John the Baptist was supposed to be here this morning—still shouting in the wilderness. If you prepare for worship by reading the passages listed in the bulletin or Windjammer, you know that on this third Sunday of Advent, this third Sunday of waiting for God’s self-revelation, John is telling us just how angry God is. John scans the crowd that has come to hear him and shouts, “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He warns that, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John is sometimes called the last of the Old Testament prophets. He decries the ills of his society and promises that if people do not repent, turn from their wicked ways, God will hit the smite button. That’s the large red button that one of my high school Sunday school students imagined God having for those wrath-filled moments. Whereas the high school student was being flippant, John the Baptist was serious.
John expected God to be as angry as he was. John was the revival preacher that scared people into repentance and obedience. It’s easy to see how John imagined a fiery outcome, not a lot different that the dystopia envisioned by movies like Chappie, Mad Max: Fury Road, or the Hunger Games series, ending with Mockingjay. I only saw one of those and it was enough! The nightly news makes us angry and fearful.
But it turns out that John was disappointed in Jesus. Jesus did not meet his expectations. In fact, when John was imprisoned, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the promised one. And Jesus responded with a list of healings: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Jesus knew what John didn’t. Jesus knew that God’s relationship with human beings does not start with a tongue lashing. It begins with a love song.
That concept is so foreign to us, that we have a hard time hearing the song. This Wednesday in Bible study we read part of God’s love song in Zephaniah and Isaiah. When I asked what people heard, the words they picked out were “judgment,” “shame,” and the image of God as victor over enemies. What words stuck out for you when you heard the readings? Did you hear, “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.”
Did you hear, “At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you”?
How does the relationship between mother and child begin? How does a marriage begin? How does any intimate relationship begin? It begins with a love song. The prophets often describe how Israel or Judah have fallen short or turned from God’s way, but they all sing God’s love song. They sing of God’s holy passion for humanity. The prophets tell us that this is no human created deity—no fearsome, arbitrary tyrant, but a parent, lover, friend, and savior. The scriptures are one elongated exposé of God’s incomprehensible passion for humanity.
God longs to enter into a loving mutual relationship with us—to be our beloved as we already God’s beloved. Isaiah writes, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Human beings are imaged as the bride—a bride that is more Annie Oakley than Cinderella. We arrive splattered with mud. You know, we clean up nice to come to church, and we may believe that the people around us have got it all together, but each one of us knows what we have to hide to clean up so well. We don’t have to live with that. You don’t—I don’t.
Zephaniah’s promise of salvation and love song come at the end of a prophecy of the overthrow of the corruption of Judah—Judah is accused of dismissing God, priding itself on its riches, oppression, and violence. Zephaniah speaks on a national level. The message works on both levels: corporate or national, and individual. Zephaniah and all the prophets assume that there is a righteous remnant. Salvation—healing and wholeness—starts with individuals. It starts with you and me. God is singing us a love song. God is wooing us.
The Lord your God is in our midst—and this is One who rejoices over us with gladness; who will renew us with unconditional love.
So listen to the words of Zephaniah again:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion...
Yahweh, your God, is in your midst...
and will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in love.
and exult over you with loud singing.
—Zephaniah 3. 14, 17
God has no doctrine, do you know that?
The Desired One comes to you,
waits outside your house in the morning cold,
seeks you even in the worst neighborhood,
for no fancier reason than this:
the Beloved likes you,
and wants to be with you,
and hopes you will fall in love.
It is only the lost
for whom that is not enough.
Our Lover comes to us
even in our greed and terror
with no more complicated plot in mind
than to spend the awful hours and years
and make them paradise.
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, www.unfoldinglight.net, December 9, 2015.)