Stan Freberg has written a musical farce parodying the commercialization of the Advent season, appropriately naming it Green Chri$tma$. That is green as in money, with dollar signs in place of the letter “S” in Christmas. In starring roles are two of our old seasonal favorites, Bob Cratchet and Ebenezer $crooge. You may as well spell Scrooge with a dollar sign, too, because he is typecast as a greedy, unscrupulous Madison Avenue advertising executive who is out to exploit Christmas in every way imaginable.[i]
On the other hand, Bob Cratchet, who understands the real reason for the season, is up against incredible odds. Cratchet is owner of a small spice company in East Orange, New Jersey. He wants to mail his customers Christmas cards picturing the three magi bearing gifts to the Christ child with, of all things, a Bible verse inside.
Scrooge, dreaming of a green Chri$tma$, tells Cratchet that the magi on the card should be portrayed carrying the spices Cratchet’s company is selling instead of their traditional gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. How else can the card promote Cratchet’s spices, expand sales, and increase revenues? After all, that is the purpose of Christmas cards, Scrooge believes.
During their meeting Cratchet endures Scrooge’s Musak, hearing several traditional tunes with altered words, such as “Deck the Halls with Advertising.” We can only hope that, rather than this “mercantile Messiah,” old Scrooge will finally see the light of Christ, as he does at the hand of Charles Dickens.
Christmas cards, which once were sent to wish others peace on earth, goodwill, and blessings of the season, are now serving more commercial purposes. I love the story about an apartment building in New York City. It was early in December when all the residents awoke to find a greeting card taped to the outside of their apartment doors. The cards read, “Merry Christmas from the custodial staff.”
“Well, Isn’t that nice,” one of the new residents thought to herself. “What a lovely, caring staff we have at our service.” Then she promptly forgot all about the card. A week later, she came home from work to find another card taped to her door. This one said, “Merry Christmas from the custodial staff. Second notice.”
December is often criticized as a time of overindulgence and excesses, with too much shopping, eating, drinking, and self-gratification. Each person searches for happiness in his or her own way, with many believing that the more things they can accumulate, the happier life will be. Things get old quickly, though. Shopping is enjoyable for some, but today’s acquisition is old by tomorrow.
A rabbi once asked a prominent man, “Why are you always hurrying?” He answered, “I'm running after success, fulfillment, and rewards for all my hard work.” The rabbi responded, “You assume those blessings are somewhere ahead of you, and if you chase fast enough you may catch them. But what if those blessings are behind you, are looking for you, and the more you run, the harder you make it for them to find you?” [ii] If money can buy happiness, it is a short-lived happiness, one that must be continually replenished with more stuff.
God is leading us toward a deeper spirituality where we can find true joy and peace, but isn’t it odd that, of all times, we are too busy for God this time of year. We will have much more time for God in January. Spirituality and worship will have to wait for a more convenient time.
In the time of the prophet Zephaniah, the people of Judah have forgotten to make time in their lives for worship. They have become caught up in the cultures of foreign nations and no longer practice a worshiping lifestyle that is pleasing to God. The prophet Zephaniah proclaims judgment, while at the same time calling for a new moral and religious order, and telling the people to rejoice.
The prophet’s tools are words, and not ordinary, smooth words that are easy to understand or easy to dismiss. They are sharp, divinely-honed, two-edged words. With these words, Zechariah announces God’s intentions and challenges the people’s complacency. He announces that later their distress will be turned to rejoicing because the oppressor will be overthrown, and a new king is coming to the throne of David.
Zephaniah also underscores the importance of an external expression of faith. Formal worship is a means for increasing awareness of God’s presence in all areas of life. External acts of worship must proceed from a strong faith that results in obedience to the law, in righteous living, and in doing justice.
Zephaniah envisions a new day when God will purify the speech of the people so “that all of them may call on the name of the Lord.” The purpose of judgment is not destruction, but redemption. Judah and the nations are judged so that God can gather the humble and lowly, those who will call on the name of God and serve with one accord. This is the prophetic hope that accompanies the purpose of salvation. (3:9).
There will be a sorrowful time when Jerusalem is captured by the Babylonians. The people will be driven from their homes, cities, and land into a foreign country. They will be deep in sorrow in far-away Babylon. Now, even before the captivity begins, Zephaniah invites God’s people to rejoice because their salvation is near. The faith of a few will result in the transformation of many, and rejoicing will certainly follow.
God’s people again will celebrate, sing, shout, be glad, and rejoice. God promises to save the lame, change shame into fame, gather the outcasts, and restore the fortunes of the people. But, the hope in God’s future requires radical change and re-shaping of the people’s lives for this foreseen future to become a present reality.
