12.13.2015 Preaching Text: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zephaniah 3:14)
Every year at this time the lectionary forces us to confront our least favorite, dyspeptic uncle at the proverbial Christmas party. John the Baptist. There he is, ever haranguing family and friends with dire warnings and apocalyptic threats. Why can’t he just have a little egg nog and leave us all alone?
But no, he’s at it again, bringing everybody down with his strident belligerence and uncompromising view of reality. “You brood of vipers!” he intones, rudely and self-righteously. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Our only consolation is that we won’t have to deal with him again for another whole year!
But then we read from Zephaniah, one of the late Old Testament prophets, words that refer to the very same apocalyptic scenario as the Baptist’s: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
“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.”
When the Day of the Lord comes, in other words, when the mighty Creator-God breaks fully into time, a warrior-king who will establish God’s holy and righteous reign upon earth, Israel shall rejoice, as on a festival day!
I suppose it’s like all those Westerns I used to watch as a kid. In fact it’s like most stories, novels, movies, etc. There’s a moment in each when our protagonists face some sort of malevolent adversary who threatens their safety and well-being, even their survival.
Eventually, more often than not, there comes a climactic scene in the storyline where this ominous threat is defeated and the protagonists are saved, often by means a decisive, even apocalyptic battle of some kind.
Take the popular genre of the murder/mystery. The climactic moment is when law enforcement (the side of right) successfully solves the case and puts the guilty party safely behind bars. We the viewers/readers exult in justice having prevailed.
This same concept is at work throughout the biblical story, as is evidenced here with both Zephaniah and the Baptist. Each anticipates that moment when the proverbial cavalry will suddenly appear and save the day, removing mortal threat and restoring justice and peace. And we all rejoice.
Biblically, the long-expected Messiah shall come to defeat all evil, and restore life to the manner in which God intends. The Messiah shall defeat suffering and pain, sin and evil (things we all know and hate in our world), and reestablish the joy-filled life we were meant to know. The darkness shall be defeated, the light shall dawn, and we shall live ‘happily ever after.’
But somehow we don’t hear it that way. If I’m right, we’re far more apt to see this whole judgment thing as a negative, as a disaster. Not only does it appear crass and uncouth, as a topic of conversation we dare not utter at, say, a cocktail party, but it seems far worse, as something that threatens to condemn or destroy us. We could even be cast into hell!!!
But why is it that we hear it this way? Why do we assume that it is we who are being defeated rather than the evil we rightly deplore? Children are unambiguously keen to see evil defeated and goodness restored. Why aren’t we?
Perhaps it’s because many of us, if we’re honest, are plagued by guilt and even self-loathing. Because our lives are so good, relatively speaking, maybe we figure we’ve done something wrong in obtaining it.
For a long time now, we in the church have become almost paralyzed after years of scrutinizing our navels. It is as though we suffer collectively from a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence.
People today increasingly look at the church and conclude that because of its admitted imperfections both in the past and present, it can make no claims whatsoever to moral authority.
One problem with this analysis, of course, is that the church is not primarily an ethical society, much less a perfect one. It is, rather, a hospital for sinners. It’s a place where beggars can find a loaf of bread. Our status as Christians, in other words, is based not on achievement or performance, but on humble repentance and the fact of God’s grace. It is based solely on our willingness to let God’s change and refashion our hearts, supplanting our seemingly bottomless egoistic tendencies.
Then again, it is also true that the church does seek goodness and high ethical standards. This is so because such aspirations reflect God’s intrinsic nature, a nature we rightly seek to emulate in thought, word, and deed. This does not mean, however, to repeat, that we ever achieve such perfection, much less that God judges us by how perfectly we perform. For we are finite creatures who necessarily fall short. Always have, always will.
Yet it’s essential to note that while it is true that the church has forever fallen short of perfection, there are nonetheless countless examples of its life-affirming, life-changing goodness.
The question I always ask is this: Would the world be better or worse off had the church of Jesus Christ never existed?
The second question is similar: Should you be judged solely by your worst moments? If not, why is the church so judged?
The think the answer to these questions is obvious. The church throughout history has been a source of immense good, so much so that its goodness has been infused into virtually every nook and cranny of life, often having become unconscious and altogether unnoticed. It is taken for granted. Its many blessings are no longer understood to have originated in the church.
Thus, as I often say, Christianity has become a victim of its own success. It has reshaped and redefined the landscape of our world in ways that are nothing short of miraculous. Yet we internalize all the criticisms that are continually thrown at us, and conclude that our critics are right. We are awful, self-righteous authoritarians; a malevolent force in the world.
Perhaps it is for this reason, as I say, that we reject, or fail to appreciate, the eager expectancy of the Old Testament prophets and the early church as they actually look forward to God’s righteous judgment.
Perhaps we assume we must be perfect in order to escape tribulation, even though our biblical faith categorically rejects such thinking, which nstead celebrates a faithful God who is not content to see his creatures suffer the ill-effects of evil and sin, and who promises as a point of honor to save us from their death-dealing effects.
Zephaniah eagerly looks toward a great festival, a great feast, to a moment of unparalleled exultation. Why don’t we? Amen.