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Advent Joy

Sermon - 12/17/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Zephaniah 3:14-20

The text for this third Sunday of Advent comes from Zephaniah.  Now, we're not very familiar, I suspect, with ol' Zeph.  We don't read too much from the book that bears his name.  Zephaniah is just not one of those prophets that we know a lot about.

I went back and looked at how many times I've preached from Zephaniah and discovered its been a total of three times in the last 15 years.  And each of those was on the 3rd Sunday of Advent.  The one time I think Zephaniah is in the lectionary.  About once every 6 years or so I happen to pull this out.

So let me check and see what you may recall -- pay attention, because your answer to my questions will determine the length of this sermon!

How many people can tell me who the King was during the time of Zephaniah?  One.  Oh, good -- right answer (Josiah).

What was the historical context during the time of the prophet?  A couple more.

What century was the prophet Zephaniah?  Uh-oh.  How many of you can spell Zephaniah J?  A few more. . . . well, get comfortable, we're going to be here for awhile.

Before I read the text, then, for this morning, I want to set the context.  Zephaniah is one of what we call the 12 'minor prophets'.  Not because they were minor in their significance -- to the contrary, some of them were incredibly significant (Hosea, Amos, Micah, etc).  But because their texts are relatively short, they were combined into one scroll and placed at the end of the scriptures of what we now know as our Old Testament.

Zephaniah is a contemporary of Jeremiah, if that helps you to place him.  During the reign of Josiah in the 7th century before the common era (BCE).  At that time, what we call the 10 lost tribes of Israel (Northern Israel) had been taken off into captivity.  They had disappeared, they had ceased to be a nation.  Assyria is the dominant power in the region, being roughly equivalent to Syria, parts of Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, kind of a northern crescent of Israel.  

They had been the dominant power, but their power is waning.  And now there's a new power that's rising, in what is now southern Iraq, the Babylonians.  So it's in that time period when these two have roughly equal power, and hence Judah is able to experience some new freedom -- no longer has to pay taxes as a vassal state, and is beginning to prosper and there's a resurgence of Hebrew nationalism.

The rise of Babylonia is going to be disastrous for Judah and Jerusalem, will bring eventually the period of the Babylonian captivity.  But we see during this time also some widespread idolatry, the worship of other Gods that had been adopted during that time of Assyrian rule, and other things that are going on in the country which the prophet will condemn.

So we read, then, the very first words of the prophet:

2I will utterly sweep away everything
   from the face of the earth, says the Lord.’

Well, what do you mean, Zeph?

3I will sweep away humans and animals;
   I will sweep away the birds of the air
   and the fish of the sea.
I will make the wicked stumble.
   I will cut off humanity
   from the face of the earth, says the Lord.’

Now, undoubtedly the first response of the good people of Oregon, I mean Jerusalem, was to say "Surely not us, you can't be talking about us, you must mean those foreign terrorists.  You know, those illegal immigrants, those sodomites and other perverts, those immoral, unbelieving, heathenistic Baptists J.  You can't be talking about us 'good' Disciples".  And so Zephaniah goes on to clarify:

‘I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
   and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;’

He's talking his own people, he's talking about us.  His family, his friends, his followers.  And then he explains why:    

‘I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal
   and the name of the idolatrous priests;
6those who have turned back from following the Lord,
   who have not sought the Lord or inquired of him.

9On that day I will punish
   all who leap over the threshold,
who fill their master’s house
   with violence and fraud.’

It's not just that they don't believe in God, it's that they're not following the ways of God.  

Now, as I have noted before, and as you know, in Biblical times there's no separation of Church and State.  The prophet is not talking at a clergy conference or a church assembly, he's talking to the entire nation.  And he specifically singles out the leaders of the nation, and says "I will punish the officials and King's sons".  And the affluent, of whom he says:  "Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord's wrath".  So this is non-discriminatory, everybody is eventually included.  In the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth."

This is not the kind of guy you want to invite to your Christmas party.  He just doesn't add a lot of cheer to the atmosphere.  Kind of makes John the Baptist look like a Sunday school teacher.

But there is one small ray of light he gives in this otherwise very dark and gloomy picture.  He says (this is in chapter 2, verse 3):

‘Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
   who do his commands;
seek righteousness, seek humility;
   perhaps
[perhaps!] you may be hidden
   on the day of the Lord’s wrath.’

Well, he giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other, and in chapter 3 he's back to the all-inclusive list:

‘For my decision is to gather nations,
   to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
   all the heat of my anger;
for in the fire of my passion
   all the earth shall be consumed.’

 

Hmmm, man, this is some heavy stuff.  If you're wondering, where are we going to get to the joy?!, I mean, didn't we just light the candle of joy [during our worship service], where's this advent joy we've been hearing about?  Well, now that you have the context, let me read for you then the conclusion of Zephaniah, the final word of God's judgment at the end book, our text for this morning:  

 

‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
   shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
   O daughter Jerusalem!
15The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
   he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
   you shall fear disaster no more.
16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
   do not let your hands grow weak.
17The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
   a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
   he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18   as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
   so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19I will deal with all your oppressors
   at that time.
And I will save the lame
   and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
   and renown in all the earth.
20At that time I will bring you home,
   at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
   among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
   before your eyes, says the Lord

Huh.  How did we get from this doom and gloom to such joy and celebration?  I mean, what happened here?  One minute we're talking about the end of the world, or a losing season for the Ducks (whichever you consider to be worse), and then the next moment is "Oh, never mind, everything's OK, have a happy day".  So, what happened?

