the third sunday of advent

Zephaniah 3. 14-20
It’s not we who change the world; it’s god-loving!

The past year-and-a-half or so, I’ve made a pretty big to-do over our time here in the wilderness. Like I said, today is the first day of the ninety-second week. The beginning of the ninety-second week somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow. Wondering – as they sing – as we wander! Who we are. Why we are. Truth is, we’ve been on this journey for a long time. More like two decades. Deliberately. Intentionally. I’d been here for just a couple months when we voted to take part in the Transformation Ministries Project of the E.L.C.A., our denomination. Even back then, we’d seen the handwriting on the wall. Declining membership. Shrinking attendance. Dwindling offerings. Since then, there have been plenty of questions. Not that many answers. Our mission … Start walking and see where god’s leading. No maps. No directions. Just a curiosity to see where it all went.

We read the bible. Said prayers. Sang songs. We rearranged pews. Grew wheat and made bread for communion out of what we grew. We planted trees. Hosted summer camps for the neighborhood kids. We provided respite for those taking care of older family members. We served pancakes. With other congregations, we hosted homeless families. And we’ve done it all during one of the more challenging times of our life. Nine-Eleven. Enron. Afghanistan. Iraq. The greatRecession. Even an oil bust or two. And that’s not mentioning politics or pandemic.

But, in the long run, none of it seems to have mattered. Nothing seems to have made a difference. We continue to get small. And grayer. Here we are, this morning, holding hands in cyberspace. For all intents and purposes, nothing’s different. Even after all this time. But truth be told, we have changed! Changed in what matters! Changed in what’s important! And a clue is right here, in the middle of the passage from Zephaniah …

he will renew you in his love …
he will renew you in his love …

Back when we were starting out, we thought it was us. It was something WE were doing wrong. Something WE weren’t getting right. And what we had to do was fix it. If it was the songs we sang, we’d have to sing other ones. If it was the hymnal, the liturgy, maybe we’d have to use PowerPoint. We’d have to tweak worship. Finetune ministries. Worship. Youth group. Choir. But it all had to do with US. What WE did. What WE didn’t.

We’d thought change – transformation – could be choreographed. Scripted. And we’d live happily-ever-after. But after twenty years – one thousand thirty-six weeks – of wondering in the wilderness … After twenty years – one thousand thirty-six weeks – of being tested and tried, tempted and teased … After twenty years – one thousand thirty-six weeks – of digging deeper and deeper … We’ve never gotten out of the whole. And each time, every time, we were brought back to the same place. To Christ. To the cross.

You see, it’s not our effort and energy that changes us! It’s not trying harder! It’s not doing better! It’s not, even, doing more! It’s god loving us! “… he will renew you in his love …” It’s god loving that recreates us! It’s god loving that renews us! God loving makes us what, makes us who, we are! Period! End of sentence! God loving changes us! God loving that keeps us, even after we’ve changed!

The thing that always trips us up is that it’s not as hard to believe as we’d like to imagine. It’s pretty easy, actually. God’s the one who does all the work! It’s with god – not us – that the buck stops! It’s with god – not us – that the buck starts! We make it so difficult! The expectations! The demands! Believing – for us – is just one big scale balancing the good against the bad! Or is it the bad against the good? We just like to think we’re more than we are! It’s our way of claiming bragging rights to our life! But that’s not believing … because that’s not how love works! Being loved! Loving! But then, that’s what we’ve been learning for the past two decades. Being loved is the one thing that changes us! The only thing that transforms us! That renews us! Our BEING loved, not OUR loving!

The world tells us that life is in our own hands. The church tells us that life is in god’s hands! We don’t have to dot all the ‘I’s’ and cross all the ‘t’s’. There are no hoops we have to jump through. God does it all!

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

That’s love! Charity! Grace! Jesus doesn’t tell us to do more! Jesus isn’t telling us to try harder! Jesus says, “Relax! Rest! I’ve got you!” Rules and regulations are the way of the world. And punishment and reward just more of the same. But love … Jesus’ love … that’s what’s different! That’s what’s new! What makes us different and makes us new! Even old congregations like us!

Being a disciple isn’t a job. Being church isn’t work. And faith – if it’s faith, at all – is easy! No shoulder to the wheel! Nose to the grindstone! It’s purely, simply, love! Being loved by god! Loved by god and changed because of it! Changed forever!

So, my friends, it’s advent again. It’s our chance, our opportunity, simply to sit back, and watch, and wait! God doing the rest! Sit back, wait, and watch, as the love of god appears! One! More! Time!

Midland Lutheran Church