Sermon: Renewal by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

December 12, 2021

A meditation shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC on December 12, 2021, the third Sunday of Advent. “Good Tidings” series.

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20

I have a plant that is dear to me because it was a memorial gift received for my father’s funeral service six years ago. It was small enough that I could carry it home with me on the plane. This plant is very good at telling me when it needs water. Its leaves begin to look thin and droop, unable to remain upright due to lack of their most vital requirement. As soon as I give it a drink, the response is dramatic. The plant is restored right before my eyes; the water renews its strength. 

Perhaps this image first came to mind as I reflected upon the words of the prophet Zephaniah because among all the good tidings from our text, the part that most struck me is, “God will renew you in his love.” At the end of this long year that has felt strangely short, I am painfully aware of how thin my resources are, how difficult it is to “keep my chin up” as daddy would say, how I often feel droopy like my plant when it’s thirsty. I’m aware of my own need for renewal—and I know I’m not alone. I observe frayed relationships and grieving families and whole communities grappling with trauma and anxiety. I’m aware of colleagues in ministry and school teachers and medical professionals who are burned out to the point of walking away from their vocations. I’m aware of the weary ones who continue to try to carry the banner for racial, gender, and economic equity and justice, for common sense gun laws, for access to education and health care and so much more. I’m aware of children and youth falling behind the learning curve and grappling with spikes in anxiety and depression. And, mercy, just think of the communities destroyed in minutes from tornadoes this week and all those still recovering from fires, floods and other increasingly intense natural disasters as a result of climate change. // “God will renew you…” Those are words I need to hear. 

The original audience needed these words as well. Zephaniah prophesied in Judah during the early years of King Josiah, around 640 BCE and before the king’s reforms address the mess Israel had made of things. Much of the short book (only three chapters) is searing judgment upon Israel for idolatry and syncretism (1:4-6), complacency (1:12), corrupt leadership (3:3-4), and injustice (3:1, 5). And yet quite abruptly the message shifts. The last word of the book—the way Zephaniah’s prophecy ends—is what we receive today: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” And why the rejoicing? Because “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you…the Lord your God is in your midst…God will renew you in his love…God will deal with all your oppressors…will save the outcast…will bring you home…”

Picture it in your mind’s eye…a whole community—weighed down with the human mix of guilt, fear, anxiety, weariness, apathy and all the fruits of injustice—everyone drooping and weak, parched for what is most needed... and then news arrives that God is on the way and will not destroy, but save them. Like a drink of cool water, mercy and help and relief and guidance and love flow into the parched places. God’s love renews them all.

The end of Zephaniah feels a little bit like a stock photo, the old Deus ex machina, the knight in shining armor, Tammy Wynette “standing by her man.” It feels too easy, a bit contrived, a predictable ending to God’s love story. 

But I gotta say, right now, predictable love stories are giving me life and not a small measure of joy. Whether it’s Hallmark or Lifetime or Netflix or wherever, I’m quite happy to spend some time with completely overused plot points like two romantically challenged characters who meet, realize they’re destined to be together, encounter a series of problems meant to separate them, and by the end are wrapped in each other’s arms. Or two people meet and immediately think the other is awful only later to discover that arguing with each other is better than any conversation with anyone else ever. Or two people who usually don’t get along agree to pretend they are together to satisfy family expectations or make an ex jealous and, well, you know how the story goes… 

And I’ll quickly say that the renewal I get from 90 minutes of contrived plot points and charming country Christmas villages with quirky characters is NOT because I lack for love in my life. It’s because sometimes you just need to experience the predictable love story, to be reminded that desire for love is universal, that to love and be loved is life-giving and joy producing. And, of course, there’s the side benefit of shutting off large parts of your brain so that it can get a little break. That is renewing in a whole other way.

Today and throughout this season, we receive again the familiar story of God’s love affair with us. It goes something like this:

God loves us and provides guidance and resources for our lives to flourish; we blow God off in one form or fashion doing harm to others and ourselves in the process; God sends prophets and teachers to try to get our attention; and when we make even the smallest turn toward God, create even the slightest opening in our heart to God, God rushes in with grace and love and compassion and forgiveness. Rejoicing ensues and the credits roll… And then people create a series of sequels that have a very similar plot.

The rejoicing isn’t because we’re off the hook, but because we realize we’re loved “even while we are yet sinners.” (as our communion liturgy affirms) // In my experience, water is sweeter when I’m parched. Mercy and forgiveness are cause for humble rejoicing when I know I’ve messed up. Assurance that I’m not alone and that I’m loved is nice enough when I am feeling strong, but that assurance is new life and strength when I’m feeling weak. Good tidings are only good when we know we stand in need of them…

And the good tidings of Zephaniah’s prophesy reminds us that renewal is God’s desire for us. God knows what we need. We are assured that as we respond to God’s love, strengthened to try to do and be better, to live together in peace with justice, to care for others as we care for ourselves, God is in our midst as our advocate and guide, our protector, and the one who loves us best.

So rejoice! 

The plot twist, no longer such a twist for those who’ve seen the movie before, is that we aren’t the only ones singing for joy. In verse 17 it is God who is rejoicing! “God will rejoice over you with gladness, God will renew you in his love; God will exult over you with loud singing!” 

God’s love story may have a predictable ending. But it never gets old. For God so loves the world that, well, you know how the story goes (cf. John 3:16-17). Let’s rejoice that in these holy days we receive the story and God’s amazing grace… again.