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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Rejoice, but...

I did, of course, discuss the atrocity in Connecticut that had taken place two days earlier when I came to the part about "dreadful things".

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

"Rejoice in the Lord always;" says St Paul, "Again I will say, Rejoice."

We had a good old cheer just there now, with the children, didn't we?* We were shouting for joy because Christmas is coming, because Jesus is coming, because we are celebrating the return of the Light, at this darkest time of year.

Old Zephaniah knew something about rejoicing, too. It was our first reading:

"Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!"

I don't think I know very much about Zephaniah, do you? He's not one of the prophets we usually read. Apparently, though, nobody knows anything more about him than what he writes about himself. He was a great-great-grandson of a king called Hezekiah – and Hezekiah was the last so-called “good” king of Judah for several generations. But when Zephaniah was prophesying and preaching, his cousin Josiah was on the throne, and Josiah was another good king.

This is one of my favourite stories in the Bible, actually! You see, Josiah's father Amon and his grandfather Manasseh had preferred to worship Baal, rather than God. This is not too surprising, actually, because the next-door kingdom, Israel, had been taken over by Assyria, and although Judah was nominally free, in practice it was a vassal of the Assyrians, so it made sense to worship the same gods that the Assyrians did.

What's more, those gods were a lot easier to worship than the Jewish God was. They didn't ask you to behave in special ways. You could influence htem. If you said the right words and did the right actions at the right time, they would make the harvest happen, that sort of thing.

And they didn't really mind who else you worshipped, or how you behaved, or what your thought. It was much easier to worship them.

Josiah, however, probably prompted by his cousin Zephaniah, decided that he was going to worship the Jewish God. And in 621 BC, when Josiah was about 26, the King of Assyria died, and was succeeded by a much weaker person who didn't mind much about what the people of Judah did. Josiah had already cleared out altars to other gods from the Temple, but apart from that, he hadn't dared do much more. Now, however, he reckoned he could risk cleaning it up a bit.
So he sent his secretary, a man called Shaphan ben-Azalia, to go and ask the High Priest how much money they'd had in the collection lately, and to tell him to give it to the builders to repair the place and make it look smart again.

The High Priest was a man called Hilkiah., While he was looking in the storeroom for the money, he found a book about God's law. And he decided to show it to the king. We don't know whether Hilkiah had known the book was there and decided that now would be a good moment to show it to Josiah, or whether it was a shock to him, too.

Scholars think that this book was at least part, if not all, of what we now know as the book of Deuteronomy. They reckon it was written down during the reign of Josiah's grandfather and hidden away safely. Up until then the priests had basically kept their knowledge of God's law in their heads, and it hadn't really been written down, but this was a time of both persecution and indifference, and they were afraid that the time might come when there was no priest in the Temple, and the people's knowledge of God might be lost.

As it was, a great deal had been lost, and the result of the discovery of the book was a great religious reform.

And it's in this context, scholars think, that Zephaniah was preaching. It's actually thought that the book may not have been written down until a couple of hundred years later, because of the style of the writing and so on, but it seems to be based on contemporary happenings. So it was probably written before about 622 BC, and is definitely set in Jerusalem.

Most of the book is rather doom and gloomy. Again, remember that this is being written in a time when most people aren't bothering to worship God, and even those who want to aren't really sure how God is different from the neighbouring gods. So there's a lot of prophecy about gloom and destruction and the usual sort of stuff you expect to read in the minor prophets, but after two and a half chapters of that, we suddenly get this glorious piece that formed our reading today.

The 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
as on a day of festival.

So, you see, it's not just we who rejoice, but God rejoices, too. That's a great comfort, I think. We are called to rejoice in God – there are, apparently, over 800 verses telling us to rejoice and be glad, so I rather think God means it. And with God, if he wants us to do something, he enables us to do it. We sometimes find it very difficult to rejoice, to be joyful.

But joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit – it's not something we have to manufacture for ourselves. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. And this means that it isn't something we have to find within ourselves. It is something that grows within us as we go on with God and as we allow God the Holy Spirit to fill us more and more. Joy grows, just as love, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness and self-control do. We become more and more the people we were created to be, more and more the people God knows we can be.

