(Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/yywrK_-nKsU)
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve raised some questions to help us along our Advent journey. The first week I took my cue from a popular country gospel song from the 1950s that asked, “What would you do if Jesus came to spend some time with you?” In less than 2 weeks, Jesus will come to spend some time with each of us whether we like or not. Underlying the song’s main question is a more urgent yet subtle question: “Are you ready?” That is, are you ready to welcome Jesus into your life? Are you living the life you’d be proud to share with Jesus? I took my questioning a step further and asked another one during last week’s service: “Are you prepared?” Have you done what’s needed to be done to proudly welcome Jesus into your life? When Jesus comes, your life will likely be turned upside down much like when a storm comes. Will you be like the farm hand in last week’s story who boldly proclaimed, “I sleep when the wind blows?” Will the chickens be cooped and the cows barned…the hay tarped? When Jesus comes along with the storm that comes with him, will you be prepared? Both these questions are important questions to ask ourselves as we celebrate the coming of our Lord.
This week I want to take us one step further in our Advent journey. As a preface to the question I want us to reflect on this week, let us first envision a blind boy sitting on the steps of a building with a hat by his feet. He is holding up a sign which says: “I am blind, please help.” There are only a few coins in the hat. A man walks by. He takes a few coins from his pocket and drops them into the hat. He then takes the sign, turns it around, and writes some words. He puts the sign back so that everyone who walks by would see the new words. Soon the hat begins to fill up. A lot more people are giving money to the blind boy. Later that afternoon the man who had changed the sign comes to see how things are. The boy recognizes the man’s footsteps and asks, “Were you the one who changed my sign this morning? What did you write?” The man says, “I only wrote the truth. I said what you said but in a different way. I wrote: ‘Today is a beautiful day but I cannot see it.’”
Both signs tell people that the boy is blind. But the first sign simply says the boy is blind. The second sign tells people that they are so lucky that they are not blind. The second sign tells the people, and us, not to forget all the blessings that God bestows on each of us each and every day of our lives. For many us, the simple gift of sight is a blessing that is easily overlooked and forgotten. The simple gift of being able to perceive the full richness of God’s creation is all too often taken for granted. Every once in a while we need people like the poor, blind boy to help remind us of the little things we take for granted. They can be little, easily forgotten, to us but oh, how big they become when we lose them! Oh, how life can seem so unfair when we aren’t blessed as much as others! And when we dwell on the unfairness of not having everything that everyone else has then we quickly forget all the blessings that God does give to us. We forget how God uniquely provides for each of us. Each of us has our own unique set of needs and wants and God provides for them. Maybe not all that we want be certainly all that we need.
Beneath the blind boy’s statement is the question I want us to reflect on this week: “Are you thankful?” Are you thankful for all the blessings that God has given you this year? Are you thankful for your work? Are you thankful for your spouse? Are you thankful for your children? Are you thankful for your school? Are you thankful for your brothers or sisters? Are you thankful for your parents? Are you thankful for your home? Are you thankful for your health? Are you thankful for this beautiful weather we’ve had these last couple weeks?! The list could go on for all the little blessings of this last year. Whether we want to acknowledge them or not, God has blessed each of us with so very many things this last year! Now some of us might get hung up on the blessings that we didn’t receive this year. Some of us have forgotten the multitude of God’s blessings to instead focus on the few unreceived blessings. Is that fair? Is that right? Does that kind of narrow thinking honor God and all of His blessings? Does God want us to fixate on the unreceived blessings instead of our received blessings? Of course not! To do so is a great injustice to the steadfast goodness and mercy of our loving God. God blesses each of us so very much from day to day that we’d be fools not to offer Him our praise and thanksgiving! God is a good God! God is a fair God! God is a giving God! God is a loving God! What started with the Thanksgiving festival and carries through this entire season is a calling to give God nothing but our thanks for all the blessings we received this year. So again I ask you: “Are you thankful?”
Our readings assigned for this week help us to get into the necessary mindset of thankfulness. In our 1st reading, we heard the prophet Zephaniah encourage the people of Jerusalem to give God thanks and praise. He proclaimed, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” God provided for the people of Jerusalem in their time of need, just as He provides for us in our times of need. We are encouraged to “sing” and “rejoice” and “exult” and “fear disaster no more.” In other words, we are encouraged to be thankful for the many blessings of God. God is a good God! God is a just God! God is a sheltering God! God is a loving God!
The prophet Isaiah tells us, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say on that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.” God wants us to brag about him. God wants us to tell others of the blessings He bestows on us. God is pleased to hear us being grateful. God doesn’t need us to be grateful…God will bestow His blessings with or without our praise and thanksgiving. But God delights in us acknowledging all that He does for us. What parent wouldn’t delight in a child’s acknowledgment of blessings?!
In our 2nd reading, we heard Paul advise the Philippians (and us), “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.” We are encouraged to make requests on God but only prayerfully and thankfully. God doesn’t honor requests from those who aren’t appreciative. God honors the requests of the thankful and prayerful. God blesses such thanksgiving with perhaps the greatest of all gifts: the peace of God. Who wouldn’t want a little more of God’s peace in their lives?!
In the Gospel reading, we heard John the Baptist give very practical ways to show thankfulness. He advises the crowds, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors, he advised, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” To the soldiers, he advised, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.” Underlying all of these practical behaviors is a general attitude of gratitude and thankfulness. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, God gives us opportunities to express our thankfulness. We, as Christians, have a deep and profound thankfulness for what our Lord has done for us and continues to do for us. Being in relationship with Christ, we know the sacrifices he made and continues to make for us. Because of what Christ does for us, it is nearly impossible NOT to carry a thankful heart. Christ took our sins upon the cross and died for us. We will celebrate what Jesus did in a couple months but for now we celebrate his birth…his coming into our world, our broken world, and bringing hope and salvation. In that lowly manger, Christ brings hope. Christ brings love. Christ brings mercy. Christ brings forgiveness. Christ brings salvation. All of these are fully realized on the cross but they have their source in a manager.
As we become ready, as we prepare, we are gladdened by the birth of our Lord and Savior. Jesus isn’t coming to destroy us. Jesus isn’t coming to condemn us. Jesus is coming to save us. Jesus is coming to love us. Jesus is coming to be with us. No matter what blessings each of us received or didn’t receive this year, we are ALL receiving the greatest blessing of all time: Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Let us continue on our Advent journey asking ourselves and others: “Are you thankful?”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.