Sermon: Look Forward

Time travel is a large part of Science Fiction books and movies. The ability to go back and forward in time aids the hero, and the villain, in stories but there is always the fear that if the characters interfere in some way the future will radically change. If you had the opportunity to go back in time what is one this you might change? Would you try and prevent war? Would you go back and tell your younger self not to do something or to do something?

How differently would you act today if you knew what tomorrow was going to bring? How different would your life be if you knew that at a particular time it was all going to end? I want to think that our lives would not be any different but I truly believe they would. We do not know the future; we do not know when it is all going to come to an end. Sure, people make lots of money trying to predict what and when but it does not usually turnout well for them, or us.

The prophets, like Zephaniah, that we heard from this morning, come at times in history when things are not going well for the people of God. Prophets say things no one wants to hear. Prophets point to the uncomfortable truth about people and the world around them. Prophets call people out for bad behavior and when they are causing others to skew their actions and beliefs. Prophets point us in directions that we do not always want to look and call us to things we do not always want to do.

However, prophets also hear God. Prophets feel God. Prophets feel God’s love and compassion for us when we do not feel it ourselves.Prophets dream God’s dreams. Prophets hope God’s hopes. Prophets call us to awaken. Prophets sing God’s songs when no one wants to sing and sometimes interrupt the program with a change in tune.

The Rev George Whitfield was an English born Anglican minister who is considered, along with the Wesley brothers, as one of the founders of Methodism. He came to America in 1740 and preached a series of sermons that became known as “the great awakening.” Like the Prophets,Whitfield was calling people to repentance and action. He did not do this with flashy worship services but by telling people what they needed to hear not what they wanted to hear. Whitfield had this to say about what I call prophetic preaching:

“It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher.”

The prophet’s job and the preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

The song that Zephaniah sings is a song that calls God’s people to lament and to repent. The Jerusalem of his day has become idolatrous and complacent; the nations have become corrupt and along comes Zephaniah as one crying in the darkness with the joyful imperative “Sing aloud… The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” “This day of darkness and gloom will be supplanted by a day of gladness.”

Unlike us, Zephaniah knows the future and the future will be different from the present and even different than the future that has been foreseen. It is import for us to listen to the prophets during Advent because centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ they were the messengers of the Good News, “Do not fear…. The Lord, your God, is in your midst.”

I am an amateur historian. I have no real formal training other than what I received in seminary. I dabble in the past and like to dress up from time to time in “period appropriate clothing” and stand in the pouring rain and the blazing heat and tell people what it was like to live in 18th and 19th century. I believe, as do most historians that a clear understanding of the past will help us in the present and the future. Our history does not and should not dictate our future, but understanding where we have come from will help us to determine the direction we go and point out the pitfalls along the way.

I also believe that what something meant in the past, songs,words, actions, etc. can say something different in the present at that we have to reevaluate those things and their present meaning continually. Sure, a favorite song in a different time might have sent a different message, but in our 21st-century world with our 21st century understanding of things, that song might be carrying an entirely different message.

In the past decade, or maybe even longer, we have witnessed church communities coming to grips with their past, much of it unpleasant, and asking for forgiveness for the things they had done. They are not trying to excuse it away, only asking for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness is a very Christian thing to do. We have to own up to our past and understand it. We have to use our history as a guiding light toward the future. We need to come to grips with our past, and our role in it, so we do not make the same mistakes as  we move into the future.

Knowing our past is a good thing but dwelling back there is not good. I know many of us long for the days when the church was full with people and no one did anything on Sunday but go to church and then go home for the big family meal and some football on television. I hate to be the one to tell you but those days are gone, and they are never coming back. Our greatness is not in the past. We cannot point to a time and say “that is when we were great.” We can surely say, “that is when we were different”but greatness is not something from the past. Greatness is about our potential and living up to our potential. Jesus Christ was born into this world not to pass judgment on it but to point the way, give us a road map, to encourage us to live up to our potential in everything that we do.

Our potential, that untapped, undiscovered thing, is what makes us great not something that has already happened or a period of time in our past, but the sheer possibility of what is possible, that is where our greatness is, and that is what we have to look for.

Zephaniah tells us, “do not fear.” When the angel appears to Mary to announce to her that she is to become the mother of God, the first words the angel speaks to her are “Do not fear.” When Joseph is about to eject Mary and send her away, that same angel comes to him and says to him, “Do not fear.” When the shepherds, “keeping watch over their flocks by night,” are visited by that same angel, the first words the angel says to them is “Do not fear.” And, when Jesus comes and stands before his apostles in the Upper Room after the Resurrection, he says to them, “Do not fear.” And today, right here and right now, in this place, God is saying to you, “Do not fear.”

There are those out there that want you to be afraid. They want you to be fearful of people from different places. They want you to be scared of people who look different than we do. They want you to be afraid of people who believe and who worship differently than we do. They want you to be frightened by telling you God has turned his back on us as a nation because of specific political issues. They want you to believe that God meets outs his retribution on this nation with hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. However, I am here to tell you, “Do not be afraid” for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that those who believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Do not be afraid because God loves you…..

Today we light the third candle of our Advent wreath. You will notice that it is a different color. The candles that surround it are purple which is not only the color of repentance but that of royalty. With each candle we light we bring a bit more light into the darkness and today we light the pink candle that represents joy. We pause in the season to remember that joy follows the darkness. “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy, for today in the City of David is born Christ the Lord.” This pink candle represents the future while the others represent the past. We have to stop longing for the way it was and start working on what it will be. We have to look forward into the future and rise to our potential and remind people that there is another way, that hatred, anger, and fear can be replaced by hope,love, joy, and peace and that is what Advent and Christmas is all about,reminding people that they no longer have to be afraid because God loves them and no matter what we do, that love will never change.