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Children, it is the final hour (1 John 2:18)

How topical these words are! How they fit in well with what we are all living today, December 31!

The last day of the year… let us live it so as to participate in the Church’s litergical year! We should do this to express God in the fullest way that our hearts and our consciences feel and to make manifest our thanksgiving and request for forgiveness.

“It is truly right and just, and dutiful to give thanks to You!” To You. Exactly to You. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To thank You for all the abundance of the mystery of the Birth of Christ, in whose light the old year is passing and the new one is coming into birth. How eloquent it is, that the day which humanly tells us above all of “passing,” with the precise content of the litergy, should also testify to birth: God’s birth in a human body. And, at the same time, of man’s birth from God.

Any who did accept Him, He empowered to become the children of God. (John 1:12).

Together with this thanksgiving, let all the words of propitiation become the content of our participation in our worship today. Let us put everything which or consciences live into the words we speak, the acts we do, the thoughts we think, what weighs on them, what God alone knows how to judge and remit. And let us not avoid standing here before God, with knowledge and consciousness of guilt, the attitude of the publican in the Gospel of John. Let us take up his attitude. It corresponds to man’s inner truth. It brings liberation. It, exactly it, links up with hope.  Hope for a new world, a new beginning, and a renewal of the soul.

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Zephaniah 3:14-20

14 Sing, O Daughter of Zion;
shout aloud, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
O Daughter of Jerusalem!

15 The LORD has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.

16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.

17 The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”

18 “The sorrows for the appointed feasts
I will remove from you;
they are a burden and a reproach to you.

19 At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you;
I will rescue the lame
and gather those who have been scattered.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they were put to shame.

20 At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,”
says the LORD.

Canticle 9

Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.

For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.

Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation.

And on that day you shall say, *
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;

Make his deeds known among the peoples; *
see that they remember that his Name is exalted.

Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *
and this is known in all the world.

Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *
for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

Philippians 4:4-7

4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Luke 3:7-18

7John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

12Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told

them. 14Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.16John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.

Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Networking has been an established social function in society for as long as there have been people. We often use our connections to get us into social circles and places we might have difficulty getting into alone, or feel awkward if going alone, as I would have this morning when I went to a friend’s church with her.

On television shows and in the media we see people getting things they want because of their family connections or social circles. Most of us have probably done the something like that too. For example, we would rather go to someone we know or to someone recommended than go to a stranger for a haircut or to get our car fixed. That sort of networking is harmless, right?

But when does it cross the line? What about when we find ourselves connected to an individual or a group that demands respect when, in fact, they are driven by arrogance and a misplaced sense of entitlement? Have you ever heard someone say, “Don’t you know who I am?” Have you ever witnessed someone being excused from what would normally be inexcusable behavior because of their connections to a family, a community, or even a belief system?

It doesn’t just happen on TV; it happens anywhere there are people. And it isn’t just a modern day issue.

We hear John the Baptist in our gospel today chastising the crowds before him for this very thing. “You brood of vipers!” he accuses.

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

What vivid imagery! What a dire warning. But most of all, what a reminder of the power of God.

John is telling the crowd and telling us that what our ancestors have done in the past doesn’t matter now. It is what we do in the present that matters. There is an immediacy in John’s declarations. God’s power is being stirred up, and we don’t know what form it is going to take or what the outcome will be. We are powerless before the mystery of God.

Like anyone who feels threatened, the people in the crowd listening to John wanted to avoid judgment, avoid God’s wrath, and avoid pain. They panicked. Human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries. We still feel the same way in the face of the unknown. We want to control it, we want to analyze it, and we want to have power over it. When we can’t do that, we transmit our anxieties to others who we think we can control and have power over. Exploitation makes us feel better.

It seems as if greed, accumulation of material things, and apathy toward others can create a protective shield around the fearful trembling of our distorted hearts. Like the strange, frightening picture in Oscar Wilde’s story of Dorian Gray, our true selves, our inner selves that should be turning to God, end up atrophied and diseased as we slowly become monsters of our own making, while everything on the outside seems to be going along swimmingly.

“What then should we do?” We ask with the despairing crowds.

John tells us we must bear fruits worthy of repentance. We must turn to God – our hope and our salvation.

This calls us as individuals to decide how we will open our hearts, tearing down our useless shields, to let the love of God, through righteousness and justice, bear our fruits of repentance. It is through righteousness that we restore the relationship between us and God, as well as the relationship between each other; and through justice that we restore our relationship with material things – being good stewards of all that we have.

John, in essence, tells the crowds, the tax collectors, and soldiers that the first step to a restored community as God intended is to redistribute wealth and stop exploitation.

Each individual’s decision is key – it is the idea we have today of thinking globally, but acting locally. Systems don’t change all at once, but through one person at a time. This may be something as small as being honest if a cashier gives you too much change back or going through your closet to give away clothes that another can use. Every small action leads to a larger transformation, not just of ourselves, but of the world around us.

We are to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Our hearts are filled with expectation and questioning.

We know the answer to the crowd’s question of “Who is the Messiah?” because we have heard this gospel story before. Yet, even though we know that God is about to do something new by being with us in the flesh – Immanuel “God with us” – and we claim to believe that God is still doing something new – revealing, redeeming, sustaining, and moving in the present time – what are the fruits of our repentance? How are we living our lives with righteousness and justice?

