December 13, 2015
Someday at Christmas
Men won’t be boys
Playing with bombs
Like kids play with toys
One warm December
All hearts will see
A world where men are free
Someday at Christmas
There’ll be no wars
When we have learned
What Christmas is for
When we have learned
What life’s really worth
There’ll be peace on earth
I’ve realized that at this time of year I’m a lot like Pavlov’s dog. NOT because when I hear the ring of a bell I start salivating for food; but there are certain phrases and certain songs that immediately fill my eyes with tears.
“Daddy, teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings.’” This closing line from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life is definitely a phrase that starts the tears flowing. When I started celebrating Christmas apart from my parents, the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas took its place on my list of Holiday Tearjerkers. And in these last years, this song by R&B artist, Mary J. Blige, has joined that list as well. Technically, it falls under the category of secular Christmas music, but the hope and longing that it voices spans the divide between secular and sacred.
Peace on earth. That is our hope and our desire, isn’t it? Peace on earth. Peace between nations. Peace between nations and neighbors. Peace in our homes and peace in our hearts. Yet, it seems that we have never been further away from peace then we are at this moment, right now. Three years ago, about this time, I stood in the pulpit in the big church and tried to voice our heartbreak after the terrible shooting of children and teachers in Newtown. That day I thought that it couldn’t be much darker than that, but today the darkness is even thicker, denser and more suffocating than it was then. A world of peace seems more like a fantasy; one that is nice to daydream about but that you know will never come to pass. People everywhere claim to want peace, but actions speak louder than words. The collective actions of people here and people elsewhere speak more of violence and hatred than they do of peace and peacemaking. I want to be a peacemaker. I want to work and strive for peace. I feel it is the essence of my call, my vocation to do that, but I no longer know where to begin.
The truth is, I am exhausted. I am weary in body and spirit by the hatred and the violence in our world. I am weary and heartbroken and tired of hate-filled rhetoric and violence and fear-mongering. I’m just tired. Aren’t you? I am overwhelmed with the brokenness of the world. I know that I contribute to that brokenness, but I don’t know how to change course. I want to stay true to the path I have been called to walk, but my feet aren’t just slipping and sliding off the path, they feel weighted with lead. I just want to lie down, cover my head, shut out the sound of the world’s sorrows and sleep.
It was to this weariness of body and spirit that the prophets spoke. Certainly, that is true for Zephaniah. Zephaniah is not a prophet we hear from very often. His book is a quick read, only three chapters. But those three chapters are intense. The first two are packed with prophesies of destruction.
Chapter 1, verses 2 and 3: “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I 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.”
It is almost like the creation story in reverse. Instead of creating, God will destroy. Not exactly hopeful words to hear, are they? Zephaniah’s words were aimed at the leadership of the day; both political and religious. The homes and the lives of the people lay in ruin, but those who had the power to effect change did nothing. More often than not, it was those in power who were indirectly and directly responsible for that ruin.
Zephaniah called the leaders to accountability. God would rush in, he warned them, with judgment for their apostasy and their corruption. God would rush in with fierce retribution for the ways they led the people they were supposed to serve astray. The great day of the Lord would descend upon Israel’s enemies – without and within. But then, in what seems to be an abrupt about face, Zephaniah closes his message with the words of hope we read this morning. Zephaniah called the people to rejoice and to exult with all their hearts because the judgments against them would be taken away. God would rush into their midst, to judge but also to redeem. God would rush in, both calling the people to task and offering forgiveness for their sins. No more were the people to fear destruction and devastation. Instead the Lord who rushed in would rejoice over them with gladness and song. The God who rushed into their midst would “remove disaster from them, save the lame, gather the outcast, change their shame into praise, bring them home, and gather them in.”
These are such beautiful and powerful words of hope. If only they would come to fruition right now, on this dark day, in this dark time. I’m probably not alone in that, but I wonder if we confuse what it means for God to rush in. At first reading of these verses in Zephaniah, it sounds as if the Lord will rush in like the cavalry does in old westerns. Just when all seems lost, God rushes into the midst of the battle, turns the tide and saves the day. We may not consciously wish for this, but perhaps we do hope for this reality. Instead of longing for the triumph of the trinity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we wait for the coming of the Lone Ranger, Tonto and the strains of the William Tell Overture. Yet I don’t think that is what it means for God to rush in. I don’t think that is what it meant when Zephaniah rose up as a prophet; I don’t think that is what it means now.
In Hebrew and in the context of the Old Testament – and in the New Testament as well – righteousness and justice always walked hand-in-hand. If Zephaniah called the leadership to task because justice did not prevail, it was because they were not living righteously either. Paraphrasing the words of another scholar, there is a great difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. Living righteously means seeing the humanity in others. It means recognizing the humanity in both the victim and the criminal. It means acknowledging the humanity of the poor, and the humanity of the enemy, the different, the outcast, the refugee. On the other hand self-righteousness degrades humanity. It denies the humanity of those who are different and those who are suffering. It vilifies the least of these, and demonizes the poor and the outcast. Justice is warped and twisted when we live self-righteously. But when we seek to live righteously, acknowledging the humanity in all, then we cannot help but seek to live justly as well. When we deny the humanity in others, denying them justice is easy. However the opposite is equally as true. When we acknowledge the humanity in others, we cannot help but seek justice for them as well.
It seems to me that when Zephaniah prophesied that God would rush into the midst of the people, it was not as the cavalry or the Lone Ranger. It was because God was calling on the people to once again live as God created them to live. It was because God was calling the people to be the people God created them to be. When the people returned to righteousness, it would not be a case of them saving themselves, but they would no longer be living in a way that pushed God out. It might seem that God would rush into their midst after a long absence, but in truth, God had always been there. God had never left them. It was they who had left God.
I find myself praying for God to rush in. Please God, rush into this dark world. Rush into the hearts of those who believe that the way to follow you is by killing others. Please God, rush into the lives of those who ease their suffering by causing the suffering of others. Please God, rush into the minds of those who use fear as a way to control, and who demonize others to advance their own agenda. And before I get caught up in my own perceived goodness and stumble into self-righteousness, do the same for me. Rush into those places where I have pushed you out. Rush into the needs I think I can satisfy on my own. Rush into my wrong belief that I can save myself. Rush in, God, and remind me that you never rushed out. Remind me that you have never left me or abandoned me. Rush into my life, God. Rush in, so that I can rush into the lives of others, to love and serve your people with righteousness, justice and joy. Rush in, O God. Rush in.
Let all of God’s people say, “Alleluia!” Amen.