God Comes Near - Renewed in Love

Luke 3: 7-18     Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Zephaniah 3: 14-20              December 16, 2018

“[God] 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.”

Prayer:  Come near to us once again, O God, and may we feel jour joy and your love.  Amen.

Last October, Barb and I went to Reading to enjoy an evening at the Reading October Fest at the Liederkranz.  Lo and behold, I recognized a young woman who was I think ten years old when I began as the Pastor at Community UCC.  When I left she was twenty.  Now, she’s a thirty-eight year old mom with teen aged children of her own.  Wow, am I getting old!  Seeing her, I remembered a conversation she and I had when she was in the youth group as a teenager with me.  Back then, it was mid-December, and I told her that I had been singing Christmas carols for a couple of weeks now—any chance I got.  While driving… in the shower… walking the dog, etc.  She said to me back then, “I love to do that!  I’ve been singing them ever since the beginning of November!”

So, seeing her this past October, I asked her if she still sings Christmas carols ahead of time.  She said, “Oh yes!  It always helps me feel the spirit of Christmas.”  That it does.

But, I think there’s another reason to sing Christmas carols ahead of time.  It’s because we know the outcome of the story.  We know how it turns out… not just the events of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, but we know the real meaning of Christmas.  We know that the carols are about the joy the world has because God came near in the form of a baby.  We know that we come and adore the Christ-child because God fulfilled the plan of salvation!  That our Savior is born.  We sing ahead of time because we know the reason for the season!

Two things that that stood out for me as I read once again this passage from Zephaniah.  One was that Zephaniah told the people to sing ahead of time because he knew what good thing God decided to do before it had happened.  In this case, he knew that God decided to bring them home, out of Babylon where they were held in exile.  What great news!  Zephaniah, like most prophets had the gift of seeing ahead of time what was coming down the road—changes that were for their benefit.  Changes like God deciding to take away the judgments held against them.  That’s pretty awesome.  Changes like God had turned their enemies away.  That’s amazing!

The second thing I noticed was that Zephaniah says God also will sing ahead of time!  God will rejoice over the people.  God will renew them in holy love.  It’s almost as if God is giddy with delight in anticipation of the saving act God is about to do.  God sees the larger picture and can’t wait to bring this new life into reality.

Kind of like the feeling you get when you decide to do something you know another person will love, and you can’t wait to do it!  You can almost see into the future of how things will turn out, how that person will react.  It’s like, “I can’t wait to see the look on their face!”  And you smile, and you hum a tune, or you sing with delight in anticipation.  You rejoice with gladness ahead of time..  Because you know  that they and you will be renewed in love.

As Christians we read Zephaniah’s foretelling of God’s plan to bring the exiles back home, and we see it as a foretelling of God’s great plan of salvation in the birth of Jesus Christ. To bring us and all people out of the exile of a dead-end relationship with God and back home into a new, restored, loving relationship with God.  A relationship where God comes near and we are renewed in God’s love.

And God, Zephaniah says, is giddy with delight promising to love and care for us, no matter what.  God promises that devastating circumstance that are wrecking us at the moment are not permanent.  God sees the bigger picture and says, “I am coming near.  I will renew you in my love.”

That’s what Advent’s about, friends. A future with hope.  Hope of love being renewed.  Hope that sees the bigger picture. Sometimes the bigger picture that God sees comes quickly, and we know it right away.  Other times, it’s a long time in coming, and we can doubt that God even cares.  But, God does care… about each of us. Deeply. About the lives we love.  About our circumstances.  If you believe, God is in them. 

Janet Boyd lives in Elkhart, Indiana.  Fifty years ago, she gave up her only child for adoption at birth.  In the late 60’s, being unmarried and pregnant was a thing of shame.  Janet’s parents sent her out of state to live with relatives because of the shame under the guise that she could move on with her life as if the whole ordeal never happened.  Janet wrote that she denied the existence of her son thousands of times when people asked about her family.  Shame is a powerful silencer.

Decades later, a social media post about adoption searches caught her attention.  After much consideration, she followed up and made a contact that led to a reunion with her 47 year old son.  She wrote, “I’ve had the joy of getting to know him, seeing my blue eyes in his.  I’ve spent treasured moments with his family and with my five year old grandson, in whom I savor the little boy antics I never knew with my son.  After all the years of shame and secrecy, reuniting with my long lost child has been for me a sure sign of redemption, resurrection, and a return to wholeness” (Boyd, Janet, “Return,” Christian Century, November21, 2018, p. 26).  I have a feeling…I have hope that God was giddy with delight knowing that the plan of redemption, resurrection, reconciliation, and a return to wholeness Janet Boyd experienced was in the works.

John the Baptist knows that God’s plan of salvation is in the works.  Underneath the rough and gruffness of John’s words is the powerful vision of a world that God sings about ahead of time.  A type of world where those with abundance share with those who have a little.  Where those who are in positions of power deal justly with those not in power.  A type of world where people are renewed in God’s love.  John says that we can find the right path, change direction, and share in the joy of God’s renewing love, for God comes near when love is born.  And God sings with joy in anticipation! I sing in anticipation of a new ONA Covenant coming your way.  Consistory approved that the covenant be on the January 27th congregational meeting agenda.

I sing with anticipation of eight new people joining our congregation today!  Praise God for what God has in the works because of how the gifts the people bring by joining us in ministry!  Praise God for how they help at becoming an all-inclusive church.  About how they will discover new ways to use the gifts they bring in making God’s world become a reality.

Can you see it?  Can you rejoice in anticipation?  Knowing what we know, can we see the world that God sees?  Knowing what we know about the reason for Christmas, can we share in the singing with God?  Can we sing because we can celebrate the vison of wholeness coming to our fragmented world?  Can we sing because we are renewed in God’s love?

We are the ones God can use to help bring about god’s world. And we get renewed in love as we help bring it. Let us joyfully take sheer delight in God’s renewing love as God comes near in our Savior’s birth.  Amen.