We hear the prophet Zephaniah and the prophet Isaiah proclaiming the goodness of the Lord in our Scriptures today; what hope they hold! “The Lord is in your midst,” Zephaniah exults. How then, do our hearts respond? Are we living as if we believe this?

Sometimes it seems that since the gospels were written in a different time and different place, they are not applicable to the world we live in today. What we often forget is that the same God that came among us back then is in our midst now, stirring up power, doing new things. The God of the gospels is the God of the twenty-first century, and He is still calling us to transformation.

If a doctor diagnosed someone with heart disease or diabetes and then gave that person instructions on how to keep it from getting worse, we’d hope that person would follow the doctor’s advice. After all, we trust doctors to prescribe the right diet and medication. But if we ignore our doctor’s advice and adopted the attitude of “this can’t happen to me,” then we are just asking for trouble.

So, too, with our spiritual lives. John the Baptist is helping us prepare a way in our hearts for the Lord to come.

This is an exciting time. We do not know how God will stir things up – but we do know that God’s work always comes to good. If we don’t clear a path, then how will we be able to respond with joy when the Lord is in our midst? How will we be able to hear the call for transformation in our lives and in the community around us if our shields are up?

We have the choice to allow God to come afresh into our lives, giving us new eyes, deeper wisdom, and profound compassion. We have the ability to repent anew and to affirm the covenant made in our baptism, proclaiming the good news to all people. This is no longer our parents’ choice, or our grandparents’ choice, or our ancestors’ choice – we cannot rest on their laurels. The choice is ours. May we choose wisely.

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The charges were false, even ludicrous. Those who couldn’t refute his arguments or silence him by threats drummed up false accusations. Stephen took control of the room with his voice, unexpectedly holding his audience spellbound. His words resonated with the kind of passion that flows form a simple man who has grasped a great idea, or has been grasped by a vision larger than himself. He told an old familiar story once again, highlighting parts of it that had been curiously overlooked and even forgotten over the years. He traced God’s amazing ways down through the centuries until, like the weaver’s final pass of threads in a seamless garment, Stephen confronted his audience with the truth about their condition.

Stephen presented his case, beginning with Abraham, the father of Israel and Israel’s faith (Acts 7:2-53). Then he unfolded an extended history lesson highlighted by God’s faithfulness despite the faithlessness of his people. Because the accusations had focused on Stephen’s alleged words against the Temple, his case demonstrated that even God had words of warning about the Temple. That was not, after all, a place on which God had staked His reputation. Having dismantled the accusers’ sham case against him, Stephen swiftly stated God’s case against them. Despite all God’s gifts and blessings to His people, they had ultimately rejected Him and His Son. Then Stephen’s closing thunder had to provoke either a storm of resistance or an outpouring of repentance. He said, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it” (Acts 52-53).

The crowd had gathered to judge Stephen, but history and truth passed judgment on them. They rose in rejection of the truth and killed the messenger. Stoning is perhaps one of the most effective ad hominum arguments (an attack against a person rather than an idea), but it doesn’t stop or silence the truth.

Stephen must have seen the murder in their eyes. But he also saw something better when he looked up. “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56), he declared. The mob dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him. He didn’t expect to escape, so he asked God to receive his spirit. Then, with his last breath, he prayed, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60).

Luke, the writer of this account, was not present at Stephen’s martyrdom, but he knew well a man who had been there. That man would have remembered details like the last words Stephen uttered. That man was the apostle Paul, at that time known as Saul, a fierce persecutor of Jesus’ followers. But Saul didn’t know he would have an appointment on the road to Damascus with the same Jesus whom Stephen had seen just before he died.

I found interesting the other day, while discussing Life after Death, the repeated theme inherent in most of the stories you hear on this topic. The theme usually involves some sort of trauma (medical or physical) that causes the person to realize that they may be dying. At that point the theme introduces a “vision” of the “other side”. Some report “talking to a long lost relative” or “seeing a light at the end of a dark tunnel”, while others say they “see Jesus”.

In these times such people are regarded as kooks, their visions are “mere hallucinations”. I beg to differ. Not only is the very same theme reported here – Stephen is being stoned to death, and sees a vision of Christ standing at the right hand of the Father. Even given this glorious vision, having the faith to remain true to his beliefs in the middle of a Sanhedren execution, Stephen has the faith to do two things that I dare say not many of us would be able to do at that point. He: 1) Prays to his Lord. Too many in this world would be too hurt, in pain, scared, angry, betrayed to begin to pray at that moment. This fact is sad in and of itself.

The sadder fact is what (if we were able to pray at that point) would we pray for? Most of us would pray “Lord, get me out of this!” or some other variation on that sentiment. It’s the “Why Me?” syndrome. We are very much like the young man in this Simple Plan video titled “Untitled (How Could This Happen To Me?) – we would ask how this could happen to us, oblivious to the others affected by what has happened.


Not Stephen. He not only has the strength to pray, but to ask his Lord for His forgiveness for those committing this crime against him. At the deepest, most despairing moment in anyone else’s life, Stephen asks the Lord to forgive, and in doing so indicates that he has already forgiven them even as they crushed his body with rocks.

THAT is the kind of faith that I pray that I can have.

How about you?

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