Clean House

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Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

Zephaniah 3:14-20    Luke 3:7-18

One of the motifs you’re likely to encounter
during the holy season of Advent
is that of cleaning house.

During Advent,
we’re inevitably told to get ready:
like bridesmaids waiting at home for the groom
or servants waiting at home for the master.
“Keep awake,” Jesus says,
“for you do not know when
the master of the house will come.”

In other words, clean house . . . and keep it clean.

Of course, during this time of year
cleaning house is just part
of what many of us do,
what with all the yuletide
decorations, obligations, and company.

This week Jay and I received a call
from my beloved Aunt Karene and Uncle Warren,
whom we have not seen in ten years,
telling us they were coming through town
and that they’d love to have dinner with us.

We truly were overjoyed at the news.
I had just been thinking about them
and how long it had been since we’d seen them.
I literally burst into tears when Jay told me.

And then she and I looked at one another and said,
“Uh oh. We better clean house!”

But as you know,
“cleaning house”
can mean a lot more
than just “tidying up.”

How many times have we elected people
in the hopes that they would “clean house?”
Trim the fat.
Cut the pork.
Drain the swamp.

All of this is a metaphor
for putting our affairs in order
so we can focus
on what matters most.

In the Christian life,
there’s a word for this:
it’s called repentance.

In one way or another,
most of our readings today
have something to do with
“cleaning house” and repentance.

Now, my guess is that most of you
have not been sitting around
reading the book of Zephaniah
just for fun.

I don’t blame you.

The part of Zephaniah
that you heard today
is the only happy part . . .
and it comes at the very tail end.
All the other chapters leading up to it
are doom and destruction.

But here’s what you need to know.

Zephaniah was a prophet
who was alive at a time
when the nation of Judah
had gone bonkers.

In the prophetic words of Gwen Stefani,
that kingdom was bananas: b-a-n-a-n-a-s.

You see, the kingdom of Judah
had totally walked away from God.

They were setting up idols;
they were worshipping other gods;
they had converted the temple
into a kind of crazy pleasure palace.

And this had all gone on
for so many generations
that almost all the people
had forgotten about God completely.

You sort of see that going on today
in the secularization of our own society,
but y’all, these were the people of God.
This was not supposed to happen to them!
So when the prophet Zephaniah comes along,
he . . . is . . . mad.

But then something happened,
something you didn’t get to hear about
in today’s readings,
but which is documented in 2 Kings.

A new king named Josiah is born.
And one day, Josiah tells his elders,
“Hey, y’all go clean house, would ya?
Go clean up the Temple.
Clean out the basement.
Clean out the attic.
Maybe you’ll find
some gold or silver we can use
to make the kingdom stronger.”

They went and did just that.
They cleaned house.
But what they found
was not silver or gold.

Instead, they found a book:
a scroll, to be exact.

Josiah’s elders come running back and say,
“Your highness, you’re never going believe this,
but we found a scroll . . .
and we believe it is the word of God.”

It had been so long,
they didn’t even remember this existed.

It would be as if 500 years from now,
everyone has forgotten about Christianity,
St. Anne’s has been converted to a night club,
and someone goes into the attic over the sacristy
and discovers the book of the Gospels.

So what does King Josiah do?
He reads the scroll.

He reads the scroll,
and he repents.
And he calls the whole nation together
and reads the scroll to them
every blessed word
and they repent, too.

Josiah cleans house.

What began as a quick little clean-up job
ended up bringing the people of God back to God
and cleaning up their lives in a whole new way.

This is why Zephaniah is in such a good mood
by the time we hear this reading today.

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away
the judgments against you.”

This isn’t just a tale from long ago.
This is a truth for you and me, today, too.

There’s a reason why John the Baptist
is yelling at us over in the Gospel today,
telling us to get rid
of our extra coats,
our extra food,
our extra money.
Like Josiah, he is telling us to clean house
because he knows that Jesus is on the way,
and he doesn’t want us to miss him.

Advent is a mighty fine time to do just that.
Advent is a mighty fine time to “clean house”;
to get rid of the clutter and detritus we’ve collected;
to stop clinging to all that we don’t truly need.
Advent is a mighty fine time . . . to repent.

So, what do you need to repent of today?
What’s in the attic of your heart,
in the basement of your mind,
taking up space
and making you into
someone you’re truly not?

Chances are it’s not some dastardly sin.
More likely, it’s those stories you tell yourself,
that stuff you refuse to let go of,
that constant anxiety,
that need for perfectionism,
that same old guilt,
or resentment,
or shame,
or fear.

You see, I think most of us
are not actually worried
that we’re too bad
for God to love us.

I think most of us
are just worried
that we aren’t good enough.

But the grace for us today
is that our Lord Jesus—
that little baby in the manger,
that man on the cross,
that savior standing outside the empty tomb—
has already declared once and for all
that it just doesn’t matter
whether you’re “good enough” or not.
He’s going to love you anyway.

So whatever’s weighing you down,
whatever’s causing you guilt, or shame, or fear,
it’s time to clean house,
to have a spiritual garage sale,
to let it go.

I mentioned my Aunt Karene and Uncle Warren.
Well, they did come last night,
and we sat and laughed for hours
as they told us all about their adventures
over the past ten years.

Turns out they sold their dream house,
a log cabin they had built
with their own two hands
in the mountains of North Carolina.
They gave away all their possessions,
watching with joy as their children
came and claimed all the old memories.
And they’ve decided to live out their golden years
driving from coast to coast,
state park to state park,
living in their RV,
having the time of their lives.

I would imagine some in the family
thought they had lost their minds.
But you know what they really did?
They cleaned house. They let go.
And I’m here to tell you,
the look on their faces last night
looked a lot like freedom.

So, on this day, whether you’re
King Josiah and the prophet Zephaniah,
or Jesus and John the Baptist,
or Aunt Karene and Uncle Warren,
or just lovely, wonderful, imperfect you,
God is offering you something spectacular today:

A clean slate.
A fresh start.
A new life.

It’s time to clean house.

In other words,
repent . . .  for the Lord is near.