A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

It is time for the voice of the prophets. This Advent time. This time when the prophets’ voices ring out guiding us in the way of God, the way of waiting for God, of allowing the possibility of God. The prophets are not scientists. They do not speak truths honed in laboratories. They are not mathematicians, driven by those artists’ ruthless logic. They are not writers of history, interviewing, sifting, analysing the stories of their time and place for patterns and motivations.

The Old Testament scholar, the one who loves the prophets, Walter Bruggemann, says that the prophets are poets. Poets who point to the truth of God, even, extraordinarily, bring about the action of God. Walter Bruggemann, was reflecting on the beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah, written to the people of Israel in exile, where in exile in Babylon, pretty well all they knew, their place of worship, their king, their homes, were gone. Isaiah writes to God’s shattered people the following in Chapter 43 of his book:

Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert.
(Isaiah 43:18-19)

 Walter Brueggeman reflects: The prophets “proclaim a new beginning with fresh actions from God that are wrought in this moment of exile, this crisis of dismantling. … these new actions of God that [the prophets] articulate are not new actions that are obvious on the face of it. … These prophets not only discerned the new actions of God that others did not discern, but they wrought the new actions of God by the power of their imagination, their tongues, their words. New poetic imagination evoked new realities in the community.”[1]

Brueggemann, who describes his preacher as a poet, gives to that poet extraordinary creative power: “The poet in vivid imagination can create …”[2] he says.

“It is a moment of utterance! ….everything has now been changed by the poetic utterance, because the poetry cannot be unsaid …The word has been uttered and the juices of alternative possibility have begun to flow.”[3]

We are in our own moment of exile, our own “crisis of dismantling”, to use Brueggemann’s words. The certainties, of which we in our most fortunate lives were barely conscious, are shaken, by a mutating virus, a changing climate and the consequences of our nations struggling to navigate a way through these things.

On this, the third Sunday of Advent we have the voice of the prophet Zephaniah to ponder.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
   shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
   O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements 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,
   (Zephaniah 3:14-17)

The Lord your God is in your midst. Zephaniah spoke these words to the people of God in exile and they ring out in our cathedral this day. Let us remember Brueggemann’s words. “These prophets not only discerned the new actions of God that others did not discern, but they wrought the new actions of God by the power of their imagination, their tongues, their words. New poetic imagination evoked new realities in the community.” The reality that is being evoked as we read and hear these words is the reality of God’s presence among us.

The prophet poet then changes his address. The prophet steps back into the shadows and invites this God who is in our midst to speak.

And what does God say? I …

I will remove disaster from you,
   so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors
   at that time.
And I will save the lame
   and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
   and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you home,
   …says the Lord.

 I will bring you home. Remember this is poetry we are hearing. The voice of God heard through the voice of the prophet poet.

This morning, we are also invited to hear the voice of a writer of letters. The Apostle Paul, writing to the people of Philippi, must have known the prophets’ voice. He says in his letter:

The Lord is near. The Lord is near.

And he urges us in our response. The response that Zephaniah urges us in also.

The response imaged in the pink candle lit by our cathedral kids this morning.

Rejoice. The response of rejoicing.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Paul writes. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7) Paul writes.

The voice of the prophet tells us that God is in our midst. The voice of the letter writer urges the people to whom he writes to know that the Lord is near. And whilst we are not given certainty, we are not given proof, we are invited to allow these words to bring us to rejoicing.

The theologian Henri Nouwen reflected on the difference between joy and happiness in the following way. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” Thus joy can be present even in the midst of great struggle.

We have heard the voice of the prophets, we have heard the voice of the letter writer. And, so, what of us, what of our voice? What shall our response be?

We have entered the Year of Luke’s Gospel and so we hear of John the Baptist through the account of the writer of that Gospel.

John the Baptist speaks with a different tone; his voice urges repentance. A time of reflection on our lives, on those things of which we are ashamed, those patterns of being that we wish we could break. “You brood of vipers!” he calls those about him. Not exactly flattering, but they do listen. They do ponder his words. And then, they speak their own. What did they say? The crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers, all spoke up. All asked the same question.

“What should we do?” They asked.

“What should we do?”

What were the crowds and the tax collectors and the soldiers to do?

To the crowd John the Baptist said, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ To the tax-collectors he said, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ To the soldiers, he said ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

They were to respond to those with whom they came into contact with generosity and justice. Generosity and justice.

Which reminds us of the voice of another of the prophets, the prophet Micah:

What does the Lord require of you,

Micah asked those who were listening to him,
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

As we gather in our Cathedral this Gaudate Sunday, this Third Sunday of Advent, what should we do?

Do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God

Knowing that this God is in our midst, rejoicing that our God is in our midst.

[1] Walter Brueggemann Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile p2.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Word Militant – Preaching a Decentering Word p7.

[3] Ibid, p8.