Dec 15, 2012
For those of you in Australia this is a bit late, but for any in the Western Hemisphere this may be of some help in preaching about the events in Newton Connecticut. Also of perhaps of some use may be the podcast sermon different to the script below for this week because of its reference to the Rwandan Massacre. To hear that sermon click HERE The podcast blog page is: http://stteves10.libsyn.com/dignity-no-fear-and-joy-advent-3-c
a. Zephaniah 3:14-20 b. Philippians 4:4-7 c. Luke 3:7-18
Sermon The gift of dignity
Up until yesterday this sermon was all tied up in a nice little bow, I wrote it week ago and emailed off the order of service. Since then there has been the massacre in Newton Connecticut with 20 young children and eight adults including the gunman dead. So last night I decided to add a little to this sermon.
A couple of weeks ago I preached about how God’s presence amongst us in Christ on the first Christmas and now through the Holy Spirit and in the promised return of Christ should enable us to overcome fear, for we know that we are in God’s hands and we have the final victory. The reading from Zephaniah is set at the time the people of Israel go into exile in Babylon. The temple had ben destroyed Jerusalem had been reduced to rubble and many people would have been killed in the battle and in the aftermath. If you think back to last week’s Zachariah lived in a time of fear too and I could have picked up the same theme but instead I want to talk about the dignity that the presence of God gives us. For me the bottom line is that Jesus who was God truly with us and truly one of us died for everyone. He was born as a little baby for everyone, he taught and healed and touched the untouchable for everyone. He welcomed and was welcomed by Children, lepers, prostitutes, women, tax collectors, publically notorious sinners, Roman soldiers, rabbis, scribes pharisees, sadducees, the wealthy and the poor.
As we think about the massacre at Newton, or the much worse events of things like the Jewish holocaust, or the Rwandan massacres we must believe that he came for those young children, their teachers, their grieving families, and dare I say it for the gunman too. (I very much doubt that I will meet him in heaven, I think he has probably rejected God’s gift of love in Jesus, but I believe that gift was for him too.) This belief that God’s love is for all even the very young is one of the reasons I am a passionate believer in infant baptism. I believe that even a little baby is the object of God’s love. In the words of my favourite part of the baptism service.
for you Jesus Christ has come, has lived, has suffered;
for you he endured the agony of Gethsemane
and the darkness of Calvary;
for you he uttered the cry, 'It is accomplished!'
For you he triumphed over death; for you he prays at God's right hand; all for you, little child even though you do not know it.
In baptism, the word of the apostle is fulfilled:
'We love, because God first loved us'.
I believe this is true for every human being who has ever lived and it is most certainly true for the children and adults who died in this last 48 hours in Newton.
Every human being has value and dignity because Jesus was born, died, was raised and will return for every one of us.
In approaching this idea that Jesus gives us dignity I want to reflect on the Children’s story this morning about the leper, last week’s reading about Zachaiah the father of John and on the Old Testament lesson for today from Zeph.
The story of the leper and of Zachariah have certain things in common. Zachariah upon hearing of Elizabeth’s pregnancy doesn’t believe it. Because of this he is struck dumb. The Old Testament law said that anyone who was disfigured (Zach & Leper) for Zachaiah as a priest that meant that he would not have been able to enter the Temple and serve in his role as priest for a person without speech was considered to be unclean, and un-whole. The old testament law also regarded children as of no value. They were property which could be sold as slaves. They had no rights and no power and no recognition and no formal place in worship. In broader terms the people of Israel were living in disgrace. Israel was occupied by the Romans. The Herods & the temple authorities were in collusion with the Romans. Zachariah was part of that system, as a priest directly or indirectyl he was in collusion with the Roman authorities. This is the world John the Baptist is born into. It is little wonder he calls the world to repent, even the temple, the house of God is in disgrace. Zephaniah our Old Testament reading picks up on this theme of shame and disgrace and brings a word of hope.
He speaks of people receiving dignity. There were two intellectually disabled worshippers in one of the congregations I worshipped in. Even though they were in their fifties they were members of a Sunday School class. They had grown up in a time when the intellectually disabled were treated in a very patronizing way - like small children. They were not allowed to make decisions for themselves, and they certainly could not become confirmed members of the church!!
These women were both very faithful worshippers. They loved taking part in the service. They loved singing. If they said they would pray for you, you knew they would. And the people of the church loved them, BUT they were not members, and they had never been given the opportunity to publically declare their faith in Jesus. They had never been given the opportunity to be declared truly loved, forgiven and included by God. They had never been publically declared to be part of Christ's body.
There is a sense in which these two women were outcasts. People left out, like the leper or Zachariah childless and struck dumb. People shunned, not just by the world, but even by the church. Well the promise of Zephaniah was for them: Through Z. God said this:
19 ....I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth. Zephaniah 3:14-20 (NRSV)
At some point the congregation realized its mistake and invited these women to become part of the congregation, and to be confirmed in their faith. On the day of the service, both were overcome with emotion, the tears flowed. In the words of the service, in their personal testimony and through their tears, they powerfully confessed their faith in Jesus, and were publically assured that Jesus loved and included them in his body, the church.
Those who had been outcasts were gathered into the church. Their shame was changed to praise. Their renown, their faith, was for the first time publically acknowledged by the congregation and today has spread to the St Stephen’s congregation.
As Christmas approaches we come to the time of year when there are the most suicides, the most depression and the most family arguments. For many it is a time of loneliness and anxiety or even fear. And we live in a world in which many people are left out. They are left out because they are different to us, or because of the difficult circumstances of their lives. It may not be a coincidence that the Newton massacre happened so close to Cristmas.
The promise of Zephaniah and of Jesus, is that God is with us, right now working in our lives, and that God will one day be part of us in such a tangible way that all the bad in the world and all that's broken or bad in us will be made better and good. Along with many Christians I believe that Jesus will return and it is at that time that all will be set right.
Then we will be able to say...
17 The Lord your God is with you;
his power gives you victory.
The Lord will take delight in you,
and in his love he will give you new life.
He will sing and be joyful over you,
18 as joyful as people at a festival.”
The Lord says,
“I have ended the threat of doom
and taken away your disgrace.
Zephaniah 3:17-18 (GNB)
This is a word for you. Whatever is hurt or broken or disfigured in you, whatever causes you same or disgrace has been taken away in Christ. It is true for any friend, family member of fellow church member too, no matter how old or how young. It is also true for all people of all races, genders, social classes and life styles. And this morning we also remember it is true for the adults and the little children of Newton, and all their loved ones who grieve their loss. May we recognise this dignity of Christ in every human being.