Sunday, December 13, 2009

Flagging zeal

Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Luke 3: 7-18
******** United Church of Christ
December 13, 2009

Today is the third Sunday in Advent, when we light the candle of joy. We can hear the joy in the reading from Zephaniah. God is ready to sing for joy at the homecoming of Israel. But the reading from Luke has an entirely different tone.

This Sunday John really gets down to it. Last week’s portion of John’s message was about as sweet as it was going to get. This week we get the full picture: with the words “You brood of vipers!” we can see the camel’s skin, the matted hair and beard, the fire in his eyes—what we would call passion or zeal.

In fact, in the name of passion and zeal the people of Israel have been called other names by other prophets, some even worse. Amos calls the people on Mount Samaria “cows of Bashan”. Hosea likens Israel to an unfaithful wife who walks the streets at night. Joel tells the people to wake up out of their drunken stupor. In order to get the full attention of God’s people, to get them to turn away from sin and death, to turn toward the living God, the prophets had to use strong language in naming the sin of the people. In order to fill the people with passion and zeal for God, the prophets had to be overflowing with zeal.

You see, when John began preaching, it had been a long time since the Jews living in Roman-occupied Judah had seen anyone resembling a prophet. The last time God’s people had been full of zeal and passion for God was in the time of Judas Maccabee, in the 2nd century BCE. But first, a little backstory is necessary.

After returning from exile in Babylon, the Jews completed the construction of the Second Temple, near the end of the sixth century BCE but only one thing was missing: the Holy of Holies was empty. The Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments, had been destroyed in the devastation of the first temple. It was also believed that the Spirit of God was absent along with the heart of God’s law. Since prophecy—that is, telling the truth of God—depends on the Spirit—God’s living presence—prophecy in the land of Judah was at an all-time low.

Around the year 175 BCE the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, conqueror of the eastern Mediterranean, set about Hellenizing his conquest, including modest little Judah. He constructed a gymnasium, where men competed in athletic games in the nude, something unknown to Judeans. Jews who were eager to comply with these Greek influences disguised their circumcision, often painfully. In truth, they disavowed the sign of the Covenant between them and God, that which gave them their identity as God’s people. Next, a Greek Acra was built, a center for military administration that towered over the Temple, a sure sign of what was to follow.

The final blow that sent Judas Maccabee and his followers into a rage-filled rebellion was a statue of Olympian Zeus set on the altar in the Second Temple, in an attempt to fill the Holy of Holies and to unite the Syrian occupation of Judah with its Jewish citizens. Judas, the ‘Hammer of God’, along with an army of thousands, crushed the Greek troops and sent the Hellenizing king and his forces back where they came from. The desecrated altar was demolished, removing the stones and leaving them in a place to await the coming of a prophet, which alas did not come. A new altar was built, the Holy of Holies was restored, the great menorah was lit, and the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days was witnessed. This was the first Festival of Rededication or Hanukkah. [1]

So, approximately 150 years after Judas Maccabee, when John began his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he struck a deeply-felt chord in the hearts of his listeners, that perhaps the Spirit of God had returned to the people, that God’s living presence was again amongst them. All that name-calling and words of warning was the signal that John was indeed a prophet filled with the word of God. Being as spiritually starved as they were, the people and the religious authorities wanted to know if John was the Messiah, the one who would save them from the oppression of the Roman Empire, the latest and the strongest in a string of empires that had occupied the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But this time God’s prophet was announcing the coming of a revolution like no other. There were to be no great armies, no battles as in the days of Joshua, Saul and David or Judas Maccabee, no hard-won victories for the glory of God and God’s people. This time God’s army would be two men: Jesus and his messenger John; the battlefield was the human heart and the prize to be won was none other than the saving grace of God. God was indeed coming but right up in their faces.

But who could be saved? John tells the crowd that it doesn’t matter if they are children of Abraham, which also means that being a non-Jew doesn’t necessarily condemn either. What matters is not only repentance but the fruits of repentance—a changed life, a life of passion and zeal for God lived out not only in faith but joined with good works and righteous living.

It doesn’t matter if we have been baptized, if we’ve read the whole Bible, and gone to church every Sunday of our lives. Garrison Keillor once said that you can become a Christian by going to church every Sunday about as easily as you can become a car by sleeping in your garage.

It doesn’t matter what denomination we belong to, if we’ve been born again or how often we have Communion. It doesn’t matter if we read the Bible literally or with an interpretive eye. It doesn’t even matter if we’re not sure we believe in God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit or the doctrines of the church. What John is telling us is that none of these will save us. What saves is forgiveness and the fruits of a changed life. What saves is the fire of God that winnows away all that is false and leaves behind only what is necessary: an empty altar in our hearts that is ready to receive the light that burns eternally: the passion and the zeal of God that shines through in all that we do and say.

When was the last time any of us took a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, naming the sins that come between us and God? What is the sin that comes between God and your life together as a church? What are the false idols that sit on the altar of your heart that need to be cleared away? How is God getting up in your face this Advent? What are some of the fruits of a changed life that you see in yourself and in this faith community? Who are some folks you know who do not share your faith but through whom you can see the light of God?

Having the zeal of God within us doesn’t mean we have to carry our Bible with we everywhere we go or that we have to save others or commit our whole lives to the service of God. It means having the light of God burn brightly within us and to allow that light to shine through us, even to the point of changing our lives. And that is a cause for great joy. Amen.


1. Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. (New York: Doubleday, 1999), Chapter 1: “Greeks, Jews and Romans: The People Jesus Knew”


Andy said...

This was very well-said, Cindy.

Garrison Keillor's quote "You can become a Christian by going to church every Sunday about as easily as you can become a car by sleeping in your garage" is spot-on.

Clearly your own zeal is on electronic display here today.

Cynthia said...

Thanks, Andy.

Missed you here in the blogosphere.