Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Shout in the Dark

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Advent 3
December 16, 2012
William G. Carter

Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.
The LORD has removed your judgment; he has turned away your enemy.
The LORD, the king of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil.
On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem: Don’t fear, Zion. Don’t let your hands fall.
The LORD your God is in your midst— a warrior bringing victory.
He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.
I will remove from you those worried about the appointed feasts. They have been a burden for her, a reproach.
Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time.
I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast.
I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth.
At that time, I will bring all of you back, at the time when I gather you.
I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples
when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the LORD.

Today I want to talk about hope. Hope. Hope is a human word. It is in our DNA. It runs through our bloodstreams. Whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves, there is the possibility of hope. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Hope is an Advent word. The four Sundays before Christmas invite us to be full of hope. Advent slows down our speedy impulses when everybody is in a hurry. We wait for Christ to be born within us, to become more like him, to love as he loves, to live in union with God as he lives. The church knows this takes a while. We don’t become like Christ without effort and the passing of time. So we have the days of Advent to wait it out and work it out. And the promise of Advent is that, when Christ comes, we shall join in the Christmas carol that says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” We hope for Christ to come right here. We hope for him to come where he is needed most.

            But hope is a misunderstood word. Hope is often confused with “wish.” We have lived the age-old scenario: “Blow out the birthday candles, close your eyes, and make a wish.” The problem comes in closing the eyes. A wish always closes its eyes. A wish imagines something that cannot happen. But hope is different. Hope keeps its eyes wide-open, sees how things really are, imagines what things could be, and works for that.

            We heard some people “hope for peace.” Truth be told, they aren’t hoping for peace so much as they are wishing for peace. They are blowing out birthday candles and expecting magic. Because, you see, a wish is always a wish for magic. But if we hope for peace, it wires us differently. And that’s what I want to talk about, as a way of addressing our national crisis, as a way to get through our days and nights.

            Our guide for this Zephaniah, one of the Bible’s nearly forgotten writers. How many of you knew there was a book named Zephaniah? We don’t hear from Zephaniah very much because he wrote one of the grumpiest books in the Bible.

We call him a “minor prophet” and do not know much about him. According to the very first verse, which was added later, Zephaniah spoke up for God during a time of national housecleaning. Israel had a decent king for once, a king by the name of Josiah, who was leading a national “Back to the Bible” reform. The king’s Bible at the time was the book of Deuteronomy. By returning to Deuteronomy, the people were returning to God. There was a brief national emphasis on getting rid of the counterfeit gods – you know, the small “g” gods that everybody tends to worship.

It’s all too easy for anybody to fall into that kind of idolatry. The God of Israel is frequently very quiet, and The Creator of the Universe is sufficiently enormous to remain out of sight. And in that supposed vacuum, other pretenders fill the gap. Or we turn to small little things or small little people from whom we expect great things. Josiah rediscovered the biblical book of Deuteronomy, a book about keeping God first, a book about loving God first before everything else.

On the surface, the prophet Zephaniah did his preaching during that time of reform. The first verse of the book was added later to date his work at that time.

But apparently, a lot of people weren’t getting the memo. Because what Zephaniah actually says is that God is coming with fiery nostrils to snort and rage against the people. The very first thing God says is, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth!” And who can blame the Holy One of Israel? God’s own people are worshiping their own pleasure, in the name of Baal, the pleasure god (1:4). They are weighing all their silver coins (1:11) and bowing down before the fake gods of money and affluence, and Zephaniah says, “Neither their silver nor gold will be able to save them” (1:18).

God says, “I have called them to live by justice, but they have ignored me” (3:2). The people live by the status quo as violence breaks out around them. They put up walls and think vainly that this will keep them safe. And to make matters worse, the so-called holy leaders take the Bible and use it as “a weapon to maim and kill souls” (3:4, The Message).

To sum up, it was a dark time in the national life. If there was any reform, it was not taking root. When you start reading the prophet Zephaniah, it is like, “Whoa! The Day of the Lord is right here. This murderous, indifferent people are going to be flushed down the sewer.” It looks like gloom, doom, destruction and despair are riding closer on the horses of the Apocalypse. God is sending judgment on the people – and in a way, it was largely self-inflicted.

And then, just at that point, just when the darkness is so heavy, we get the passage that we heard today. “Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Rejoice, my little girl Jerusalem! The Lord removes your judgment. The Strong King stands in the middle of all of you. You don’t have to fear evil anymore.”

