A Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Advent 3, December 14, 2003, dedicated to Rya McKinley Kiernan on her baptismal day and always to the glory of God!

"Refining Shame"

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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Into December darkness we descend this day. We find ourselves a little less covered by light, a little dusted by snow. We awaken to make our final trudge toward winter solstice accompanied by two prophets who refuse to stand in darkness - pushing back the despair of judgment with hope; the pain of purposelessness with promise; the mess and mire of our time with a messianic promise for all time.

Into December darkness steps Zephaniah, son of the Africans (ben Cushi) and John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah.

The prophet Zephaniah was a little known prophet of the seventh century before Christ. Sliced between Isaiah & Micah and later Jeremiah, Zephaniah's abbreviated sermon reflects the coming day of the Lord as both a day of judgement and a day of salvation. He opens with a prophecy of terror describing the coming wrath of God as a thundering judgment and horrible punishment for all who defy the Lord. "I will sweep away all humans and animals. I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. Humanity will be cut from the face of the earth" (1:3). He says that distress and anguish; ruin and devastation; darkness and gloom; a day of clouds and thick darkness will come from God (1:14-15). Can you feel the heaviness of God's judgment raining upon you? Like the inevitable rush of water to the falls and the quick and powerful descent of that same water to the floor of the basin below, doom is coming as we open the words of the preaching prophet.

In the midst of this terrible impending cataclysm comes a word of hope. Violent terror is turned to a whisper of promise as Zephaniah proclaims, ever so quietly, "Seek the Lord, all you humble of the lands who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden from the day of the Lord's wrath" (2:3). We cling to this "perhaps" as our way out of doom. Like a rock appearing on the crest of the waterfalls, we reach out for hope, and pray that we can grasp and hang onto the one dry place in the fast current leading to certain death.

In the end, the whisper grows to a crescendo as God declares salvation and deliverance for those who are faithful to God's ways:"Sing aloud O daughter, Zion! Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exalt with all your heart, O daughter, Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgment upon you, God has turned away your enemies" (3:14-15). Not only that, God takes the voice of the first person and proclaims, "I will remove disaster from you . . . I will deal with your oppressors . . . I will save the lame . . . I will gather the outcast . . . I will change their shame into praise and make them renown in all the earth . . . I will bring you home . . . I will gather you . . . I will make you renowned and praised . . . I will restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord!" (3:18-20).

The power of God's word seemingly reverse the stream of judgment and transforms it into an ever-flowing current of hope and promise! How is it that the God who would destroy, will reverse current's flow and turn our shame into praise? When the darkness seems deepest, how is it that God's light is revealed? How is it that the rock appears by the falls and saves us?

These questions lay silently in the prophetic texts for over seven hundred years. Then, John the Baptist arrives and awakens them in December darkness! He comes into the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. But rather than merely preach at people, and wail away with "Thus saith the Lords!" (Which John is quite capable and gifted in so doing), he engages the people's questions about the one who is coming as a "refiner's fire." The crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers ask, "What should we do to prepare the way?"

To the crowds, John says share half of what you have with the poor. "If you have two coats, give one away. If you have food, do likewise." (3:11). To the tax collectors who were notorious for fleecing the people through unjustified collections, the prophet says, "collect no more than is prescribed to you" (3:13). Soldiers also ask what they should do. John says, "End your financial extortions" (3:14).

Clearly, there are economic consequence to God's salvation. Following the Savior is not so much about what you believe as is about what you do! Somewhere between the clear practices of faith in early Judaism and the highly developed belief systems of middle-Christianity, the church lost its way from the path of clarity offered by our desert prophet. Out of some distorted fear that we will get wrapped-up in "works righteousness," we have developed hierarchies of "grace" and placed creed and words ahead of just and righteous action. If you like words and place high value on belief systems, listen again very carefully and place high value on the word of the prophet paving the way for The Word of God Incarnate: Feed and clothe the poor. End greed and exploitation. End military occupation, intimidation, blackmail and victimization. Then, you will be ready to welcome the Messiah. Again, simply stated, there is a just economic cost to the business of Messiahship and Discipleship.

For today sermon title, I chose the word "refining" from the Gospel of Luke. From Zephaniah's prophecy, I chose the word "shame." For many of us, God's work in our lives is about refining shame. By "refining shame," I do not mean placing the stone of our shame in a rock tumbler and rolling it with grist until shame has become our finest and smoothest rock to bear. Rather, I mean that God is refining our shame and recasting our shame in new redemptive and creative contexts.

As you know, shame is the painful feeling of our lives which arises in our consciousness when we or someone close to us, has done something dishonest, deceitful, improper or dishonorable. When cast in shame, we feel that we have not lived up to our values. We feel fundamentally embarrassed about ourselves. We feel unlovable because of things we have done, or perhaps that we believe we have done to others. The more shameful we feel, the more secretive we become. So, shame deals a second blow. After shame's acknowledgment of internal guilt, it turns even deeper upon itself by burying the perceived deception and dishonesty deep within the soul. Truth becomes buried with shame. We gasp for breath to speak the shame we feel.

"I will change their shame into praise," says God in Zephaniah. In other words, through the fire of pain, God refines and redefines shame as praise. God says, take that interior feeling or worthlessness and guilt, and love yourself as I love you. Stop beating yourself. Start loving yourself. Forgive yourself as I forgive you.

You who stand in the December darkness, cast your cares upon God, and step into the light of God's promise! Take the "shoulds" of your life - which simply imply nothing is good enough - and accept the truth that you are good enough! Why are these words so hard for many of us to hear? Do we fear that pride will overtake us if we are kind to ourselves? Often our egos get in the way! But, we need to trust that God, who promises the turning of shame into praise, will deliver on his promises!

Mildred Howells has written: "And so it criticized each flower, this supercilious seed; until it woke one summer hour and found itself a weed." Shame is the supercilious seed of Mildred Howells verse, eating away at our souls in this December darkness.

The key to unlocking the door of December darkness is humility. Remember Zephaniah's words: "Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land who do his commands . . . seek humility and perhaps you may be hidden from the day of the Lord's wrath" (2:3). In our December darkness, God comes in great humility as a newborn child to save us. God comes as a newborn child to remind us and recall us to ways of economic justice and personal and social righteousness. God comes as a newborn child to refine our shame. God comes with an unimaginable invasion of humility and holiness.

In December darkness, trust in God to reach into the deep recesses of your shame and pull you through by the power of God's unconditional love and grace. In December darkness, God will carry you to a place of forgiveness, bathed in the eternal light of hope. Amen.

Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church

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