The difference is the context.  Remember Andre Agassi's camera commercials ''image is everything"?  Context is everything.  These are words spoken not in prosperous Jerusalem, but in the captivity of Babylon.  And God has had a change of heart once the judgment has been rendered.  And hence, we read 'that the Lord has taken away the judgment against you.  At that time I will bring you home, I will restore your fortunes', you see, from the captivity.  

Thus it is time to celebrate, to kill the fatted calf, to throw a big party because the lost have been found, the dead have been raised.  And I don't think it's very difficult to really understand this, if you just flash back a few years to September 11th, and you remember your feelings on that day as you watched that horror unfold before you.  Imagine yourself in New York City on the evening of that day as the reality of what had happened begins to sink in.  Or, picture yourself in New Orleans after Katrina.  And when the floodwaters finally did recede and were pumped out of the city and you begin to see that devastation.  And you reflect on all of the loss of life, and you realize that your own sense of personal security and safety has been washed out to sea, has crumbled with those buildings.  Then you get a sense of that feeling of doom, and you hear, then, this promise from God:  you shall fear disaster no more.

And when you can take that to heart, when you really can believe that, then you know that joy.  

God has seen enough, and says 'now is the time for you to be restored'.  God has heard your cry.  You need not suffer any more.

Reinhold Niebuhr said "the gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable".  There are times when we need to be chastised and challenge, and other times when we need to be affirmed and comforted.  Whichever the case may be in this time, our true joy comes not from a life free of all suffering and sorrow, but from working our way through it.  From walking through the valley of the shadow of death and knowing that God is with us because 'thy rod and thy staff they comfort me'.  

I quoted from an advent sermon of Dietrich Bonhoeffer a couple of weeks ago that he gave in 1933, and I found this letter that he wrote for advent, to two friends and colleagues, in 1942.  Reflecting on news of the death of close friends, family, and loved ones in the war.  He writes:

There is a joy which knows nothing of sorrow, meaning an anxiety of the heart, it has no duration, and it can only drug one for the moment.  The joy of God has been through the poverty of the crib and the distress of the cross.  Therefore it is insurmountable, irrefutable.  It does not deny the distress where it is, but finds joy in the midst of it.  Indeed, precisely there.  It looks death in the face and yet finds life in death itself.  We are concerned with this joy, which has overcome.  It alone is worth believing.  It alone helps and heals.    

We had a service for Karen Loretz, a week or two ago.  Karen lived to be 100, but had not been in church for at least 20 years.  I don't think she had been here since I've been here, because of her disability.  She was a remarkable woman who had suffered incredible hardship.  One of the things I learned in preparing her service was that she had been taken from her mother, she was born in Copenhagen, taken by her father, and never saw her mother again.  Her father brought her to the United States, we don't know why, but she was raised by an aunt and an uncle in California.  And of course, the Depression era, married, had a child, her son went off to World War II, survived the war, came back.  But he and his father, her husband, were killed in a boating accident in 1947, off the coast of Oregon.  A couple of years later, she met a wonderful man, remarried, and within 5 years of their marriage, he came down with a brain tumor.  She spent the last 5 or 7 hears of his life caring for him.  Just as she was getting ready to retire, she discovered that she had multiple sclerosis.  And so her life went, from one tragedy to another.  When Karen died, at the age of 100, she died with no heirs, every bone in her body severely crippled with disease and age, but there was not a bitter bone in her.  She was a woman of incredible joy.  She never complained about anything, except she always wondered why she lived so long.  She had a full life, a good life, with no regrets.  She lived the words of the Apostle Paul:  "Rejoice in the Lord always".  And I'm convinced that's what kept her alive.  That joy kept her living to the age of 100.

Some of you know that my mother's middle name was Joyce.  Betty Joyce Thrasher.  Somewhere around the age of 50, kind of as a symbol of a life transformation, she dropped the "ce" from her middle name.  And I have 3 paintings, watercolors, in my office, that are signed "Betty Joy".  That's the way she wanted to be known, as someone who was filled with joy.  One of the things that I think helped us get through her tragic death in 1998 was remembering all those crazy stories about Mom that so exemplified her life.  Things like jalapeno lasagna (you ought to try that sometime!).  Jumping into Crater Lake, fully clothed.  Leopard-spotted underwear (I think that's a Thrasher trait J).  Showering in the rain, things like that.

It is precisely in the midst of tragedy that we need joy.  To sing aloud, rejoice and exalt with all your heart, says the prophet.  And I am convinced that the ability to laugh or smile in our tears and sorrow is God at work in us.  

Catholic spiritual director Frederick von Hugel, says that the lives of candidates for sainthood are examined for evidence of joy.  Because, as Saint Philip Neri said, there is no such thing as a sad saint.

To change suffering into joy and grief into gladness is what the 3rd Sunday of Advent is about.  The joy of this Sunday is not about the anticipation of gifts or even giving things for Christmas.  It's not about creating some general feeling of goodwill by watching all those wonderful holiday movies.  It's not even about the coming birth of Christ.  

The joy of the advent is about that divine reversal about which Mary sang in the Magnificat, when the lowly are exalted and the hungry are filled with good things.  It's about when mourning turns into dancing, and tears into laughter.  When darkness turns into dawn, and despair is saved by hope.  When war gives way to peace and death brings new life.  When the poverty of the crib is filled with the singing of the angels.  And the distress of the cross is met with the celebration of the empty tomb.

The joy of advent is Paul writing from prison:  "Again, I say to you, rejoice!  For your Lord is near".  Can you believe that?  Can you believe that God is near to us?  That God is coming?  That God's presence will be born again in our midst?

If you can, then you know the joy of advent.

 


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