Let me say something, then, about how the Bible talks, and specifically how the prophet Zephaniah speaks. Here is a prophet who brings the honest word of God. There is no tinsel on his description of how corrupt are the people, no glitter as we describes our broken lives. As God speaks through the Bible’s prophets, God never softens any words about how messed up the human family was, is, and always shall be. Because of this divine honesty, the prophets, as God’s press agents, often took the brunt of human response.

But just after God speaks, and the moment of recognition comes when the people say, “Yep, that’s what we are,” God will then often interrupt that dark moment by saying, “Rejoice, little girl. The Warrior God will bring calm with his love. God will rejoice over you with singing.” That’s called “the good news.” Hebrew scholars call this “the salvation announcement.” This is the shout of God’s light in the thickest human darkness. And it is intended to shape us differently, to remake us into different people.

You know, a lot of people could say, “Where was God on Friday, when shooter went into the Sandy Hook Elementary School?” The assumption is that God should show up like a comic book super hero, block all the bullets, defend all the innocent, and punch the crazy guy to the moon. Remember the distinction that I made between “hope” and “wish”? That would be a wish. You can shut your eyes and make that wish.

Perhaps other people ask other questions. Here is one that I have heard: “Where was God in the gun store, when overly dangerous weapons were sold?” Or here is another: “Where was God, when a young man was so tormented that the reptile part of his brain struck down little ones who had done nothing against him?”

Where was God? The answer is right there in the words of the prophet Zephaniah: “The Lord your God is in your midst. God will create calm with his love. God will rejoice over you with singing.”

So I want to talk about hope. On a day of national grief, what are you hoping for? Twenty children in Connecticut have been taken from us, six adults cut down, the shooter himself and his mother are gone – what do we hope for? I could turn you loose to talk among yourselves, but I’m not sure I could get you back. We are a divided people, especially when it comes to guns. All of us agree that children must be kept safe. We will do whatever we can to protect them. But we do not know how to do this.

One of the Bible’s words for hope is the Hebrew word gavah. The root of it means “to twist,” as in when the strands of a rope are twisted together. As someone has said, this is a word that seems to fit our brand of hoping well. “The possibility that that good thing happen and that bad thing will not happen, a hundred little strands of hope that we  twist together to make a cable of hope strong enough to pull ourselves along through our lives with.”[1]

So we take everything that we hope for our children and we twist it together. It can become strong enough that we can pull ourselves along and get through the dark.

There is no question that this world is a mess. Anybody have any doubts of that after the gunshots in Connecticut? I suppose we can obsess about the killer, flash his face repeatedly on the news, do an amateur psychological analysis, and become addicted to the sensationalism. But this can become a sick distraction from the fact that whole world is a mess. And this pushes us toward God. What we hope for is God – a good God, a just God, the only God who, in Zephaniah’s words, can “change shame into praise.”

I think of how Fred Rogers, the prophet for children, once put it. He said, “At the heart of the universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job.”

So then, hope is more than a vacant wish. Hope is something we invest in. Hope is what we give ourselves to. And when a senseless tragedy happens, we open our eyes to see – and then we decide if it is going to define who we are. The prophet Zephaniah is well aware of what deep trouble the human race repeatedly creates for itself. But as the prophet listens to God, he hears God say, “Don’t be afraid.” Our world may be in a mess – but people who listen to God refuse to live by fear. No, there is another way forward.

Saint Augustine, the early bishop of the church, knew this. In one of his most memorable quotes, he said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”[2]

Hope has to do with what could be. It has to do with what we will do to invest ourselves in changing what needs to be changed. One of the dreamers who taught us a great deal about hope was the poet Langston Hughes. Here are some words that he passed along:

I dream a world where man no other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth and peace its path adorn.
I dream a world where all will know sweet freedom’s way
Where greed no longer saps the soul nor avarice blights the day.

A world I dream where black and white, whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth and every [one] is free.
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And Joy, like a pearl, attends the needs of all humankind   [“all mankind”]
Of such a world, I dream, my world.

You, there is something curious about that poem. It is never says who is speaking. I think it is God. For God dreams that “love will bless the earth and peace its path adorn.” This is God’s dream for God’s own world.

And when we hear God’s dream - when we work for it - that is the very definition of hope.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: Seabury Press, 1969) 123.
[2] As quoted in Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy (1988) by Robert McAfee Brown, p. 136.

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