December 16, 2018
William G. Carter
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, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 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. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I 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. At 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.
Most of us don't like interruptions, especially at this time of year
This can be a difficult season to navigate. Family members come and go. There are gifts to purchase and wrap. There are itineraries to manage and parties to stop by. A lot of people try to squeeze in a concert or two if they can. But with the schedule so tight, who wants a long-lost cousin to knock on the door and walk in with warning. Neither do we really want friends to suddenly appear with their children, who are not quite over their stomach bugs or other forms of contamination. It would be an interruption.
There are some people in my wider family live with the assumption that they could manage every part of their lives. Should you show up late unexpectedly at a family gathering they are not pleased. In fact they find it's an interruption to their carefully calculated times people. And you may miss seeing them because you missed your allocated half hour in which their schedule was going to overlap with yours. You for the interruption
Neither do we want to be interrupted by the weather. When a blip on the weather map develops into a full- fledged nor’easter, we scowl and begin to rearrange. And if we succeed in rearranging, and the nor’easter never becomes more than a blip, we are quickly annoyed to rearrange our already rearranged plans.
Christmas comes with a long list of habits. In some homes, the tree is acquired and put up on the same day every year. The lights are strung after being checked and possibly replaced. The packages are wrapped by December 18 so that we can have a week of frenzy-free holiday. The elf goes on the shelf. The star is hung on the front porch. Everything comes out of carefully labeled boxes and will be returned to the same. That is what a tightly managed Christmas will look like.
Some people I know had everything figured out -- or thought they did. They had just liquidated their daughter's bedroom, having helped her move some distance away. Life had been simplified. Then on Christmas Eve, daughter Diana reappeared with a big surprise. She brought mom and dad a new puppy, declaring, “I felt guilty about leaving you all alone.” The puppy’s name is Chester. He is full of life and absolutely charming. Nevertheless he was an extraordinary interruption. Last I checked he still is.
I invite you to do a quick survey of your spirit. What would be the most disruptive interruption at you could possibly face this year? A new puppy? Or a bad diagnosis? Or the sudden unexpected of a family member? Or something else?
Perhaps the interruption will break into a pattern of seasonal negativity. You don't have to be a Grinch to get worn down by December. Such long lines, and distracted drivers on the highway cop. An impossible wait on the phone to speak with customer service. Or the way that the increasing shadows work on us at the darkest season of the North American year. And then suddenly, bam! Something happens to startle us. A situation that we've long taken for granted is pierced. Maybe it's our perspective on life and times, and suddenly it is ripped open from somewhere else.
We had twenty people here on Wednesday night reading through the book of Zephaniah. For most of us, I think it was the first time we've ever done it. It was hard work. Zephaniah was a prophet about 700 years before the time of Jesus. He was one of those gloom and doom prophets that nobody really wants to hear.
It was not that he was foretelling the future. That is one of the misconceptions we have about the Old Testament prophets. People think the prophet is a fortune teller. In the Bible, it is more accurate to say the prophet is a truth teller. That's why nobody wanted to hear them. They spoke a word from God that described the recurring messes that every generation of God's people finds themselves entrenched in.
In the time of Zephaniah, there were plenty of difficulties. The rich were plundering the poor, and then blaming the poor for their poverty. The powerful are taking advantage of the weak and trying not to get caught. The clergy spend a lot of their time spewing empty platitudes and enjoying the rich offerings that supported them. It was the same, old sorry situation that every generation must wade through. In the two and a half opening chapters of Zephaniah's oracles, we hear gloom and doom that the people have come to expect, because the people have created a lot of their own messes and are now accustomed to them.
As we worked around the room for our Bible study, reviewing the first part of Zephaniah's book, it felt as if the prophet was deflating all our tires.
And then, bam. Something new breaks through. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
This is the last thing anybody in our study group expected to hear. It was also the last thing that Zephaniah's people ever expected to hear. Because they know about the gloom and the doom, they had tasted the judgment and the punishment for far too long. Suddenly everything is interrupted by this call to rejoice.
This is no less an intrusion than any other. Ask one of the sixteen families in our congregation that lost a loved one in the last twenty months. Some of them were expecting not to decorate very much for this Christmas. Just imagine that one day they open the mailbox to find two hundred thirty-seven Christmas cards calling them to rejoice. They weren't expecting that. To some extent, they don't want that. Why not just leave them alone? Let them stay in the dark shadows.
I do not make light of this in any way. The dark around us is real. The darkness within us is real, too. But what should happen if light from a source beyond us should puncture the gloom?
Just the other day, I phoned somebody to invite them to tomorrow night's Blue Christmas vespers, here in the sanctuary. She turned me down flat. “I'm not ready for that,” she said. “I'm not sure if I'll ever be ready for that.” The grief is still raw. The loved one is still mourned.
I know why the church has selected this poem by the prophet Zephaniah. It is happy and joyful and hopeful. We tell ourselves that this the way December supposed to be, and for some people it is. Yet let's be instructed by how the prophet Zephaniah understands hope. Hope is an interruption. Hope is an unexpected intrusion. Biblically speaking, hope is not a wish, nor a dream, nor a projection of optimism. It is a gift of God that comes from a source far beyond us.
Someone once asked me, “How do you know that the Christmas story is true?” Without even thinking about it I blurted out, “Because none of us could have ever dreamed it up.” It came from somewhere else, from a source that is far beyond us, from the divine heart that already knew what it meant to be broken and mended. And it comes, ready or not. For the moment we glimpse the truth that our lives are in better hands than our own.
This is the true essence of our hope, our holy hope. It is quiet, and it is subtle, which leads many of us to fill the silence with their own words and the stillness with our own activity. But should we pause long enough to hear the flutter of an angel wing or to see an unusual star that we did not create, maybe we can hear the invitation to rejoice.
I don't need somebody to try to prove to me that the Messiah was born among peasants and placed in a feeding trough in Bethlehem. I know it's true. And you know how I know it's true? I watch the people will begin to cry in the shadows when we sing, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” In the gift of such a moment, they know it’s true, too.
Take a good look around and watch for the hope. Add in to rubs the same old status quo. Listen for the giggle of the child reminds us of the vulnerability of the baby Jesus. Take note of the next winter storm to see the power of God who has the awesome power to create it. Take comfort in the company of good friends, all of whom were given to you as a holy gift so that you wouldn't have to travel your journey alone.
And should someone interrupt your lingering darkness with a word of interrupting grace, be still, unlock your arms, and take it all in as a holy gift from heaven.
As Jesus the Messiah will say, “Fear not, little flock. It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:32)
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.