That doesn't mean we'll never be unhappy, far from it. But we know, as St Paul also tells us, that God works all things together for good for those that love him. Even the bad things, even the dreadful things that break God's heart even more than they break ours. Even those. 

We may be unhappy, we may be grieving, we may be depressed. But we can still be joyful, we can still rejoice, because God is still God, and God still loves us. Okay, sometimes it doesn't feel like that, but that's only what it feels like, not what has really happened. God will never abandon us, God will always love us. God will weep with us when we weep. And underneath there always is that joy, the joy of our salvation.

Christmas can be a very difficult time of year for many of us. People who are alone, people who are ill, people who have been bereaved. Many rocky marriages finally come adrift at Christmas. But we are still commanded to rejoice! Not because of the tragedies, no way. But in spite of them.

"Do not worry about anything,
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

For John the Baptist, preparing for the coming of the Messiah meant, among other things, turning away from the old, wasteful ways and starting again. Sharing our surplus with those who haven't enough. Tax-gatherers and soldiers are told to be satisfied with their wages, and not to extort extra from people who can ill-afford it.

John got very frustrated when people just wanted to hear him preach and laugh at him, rather than allowing their lives to be turned around. There hadn't been a proper Old Testament-type prophet for a very long time, and naturally people flocked to hear him, but they didn't want to deal with what he was actually saying. But enough people did hear him to begin to make a difference in the world. And they were ready when Jesus came.

It's not just about cheering with the kids, but it's about that, too! We are going to be celebrating the coming of Jesus, of course we are. We're probably also going to eat and drink more than usual, and give one another presents, and watch appallingly ghastly television, and that can be quite fun, too, for a couple of days.

So we will rejoice, but we will be sensitive to those for whom it's almost impossible to rejoice at this time of year. We will remember that the Israelites had to go through terrible times, and their nation was all but destroyed. Paul himself suffered dreadful things - scourgings, imprisonment, shipwrecks, beatings....

But we can still remember, as we await the coming of the King, that:

"The peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

* I am not publishing the children's talk as it was not original, and I have lost the source, so can't give an attribution, but mainly, we shouted for joy because Jesus is coming. 

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Preparing for Christmas?

So today is Advent Sunday. It's the first Sunday in the Church's Year, and, of course, the first in the four-week cycle that brings us up to Christmas. Christmas is definitely coming – if you go by what the supermarkets do, it's been going on since September!

It seems strange then, doesn't it, that the readings for this Sunday are about as un-Christmassy as you can get! This from the Gospel we've just heard:

“There will be strange things happening to the sun, the moon, and the stars. On earth whole countries will be in despair, afraid of the roar of the sea and the raging tides. People will faint from fear as they wait for what is coming over the whole earth, for the powers in space will be driven from their courses. Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in a cloud with great power and glory. When these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is near.”

It's all about the end of the world! The time when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, as we say in the Creed. Now, there are frequently scares that the end of the world is about to happen – some cult or other claims to have deciphered an ancient text that tells us that it might occur on any given date – I believe some people think that an ancient Mayan calendar proves it's going to end on 21 December this year. I do hope not – what a waste of all the Christmas presents we've been buying and making! However, it is only one of a very long line of end-of-the-world stories which people have believed. Sometimes they have even gone as far as to sell up all their possessions and to gather on a mountain-top, and at least two groups committed mass suicide to make it easier for them to be found, or something. I don't know exactly what.... And because some Christians believe that when it happens, they will be snatched away with no notice whatsoever, leaving their supper to burn in the oven, or their car to crash in the middle of the motorway, a group of non-believers even set up an organisation called After the Rapture which you can sign up to, and if and when it happens, they will look after your pets for you! They assume that, as they are not believers, they will be left behind.

But the point is, Jesus said we don't know when it's going to happen. Nobody knows. He didn't know. He assumed, I think, that it would be fairly soon after his death – did anybody expect the Church to go on for another two thousand years after that? Certainly his first followers expected His return any minute now.

