Prepare the Way Worship Series, week 3: DO
December 16, 2018 — Third Sunday of Advent
Rev. Dr. Irving Cotto is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. A former district superintendent and director of congregational development in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, he is currently the pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Warrington, Pa. Dr. Cotto is the author of Fiesta en la Casa de Dios, a book on pastoral reflections regarding worship. He has led training workshops for lay missionaries and has written training modules for the National Hispanic Latino Plan.
Key words: repentance, rejoice, festivity
This week in the Advent season is known as Guadete Sunday, or the Sunday of joy. It is represented by a pink candle on the traditional Advent wreath. The liturgical space should support the preacher’s message.
There is a strong reason for joy. Both texts make references to a happening from God. The Hebrew text promises that the people’s fortune and future have been changed from judgment to hope, from destruction to restoration, from oppression to liberation and from dread to praise (Zeph. 3:14-20). In the gospel text, John the Baptizer opens the curtains before the human drama to introduce the coming of the One who will bring a new chapter of salvation, (Lk. 3:7-18).
There is no hurry to discuss the nativity story. We are now in the third week of Advent, and we hear Christmas carols on the radio and Christmas music on TV. It can be a challenge to refrain from going overboard with a full-fledge Christmas emphasis. Whoever is responsible for the sermon on this day has a great opportunity to refrain giving away the final chapter of the Advent-Christmas season and focus more on joyful expectation, a building up toward the final celebration of the birth of Jesus. The festivity right now should center on the fact that God has promised to change the people’s plight from a world of corruption, failed leadership, captivity under an oppressive power, and inequities and injustices severely affecting the most vulnerable members of the covenant community.
The sermon for the day should capitalize on that joyful divine promise and bring a fresh word to the listeners of the twenty-first century who are part of the Christ-centered covenant community (Lk. 3:18). Like John the Baptizer, the preacher should leave the pulpit at the conclusion of the message “with many exhortations, he or she proclaimed the good news to the people” (v.18).
I was a co-founder and volunteer camp director for at least ten years. One week during the summer, the camp took on the name of Semana Hispana. (Hispanic Week; now it is called Latino Camp.) Its three objectives were:
(1) foster a closer relationship with Jesus Christ,
(2) provide a healthy environment for peer relationships, and
(3) promote and affirm campers’ cultural heritage.
After 40 years, these continue to be the basic purposes for the camp, which makes it somewhat unique. However, like any other camp, it had to follow the same rules and procedures. The rules and procedures included: adequate supervision, a health provider on the premises, a combination of Bible lessons, recreation, crafts, talent shows, and worship experiences.
I remember vividly how some of my own youth eagerly participated in all activities, including activities that led them to break the rules. That’s when the camping experience became a nightmare. I had to call for emergency meetings with my volunteer staff and then approach the culprits with harsh news: “You are all being sent home; you broke the rules, and we can’t allow this to happen. The reputation of the camp, and your safety are at stake.” After a time of confrontation, then hearing the accused’s pleas for mercy and forgiveness, we decided on a different tactic.
Rathering than sending them home, the counselors and I gave them penalties: no pool for the entire day, no games, little interaction with the rest of the campers, and “hard labor” (helping the paid staff clean up certain small roads). It was both sad and a bit funny to see these young men in the back of a pickup truck holding shovels while the truck drove near the pool during free time. But they knew that they had brought the penalties upon themselves. One of them said, “Please don’t let my parents know. I’ll be grounded for as long time, and it could even affect my going to college!” Mercy and compassion shaped my final judgement, but there were some consequences.
The next day it was amazing to see their faces of relief, when the “sentence” was lifted and their privileges at camp were restored. The joy on their faces was obvious as they were reintegrated to the rest of the community.
Of course, what happened during Zephaniah’s time was nothing like this. It was much worse. Big time worse! The spiritual leaders, the concern for holiness in worship, love for the poor, respect for Yahweh’s laws were all abandoned, and the prophet was sent to call the covenant people on it; God’s judgment extended to other nations ( Zephaniah 1-3).
Eventually, God’s mercy is granted, and the promise expressed in the final chapter of Zephaniah’s divine oracle brings a new beginning. There is a song of joy in the air and a call to Do! This tiny word has a message of assurance and comfort. In 3:16-17, we hear the prophet’s message: “On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: DO NOT FEAR, O ZION; DO NOT LET YOUR HANDS GROW WEAK. THE LORD, YOUR GOD IS IN YOUR MIDST.”
After a period of indictment and punishment, the covenant people hear a refreshing word of encouragement. Like my young campers, relief shows on their faces. They laugh again; they party with their fellow sojourners;they are a part of the community. The results: “Loud singing, a day of festival, disaster removed, renewal in God’s love and much more” (vv. 17-18).
In the gospel, Jesus is the “reason for the season.” He is the one who releases us from condemnation and makes us an integral part of a transformative movement of the Holy Spirit. So, what is the good news? What should be this week’s message? What are some possible homiletical angles for this day? Consider:
- Make sure to contrast the consequences of injustice, shallow leadership, and indifference in worship with examples of compassion work done by the congregation and/or by neighborhood organizations.
- Show how the Holy Spirit is more than a concept or the silent person of the Holy Trinity. Even during Advent it is okay to connect the Spirit’s renewing power in anticipation of the coming of Jesus.
- A children’s sermon emphasizing the importance of giving our best to Jesus might be a way of balancing the message of judgment with a message of hope and restoration.
- The sermon could include an action plan to be implemented congregation-wide, perhaps a community project bringing the local church closer to the surrounding needs in the neighborhood or nearby areas that might be disenfranchised.