“Everything Changed”Dr. Bruce Schoonmaker Zephaniah 3:14-18; Luke 3:7-8, 16b-18. Year C – Third Sunday in Advent
Text in bold italic is to be sung. It may be sung a cappella by the preacher or a soloist, or it may be sung by the choir or the choir and congregation. If it is accompanied, please limit the introduction to a single chord or note to give the performers the starting pitch.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 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.
Luke 3:7-8, 16b-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
We use advent to prepare room in our hearts for Jesus. We recognize that God‘s act of sending his son to live with us was a mighty and overwhelming miracle that changed all time and all people.
But what about the time just before Jesus’ birth? It was a time of fragile peace, the Jews bearing the oppressive rule of the Romans, who occupied their land. King Herod, bothered by prophecies and prognostications, intimidated by visiting magi from foreign countries, called the magi to him and asked that they inform him immediately of the birth of the one foretold by their predictions. Only God’s intercession through a dream prevented Herod from finding Jesus and his family.
It must have been a time of hopelessness for the Jews, suffering under the Roman rule and feeling as if God had forsaken them. And who would have expected the hope of the world to emerge from such a insignificant town as Bethlehem? Can you imagine living in such a time? Can you imagine hearing word of a sacred birth of cataclysmic joy? Well, I can’t. I would be thinking that the politics of power had left me and my people without hope and without the means to better ourselves.
Life on earth is not always joy and comfort. As Christians, we are not called to comfort. We are not called to ease or to easy answers. When John the Baptist confronted those who wanted to be baptized, he was not always welcoming:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3:7-8)
He told them off. He accused them of arrogance and comfort. When he said “I baptize you with water,” he followed it with “but one will come more powerful. I am not worthy to untie his sandals.”
Then comes the clincher. Did he say “He will baptize you with hope and love”? Or “He will baptize you with the joy of salvation”? No, he said
He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire. (Luke 3:16)
John further destroyed their confidence with
“’His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’” (Luke 3: 17)
Jesus didn’t say, “Come unto me, for my way is comfortable.” He didn’t say, “Take up your cross because it’s easy.” He never said being a disciple of His would be the easy way out. Instead, he showed it would be a difficult and trying path to walk upon, but one that is easy to follow, easy in the sense of making decisions about which way to go.
Doing what God wants is usually not difficult to discern. If you feel God approves, if you think the choirs of angels rejoice in the decision you make, if the decision helps bring about God’s realm, if the decision feeds the hungry or clothes the poor, then you know it’s correct. That’s what the Gospel of Matthew means when Jesus says, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) And it means as well, that when you make decisions in this way, your life truly becomes less burdensome and easier. What’s difficult is perpetuating our selfish desires and rationalizing that God would have you fulfill your desires rather than God’s will.
His yoke is easy; His burden is light.
“Rejoice in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4) Some people have interpreted this passage of scripture to glorify our human egos and our human selfishness. I know that I would, all in all, prefer to keep the desires that I perceive in my heart rather than let God put new, more noble, more Christian desires in their places. But Biblical scholars, wise Christians, and even I know in depths of my heart that God means otherwise. If I rejoice in the Lord, God will change my heart; God will open my spirit to one of selfless generosity; God will take my life and make it more Christlike. He will give me the desires of my transformed heart, a heart transformed by rejoicing in God, with desires worthy of God and benefitting others.
I know that I would prefer living comfortably and eating well to sharing my riches with the hungry and my clothing with the poor. I know that I would rather keep driving a reliable car than give my money to the weak and poor and disheartened. I want them to take responsibility for their lives and go out and get a job. I can work up considerable self-righteous indignation about people who don’t apply their will and intelligence and gumption to feeding and clothing themselves and their families. And do you know who else felt the same way? Ebenezer Scrooge! “Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?” (See citation below)
And, of course, Ebenezer was right. He was correct. His was the answer given by “the way of the world.” His was the answer a good capitalist would give. But we know, from the ghost of his friend Marley,
“I wear the chain I forged in life! I made it link by link and yard by yard! I gartered it on of my own free will and by my own free will, I wore it!” (See citation below)
And Ebenezer’s chain was even more ponderous.
Marley: In life, my spirit never rose beyond the limits of our money-changing holes! Now I am doomed to wander without rest or peace, incessant torture and remorse!
Scrooge: But it was only that you were a good man of business, Jacob!
Marley: BUSINESS? Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!
Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
Nowell, sing we loud!
God today hath poor folk raised
And cast a-down the proud.
But hope arose in an insignificant town at a time of burden under military rule. At just the worst moment in the lives of these poor people, the Jews received the greatest gift ever given to the human race, a Savior, one who would deliver them from hopelessness and darkness into light and joy. Heaven and nature sang that evening. Shepherds witnessed a holy birth. Angels broke from the heavens and in unified voices proclaimed the birth of the Son of God and the hope of the world.
Glory to God in the Highest
And peace to his people on earth!
This single birth redeemed the entire world. It redeemed all who would follow Jesus in his ministry. It continues to redeem all those who believe in him now and during the time since his life on earth. His life, death, and resurrection create the most powerful event in the history of the universe. It is unthinkable how history might have evolved without it. Like a mighty spring of fresh water surging in the desert, overcoming all thirst and replenishing the land, Jesus’s message and resurrection changed everything. Every. Thing.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Nothing remained un-nurtured; nothing remained unredeemed. Nothing was left bereft or broken. Everything changed in that one glorious moment of time. The world and its abiding life tilted in favor of righteousness and has remained that way since. The light shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Christians may live in comfort, but we are not called to comfort. We are called to proclaim Jesus as Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. In honoring this belief, we make decisions not based on our selfish, human whims; we make decisions based on what is best for the Kingdom of God. We are yoked to Him and our burden is light, but it doesn’t mean comfortable and it doesn’t mean it’s easy or carefree. It means that we are invested in eternity and not the small minded human selfish desires of this life. It means we see God’s way as our way. It means we give of ourselves to improve the lives of the poor and hungry.
As Christians, we are called to celebrate the birth, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are called to live life knowing that nothing separates us from God’s love through Jesus Christ. We know because Jesus was born, lived, died, and was raised from the dead to eternal life, and God has promised us the same!
God does not belittle those who believe in Him and strive to do his will. God uplifts and presents to the world of believers His kingdom, His realm, the way of life that allows us to rejoice and to find our way through this world without becoming attached to this world. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come,
Let earth receive her king,
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing!
About the writer:
Dr. Bruce Schoonmaker retired at the end of July 2018 from Furman University after forty-one years on the music faculty. He continues to sing, to teach voice, to write poetry and fiction, to act, and to share time with his precious wife, Gail, and their friends. Currently he aspires to write the great American novel, an epic poem, and a choral-orchestral piece appropriate for performance on July 4 concluding with full musical forces in addition to cannons and church carillons. Nothing brings him and Gail greater joy than visiting with their sons and their families.
Scripture and Music:
Joy to the World
How Great Our Joy
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Go, Tell It on the Mountain
Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
How Great Our Joy (arr. John Rutter)
Shepherd s Pipe Carol (John Rutter)
Ubi Caritas (Maurice Durufle)
The Joy of Mary (Don Neuen)
Ave Maria (Franz Biebl)
To Him We Sing (Robert Young)
How Great Our Joy
Rejoice Greatly (Handel)
In the Bleak Midwinter
O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion (Handel)