroyed all the idolatry which had woven itself into the fabric of their city. Josiah it seems had a love and a fear of God which caused him to desire to do all in his power to conform his life to the worship and obedience of the God of Israel. The Prophetess told him that his obedience was not going to prevent disasters from coming upon Judah according to God’s command, but with the time he had and the strength he had he did right, and he did right it seems for the sake of doing right, simply because it was asked of him and he understood that it was right for him to serve the God who had given him the authority to rule.
Josiah is under no illusion that the right worship of God is a kind of magic. Josiah’s heart underwent a profound transformation, but he could not change the hearts of his subjects.
Zephaniah prophesies at what, on the surface, looks like the most optimistic time in Judah’s history in generations. The king is righteous, the prophets and priests are restoring the beauty of God’s worship. Yet Zephaniah (start of Chapter 3) says:
Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled,
the oppressing city!
Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
that leave nothing till the morning.
4 Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men;
her priests profane what is holy;
they do violence to the law.
5 The Lord within her is righteous;
he does no injustice;
every morning he shows forth his justice;
each dawn he does not fail;
but the unjust knows no shame.
In the most earnest and optimistic times, the prophet sees that the hearts of the people are hard and set in their ways. And for this reason he announces that God will pour out anger like fire, and this is a fire which will burn up the proud and purify the humble.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,
13 those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no injustice
and speak no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth
a deceitful tongue.
For they shall graze and lie down,
and none shall make them afraid.”
Therefore, rejoice. Rejoice people of God, says the Prophet, because God will drive away that which is evil within you. Rejoice, not that the Temple has been restored, but rejoice that you will be free of sin, that corrupt judges and officials will be thrown down. That lying prophets will have their mouths shut. That Priests who mislead the people will no longer sit over them.
This is the work that our earnest and devout King Josiah could not do. He could only be obedient in the things he had dominion over. He could not repair the damage to the hearts of the people of Judah, even as he repaired the damage to God’s house.
See, the ways of God are not magic. Josiah cannot perform a ritual to make the people change their ways, as though he lived in some kind of metaphysical balance where his acts of radical obedience could tip the scales of arbitrary divine justice. No, Josiah knows how small he is, and he does what is right for its own sake. He acts righteously full well knowing that the sentence has been passed over his city, over his nation of Judah. But Zephaniah gives a reason to rejoice: God will accomplish the transformation of his people, and in particular attention is the abuses of the powerful over the powerless, the rich over the poor. God will make this right, he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.
God is going to work a miracle.
I will change the speech of the peoples
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
and serve him with one accord.
Josiah’s faith is not in vain. The God he served with all of his heart and mind and strength has purposed to save his people to the utmost. But he will not do so with magic, because God created the world and all within it to be patterned and ordered in the ways of what we call nature, and it is not in the nature of people to be transformed in the blink of an eye, because their rulers of leaders tell them to be changed. If only human beings so worked, but we are babies who must be fed before we can feed ourselves, and we crawl before we can walk, and we scream and demand before we learn how to get what we need and give in return, and we act according to the most pressing impulse of our stomachs before we are guided to set our desires in order, to eat at the proper time and close our mouths when nothing good will be accomplished by speaking. We aren’t magical creatures, summoned and manipulated by incantations and rituals. Rather God deals with his people in the midst of them, in their history, in their here-and-now, by calling forth a prophet or priest to show God’s ways to God’s people in a particular place and time.
John appears in the Wilderness and steps into this Prophetic ministry. His witness, his strangeness speaks to the hearts of the people that there is another way to live, his simplicity of life speaks to their deep desire to start over and be made new, and so in a great sign he invites his hearers, even the worst sinners and most despised, to come and go through the waters of the Jordan, just as the people of God had generations earlier when they entered the promised land with Joshua. And just as the people went through the water to live a new life according to the Law of God, John gives instruction to the people coming to him for baptism. He tells them to live generously, to stop hoarding their treasures, to give up using deceit and violence to get their way.
In his teaching we begin to see the seeds of what the reign of God will be like. Think of those who were formerly without a cloak, and then received one. Or were robbed by the tax collector, but now are not. Or who lived in fear of soldiers coming to take whatever they wanted, but now can live in peace. Yet John knows, as so many prophets before him, as King Josiah knew, that human intentions and commitments are so fickle. And he knows that someone greater is coming, who can do for these people much more than John can do. John can only ask people to act more justly.
It is Jesus Christ who will come and justify human hearts. Sure, he will turn the world upside down, he will challenge all that this people have held as important or valuable, he will expose the powerful and extend kindness to the lowly, and he will pour out the Spirit of God on all his people.
But just as John was imprisoned for his message which brought freedom to many, so the Christ will be opposed because he is not magic.
See, John gives us a hint about the kind of Kingdom Christ is coming to bring, a kingdom in which the weak are not trodden upon and the strong open their hands to give rather than take. In Christ’s transforming of human hearts, the old order of the world will be overturned and those who profited by sin and injustice will have their treasure taken away, and so they will kill him. Yet the joke will be on them, for he will rise from the dead and pour out his Holy Spirit on all who call upon him. Herod might have thought he put a stop to this Kingdom when he arrested John, but the Lord Jesus Christ has come not just to teach, and not to perform magic, but a miracle. He has come to bring about the change of human hearts, which will be the miracle of the final end of the old ways of grief and greed, of violence and deceit.
I do so wish Christmas was magic, for with a prayer and a wave of my hand the world could be made new. Yet Christmas is a miracle, the miracle of a God who would love us and be amongst us. The miracle of a savior who will endure the rejection of those he came to save. The miracle of a new life which will outgrow all that is entrapping us.
Today, as we anticipate the coming of our Lord in glory, even as we remember his humble birth as a baby in Bethlehem, let us rejoice. And may we allow that joy to lodge so deep in ourselves that all the fear and rage which often drives us to live only for ourselves that we gladly listen to God’s words to us today.
And may we also trust in the grace which does not leave us all alone to figure this out, but sends many ministers and stewards of God’s ways to come alongside us, that we may be found ready when our Lord shall come again.
Rejoice today. Do what is called of you, today. Listen to those who will help steer you in God’s paths. It may be that the small step of obedience taken today is a cause of another person living in newfound joy too. Rejoice, with a humble and thankful heart today, for Christ will come amongst us, and he has already begun to make us ready.