Today God is reminding us that in addition to the lame, there are still many outcasts. God still waits for us to embrace all of God’s children: the LGBT community, Muslims who also call Zephaniah their prophet, those of differing races, customs, and cultures. There is still time to repent and reform for all those whom we have shamed or cast away from our presence. Repentance frees us from emotional pain, unfulfilled dreams, broken relationships, and moral failures.
The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally “Rejoicing Sunday,” as we remember to give thanks for God’s great gifts to us. Imagine Zechariah and the people of God celebrating, with God there in their very midst. All are singing and dancing in the streets, and God is singing loudest of all. There is rejoicing because the people have been forgiven. They were imprisoned in sin, but all are forgiven and their sentence is commuted. God is their salvation and is coming into their midst to save them.
Zephaniah speaks in past, present, and future tenses. His words are fulfilled in the coming of Christ. He also points us to Christ’s coming again. Christ is in our midst now, of that we can be assured. There will be a time still to come when we will have our final homecoming with God, the greatest celebration of all.
With uplifting words for a troubled world, the prophet Zephaniah looks beyond judgment to a day of hope and restoration for all peoples. He calls for rejoicing inJerusalem, since it will be once again a city in which God delights. Zephaniah says “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion…Rejoice and exult with all your heart.”
The apostle Paul echoes Zephaniah’s command to rejoice, even while Paul is imprisoned at the hands of the Romans: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” That is a most unusual mandate coming from a prisoner who may be about to lose his life. Paul tells us that God is nearby. Christ will come again, bringing a peace that surpasses all understanding. Peace will then spread across the land (Philippians 4:4-7).
In 1955 a thirteen-year-old Japanese girl named Sadako died of radiation-induced leukemia. She was one of many who suffered the after-effects of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. During her illness, Sadako was able to entertain herself and raise her spirits by making origami cranes.
An old Japanese legend says that cranes live for a thousand years and that the person who folds a thousand paper cranes will have any wish granted. With each paper crane she made, Sadako wished that she would recover from the fatal illness. On one paper crane she wrote, “I will write ‘peace’ on your wings and you will fly all over the world.” She was only able to fold 644 cranes before her death. To honor her memory, Sadako’s classmates folded 356 more cranes so that she could be buried with a thousand paper cranes.
Later, her friends collected money from children all over Japan to erect a monument to Sadako in the HiroshimaPeacePark. It is a statue of a girl standing with her hand outstretched, and a paper crane flying from her fingertips. Inscribed on the base are these words: “This is our cry, This is our prayer, Peace in the world.” People continue to place paper cranes at the base of the statue to recall the tragedy of war and to celebrate humanity’s undying hope for peace.[iii]
The Advent season is all about peace, a commodity that has always been in short supply in our world. We’re not merely talking about the absence of conflict, but rather the calming inner certainty that all is well. This peace is born out of a harmonious relationship between the Creator and the created, and has its foundation in a faithful allegiance to Jesus.
The coming Messiah was believed to be an economic liberator, but all the Scrooges in the world cannot accumulate sufficient funds to buy peace and joy. Peace and joy are priceless. Advent is all about reconciliation of the spirit, and the peace that Paul preaches. May “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” our Lord. Let us all join in prayers for peace and inclusivity for all God’s children. Amen.
Explore the warnings you received. Explore the warnings those sitting in the pew probably received. To add a seasonal touch, explore warnings offered to people around Christmas. Last week my wife warned me to go get a chair to put an ornament on our Christmas tree. I didn’t listen and we barely caught the tree before it topped over.
Johnny the Baptizer warns people they are headed in the wrong direction. Imagine and describe wrong directions people have taken. This past Sunday I heard a person in church say, “My life is a train wreck.” Some train wrecks are created by our own actions. Gently explore our train wrecks with all your pastoral skills.
When we have headed in the wrong direction we want love, grace and acceptance and acknowledgement that we are just one of the seven billion imperfect people who live on this earth. We also like to have something to do. Doing something new makes tangible and concrete our willingness to attempt significant changes for the better. Explore what Johnny the Baptizers asks each character to do.
You could end your sermon this way: Our friend, Johnny the baptizer, seems harsh, worse than a surgeon or doctor with no bedside manners. He calls us a brood of vipers. You know, that’s really not necessary. Or is it? Maybe, maybe not. What is necessary is the last line of our scripture lesson, “he proclaimed the good news to the people.” If a warning isn't wrapped in love and the hope of well-being, then it is not good news. I'm not telling you anything you don't know, am I? May this Advent be a time of good news too, even if wrapped in major life changes.