What is clear from the Bible – and from our own knowledge, too – is that this world isn't designed to last forever; it's not meant to be permanent. Just ask the dinosaurs! We don't know how it will end. When I was a girl it was assumed it would end in the flames of a nuclear holocaust; that particular fear has lessened since 1989, although I don't think it's gone away completely. These days we think more in terms of runaway global warming, or global pandemics of some disease they can't find a cure for, or something, or a major asteroid strike. But what is clear is that one day humanity will cease to exist on this planet. We don't know how or when, but we do know that God is in charge and will cope when it happens.

Christmas is coming. Jesus said, of his coming again, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

No, we are still reading Jesus' words today. And just as we know summer is coming when the days get longer and the leaves start to shoot, so we know that Christmas is near when the shops start selling Christmas stuff! But Jesus goes on to give a warning:  “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.  For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth.  Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

Certainly we appear to celebrate Christmas with carousing and drunkenness, more often than not. And who isn't weighed down with thoughts of all the preparation for the big day that is going to be necessary? Whatever am I going to give this person, or that person? So-and-so wants to know what I should like – what should I like? Have I got all the turkey-pudding-mince pies-Christmas Cake-Brussels Sprouts and so on organised? Who have I not sent a card to, and won't they be offended? You know the scenario. 

But what is Christmas really about? In much of the country it's been reduced to an extravaganza of turkey and booze and presents. And the Christians, like us, chunter and mutter about “Putting Christ back in Christmas!”, as if He was not there anyway. But even we tend to reduce Christmas to a baby in a manger. We render it all pretty-pretty, with cattle and donkeys surrounding the Holy Family, shepherds and kings, and so on. Which is fine when you're two years old, like my grandson, but for us adults? We forget the less-convenient bits of it – the fact that Mary could so easily have been left to make her living as best she could on the streets, the birth that came far from home – at least, in Luke's version of the story. Matthew's version says that they lived in Bethlehem anyway. We forget about the flight to Egypt that Matthew tells us about so dramatically, and the children whom Herod is alleged to have had killed in Bethlehem to try to avoid any rivalry by another King of the Jews. We forget that it was the outsiders, the outcasts – the shepherds, outcast in their own society, or the wise men from the East, not Jewish, not from around here – it was they who were the first to worship the new-born King.

But the point is, it's not just about that, is it? We'll teach the babies to sing “Away in a Manger”, and it's right and proper that we should. We kneel at the cradle in Bethlehem, yes – but we worship the Risen Lord.

We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem, but we also worship Jesus all year round, remembering not only his birth, but his teachings, his ministry, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  And we worship, not only as an abstract “Thing” – what was that song:
I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history....” – it’s not just about worshipping a distant divinity, but about God with us. Emmanuel.

And that brings us full circle, for whether we are celebrating once again the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, or whether we are looking towards the end times, as we traditionally do today, what matters is God with us. Emmanuel. Jesus said “When these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is near.” We know that we will be saved, we have been saved, we are being saved – it's not a concept I can actually put into words, as it's not just about eternal life but about so much more than that. But “our salvation is near”. Dreadful things may or may not be going to happen – and they probably are going to happen, because Life is Like That – but God is still with us.

Talking about the end of the world like that is called “apocalyptic speech”, and very often, when people talked apocalyptically, they were addressing a local situation just as much as the end times. The prophets certainly were; they had no idea we would still be reading their words today. When Jeremiah said, as in our first reading, “The people of Judah and of Jerusalem will be rescued and will live in safety,” he was thinking of a fairly immediate happening – and, indeed, we know that the tribes of Judah did return after exile and live in Jerusalem again. But his words apply to the end times, too.

And the same with Jesus, I think. Much of the disasters he spoke of will have happened within a few years of his death – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, for one thing. Don't forget that he was in an occupied country at the time. And all down the centuries there have been plagues and wars and floods and famines and earthquakes and tsunamis and comets and things; every age, I think, has applied Jesus' words to itself.

So we are living in the end times no more and no less than any other age has been. And in our troubled world, we hold on to the one certainty we have: God with us. Emmanuel. Amen.