|Peter Bruegel, The Wedding Dance -- DIA|
Each Sunday of Advent we process into the sanctuary, led by a child carrying a lantern. This year we’re singing “Emmanuel,” a song that reflects on a name that means “God with Us.” Advent is a lot like the season of Lent, because it forces us to slow down and look for God’s presence in our midst. This is an especially difficult task at this time of year, because there are lots of distractions. For instance, the Christmas buying season begins earlier each year, and the radio stations go all Christmas on Thanksgiving Day if not before. Then there’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday, office parties and holiday concerts. Yes, there is much to do, and so little time to do it. So why bother with Advent? Why not go directly to Christmas?
Since this is my first opportunity to preach during the Advent season, I decided to bring us up to date. Because I’m preaching from the prophetic books of the Old Testament, I thought we might look back at the lectionary readings from the prophets chosen for the first two Sundays of Advent.
The first reading came from Jeremiah 33, where the prophet speaks of “a righteous Branch” that will “spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33:14-16).
A second word came from the prophet Malachi, who spoke of a messenger whom God will send to prepare the way for coming of the LORD, who will purify the Temple and the People, even as silver is refined through fire. “Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old as in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4).
We hear something of Malachi’s message in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. In Luke chapter 3, we hear the story of John the Baptist, who goes down to the Jordan and begins preaching. He invites the people to repent, to be baptized and then to bear the fruit of their repentance. John makes it clear that he’s not the promised one. He’s the messenger, who is called by God to prepare the way for the Lord, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:7-17).
Each of these words speaks of judgment, preparation, and expectation. That’s the message we hear in the first two and half chapters of Zephaniah. But then, in the closing verses of Zephaniah, we’re invited to take up a song of joy and join with God in a festival of celebration. In case you’ve never heard of Zephaniah, he prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, the last great king of Judah. We don’t know much about this prophet, whose book sits within the Minor Prophets, just after Habbakkuk, but the opening sentences of the book suggest that he might have been a great-great grandson of King Hezekiah. So maybe this is a word from within the royal family. Up to this point, Zephaniah’s message is quite critical of the nation and its leaders. Fraud and violence are rampant. Things must change, so God has decided to leave them to their own devices. Then, maybe they will repent and change their behavior.
The tone begins to change in verses 12 and 13 of chapter 3. The prophet declares that God will leave in the land a “humble and lowly people.” This remnant of Israel “shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid” (Zeph. 3:12-13). After these words are spoken, the prophet invites us to join in a “Song of Joy.”
If you’re a person of a certain age, you might remember this phrase from a Saturday morning cartoon: “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here.” This canine version of Superman, whose story I regularly watched as a child, would show up just in the nick of time to save the day. There’s no need to fear, because “Underdog is here!” Yes, if only we had a super hero who could save us from our fears! Wouldn’t that be nice?
Well, Zephaniah doesn’t have a super hero in mind, but he does tell us that there’s no need to be afraid, because God is in our midst. Even though we continue to live in a world filled with the kind of fraud and violence that Zephaniah named in the first chapters of this book, we have reason to celebrate if we’re willing to put our trust in the God who is always with us.
This message comes at an opportune moment. We’re living at a time of deep anxiety and fear. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have put the nation on edge. There are fear-mongers amongst us, some of whom are politicians and some of whom are preachers. They’re taking advantage of these fears to pursue their own agendas. They are encouraging the darker side of our being. With a new Star Wars movie about to be released, it is good to remember that when we give in to fear and anger, we leave room for darkness to take hold of our lives.
In response to this anxiety and fear, Zephaniah declares: “The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” In making this declaration, Zephaniah points us toward Christmas. He encourages us to take comfort and peace in the promise that Emmanuel has come in the person of Jesus.
That means we should have a party! We can do this because we have put our trust in God who chose to be present with us in the person of Jesus. We can celebrate because God “will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (vs. 17-18). Since God is partying, so should we!
As we listen to the message of Zephaniah, I thought I would share these words of interpretation offered by Ron Allen and Clark Williamson:
God is organizing a great party at which God the Host is present. Christians should resonate to this image; at every Eucharist we celebrate a meal called the Lord’s Supper at which the Lord is present as the inviting host. [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 215]
While Advent points us to Christmas, we don’t have to wait for Christmas to celebrate the presence of God in our midst. Every Sunday, when we gather at the Lord’s Table, which is open to all, we remember that God’s presence and purpose have been revealed to us in Jesus. When we gather at the Table at which God is the Host, we find strength in this divine presence. Therefore, there is no need to fear or give in to the dark side of anger. No, and we don’t need a super hero to rescue us from danger. Instead, we can put our trust in the one who is present with us in good times and in bad. So, thanks be to God, our Creator, our Redeemer, and the Sustainer of our lives, who is revealed to us in the person of Emmanuel and present with us at all times through the Holy Spirit. Let us therefore live accordingly, letting the fruit of our lives reflect our trust in God who is in our midst.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 13, 2015