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Read Zephaniah 3:14-19 and Luke 3:7-12.

Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, with the kids jingle-belling and everyone telling you “be of good cheer.” It is supposed to be, but it isn’t always that wonderful, is it? This week on a local radio show there was discussion of the “dark side” of the holidays. The guest on the show was a director of a substance abuse problem. She and the host acknowledged that during the holidays there is a marked increase in incidents of substance abuse brought about by increased depression.

Why? Why is there a dark side to what should be the hap-happiest time of the year? Perhaps it is because the holidays remind us of our highest expectations - how we think it ought to be - and that makes our world and our lives as they really are stand out in contrast. Against the backdrop of the glowing and shining holiday cheer, the truth about current reality and our relationships stands out. It’s not that anything is really different it’s just that we notice it. And whether we accept it or not, this makes us feel judged.

Maybe a different holiday song explains how we often feel: “O you had better watch out, you had better not cry, you had better not pout, and I am telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town.” Andy Williams is unrealistically cheerful, but Gene Autry gets it: We had better shape up or Santa is going to dish out punishment. Seriously, much of our anxiety comes from the fact that our reality doesn’t match up with our expectations. And the judgmental tone of “You had better watch out” convicts us of our shortcomings and failings.

Failed expectations (in self, in family, in church, in others, in the world in general) lead to judgment. Judgment itself is not the problem, but the aim of the judgment is. The aim or outcome of judgment often depends on who is doing the judging.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating, we are not good judges. We are either too lenient and justify the worst of sins, or we are too harsh and we hold ourselves and others to ridiculous standards. When we judge ourselves or others the outcome of judgment is rarely useful, the judgment doesn’t lend itself to change. We are poor judges because our judgment is too often delivered with criticism, fear, worry, and hatred on one extreme; or sentimentalism, self-righteousness, inconsistency, and denial on the other extreme.

Even the best judge on earth is inadequate because no one is outside the judgment of God. Our judgment is limited, but the judgment of God goes beyond merely naming the sin and works to restore righteousness. The prophets from Elijah to John the Baptist have preached “You had better watch out.” Not because they came to judge, but because they spoke the truth that God will judge. God will not ignore the evil in the world that destroys and pollutes his creation. A Day of God’s Judgment is coming that is more than just a personal evaluation; it is the day that God acts to set things right – and he will deliver his judgment with both justice and mercy.

Our reading in worship was from the prophet Zephaniah. We don’t hear often from Zephaniah. He seems to be even more judgmental than “You had better watch out.” It is tough stuff. And if we are going to hear from the prophets during the most wonderful time of the year, we want to hear from Isaiah’s greatest hits – refrains like “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” We want to rush to the Nativity story – but we cannot really understand what that story is all about if we don’t first pay attention to Zephaniah.

Zephaniah speaks for the Lord. He reveals the dark side, the ugly truth that lies hidden beneath the bright shiny decorations and wrapping we use to cover our shortcomings. He knows what is wrong with the world, including God’s people. He declares the judgment of God against human society that has fallen because it has become commercial rather than compassionate, a people who subjugate the weak rather than submit to the Almighty, a people who excel in complacency rather than concern, a people who are privately religious rather than publicly repentant.

Zephaniah (1:2-7) is plain about it: God judges. "I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth," declares the LORD. "The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off humanity from the face of the earth," declares the LORD. "I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal, the names of the pagan and the idolatrous priests - those who bow down on the roofs to worship the starry host, those who bow down and swear by the LORD but who also swear by Molech, those who turn back from following the LORD and neither seek the LORD nor inquire of Him." Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near.

But God’s judgment is different from our poor judgment. God’s judgment is also God’s grace. His correction leads to change. When God judges he always creates a new alternative. There’s a flood to judge, but a rainbow to promise new covenant. There is a cross that judges, but an empty tomb to promise new hope, new life. Zephaniah (3:14-17) proclaims this, too:
"Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! (Why?) God will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”

At last your troubles will be over, and you will never again fear disaster. On that day the announcement to Jerusalem will be, “Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! (Why?) For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. For the Lord will remove his hand of judgment and will disperse the armies of your enemy. And the Lord himself, the King of Israel, will live among you!

God is with us. His name is Immanuel. The light has broken into the dark side of this world under judgment. Fear is giving way to hope because the Lord really is with us. [Now do you see how the story of his birth is important?] Christ’s first coming into this world was good news, but as John the Baptist warned it was also judgment: "I'm baptizing you here in the river. But the one who comes after me will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He's going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He'll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he'll put out with the trash to be burned." (Luke 3)

Watch out! Watch out for the fear, anxiety, hatred, and denial that leads to the hopeless judgment of our age. Watch out! Submit yourself to the Lord’s judgment. He will purify your speech. He will cleanse your life with the Holy Spirit’s fire. The Lord’s judgment is the truth that maybe for the first time allows you to be the person who always thought you might be.

Some of our friends from far away recently reminded my family of the sinfulness and sorrow that persists even in the most wonderful time of the year. We heard from the mother and father of a young man, he is a young adult himself, who stood before a judge in a court of law. He is a young man who has committed crimes to support his drug addiction. The District Attorney was willing to make him an offer. If he would enter a drug treatment program, then he could avoid prison and his sentence for his crimes would be delayed until after his treatment. His sentence following treatment would be very lenient. But this young man refused that offer; instead he accepted a two year prison sentence and chose to live with a felony charge on his record forever. Why? He decided to be his own judge. Even though his judgment is harsher than the court, it is a judgment that doesn’t demand any real change on his part. No repentance. No new life. We are poor judges. Watch out for it.

Who judges you today? Are you living out the sentence of others who’ve judged you? Are you living out your own self-imposed sentence? Do you really know what God’s judgment is?

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 17 December 2006

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