Reflection for December 13, 2015

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

Have you ever felt the need to tell someone to “tone it down”? That is what we have in chapter three of Zephaniah this morning. The “toning down” of the prophet of gloom and doom. The third chapter is the “happy ending” attached to the original chapters of condemnation and destruction.
We do not know that much about Zephaniah, but he was writing as Babylonian armies were crushing the tribes and nations around Israel and Judah. In Zephaniah’s view, Jerusalem would be the next city to fall. It was only a matter of time. And why would God let this disaster happen? In Zephaniah’s view it was because of rising corruption, inept government, total lack of compassion for those in need, and the distortion of belief in God so that it became only a crutch to support the shaky system about to collapse. We don’t read from Zephaniah that much, especially those first two chapters. That much condemnation is out of place in a religious climate of feeling good and attracting people to support the mission.
But to be honest, the first two and a half chapters of Zephaniah were too much for the people of his own time. So this more upbeat and hopeful ending, the passage we have today, was added, sometime at a later date. They perhaps come from a time when the feared invaders had themselves been conquered by the Persians and the Israelites were now about to return to Judah to rebuild their nation.
And that is the theme of these verses at the end of this short book of the Bible. The key verse is probably: I will remove disaster from you. God says: I will remove disaster from you. And there are days when that is the key verse of our lives. Life can be going along well, and then we find ourselves up to our waists in trouble and sinking fast. It can be something in our families, or with our health, or a financial thing, or a crisis that involves wondering why we are alive, or a host of other things, but suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a disaster. And it is then we need to hear these words from God: I will remove disaster from you.
In some ways this key verse may be the key to the Christian faith. We have this assurance through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that there will come a time for all creation and all creatures when God says: I will remove disaster from you. Even the disaster we know to be death.
Let me lift up five elements of God’s disaster removal project embedded in these verses. In this ancient poem, recovery from total disaster involves five things: moving beyond judgment, regaining our strength, using the broken, gathering together, and a time to sing.
Moving beyond judgment: Zephaniah says it’s time to get beyond judgment, shame, and ridicule. Accept responsiblity, but don’t wallow in failure. The first step in getting to recovery is moving beyond the judgment, put downs, and rejection and then finding ourselves: our strength and what we can do with the help of God to change the disaster around us. Move beyond judgment, rejection, scorn, and ridicule and get into that Philippians passage.
Regaining our strength: Zephaniah’s words speak of regaining our strength. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual strength needs to be nurtured and sustained, exercised and practiced in times of recovery from disaster.
Using the broken or rejected: The recovery is about using that which is broken, that which is rejected and discarded. We may think we want a completely new body or mind. Or we may wish we had a perfect situation. But we live with our brokenness, with all our limitations and disabilities. Recovery is not about being perfect or creating perfection. Look at that reading about John the Baptist we have today. Who are the people coming to him? Tax collectors and Roman soldiers, people rejected by the religious establishment. God builds the kingdom with the broken and rejected, the discarded and the disabled.
Gathering together: A coming together is what Zephaniah sees as central to recovery. A coming back, a return of the scattered, a coming together, a building of the community of friendship. You can’t go it alone in the recovery from disaster.
A time to sing: Zephaniah is a call to sing, boldly and loudly. If you are needing recovery. It may be time to sing. To find again that song of hope in your heart. That is why we keep singing together Sunday after Sunday, to build up your emotional and spiritual reservoir and repertoire. You’ll never know when you need it.
God says: I will remove disaster from you. How? By assisting you in moving beyond judgment, regaining your strength, using the broken, gathering together, and taking time to sing. That’s how.
But important as this practical advice is for recovery, I want to say something else about Zephaniah which moves us a bit deeper. In the earlier chapters, the prophet has this concept of “The Day of the Lord.” The Day of the Lord was a phrase used to mark a festival or a feast. It was a liturgical day of joy. But in the prophets, including Zephaniah, The Day of the Lord became a day when we felt the wrath of God. In the prophets The Day of the Lord became a day of final restitution when God would restore all things. You can see that John the Baptist is in this prophetic tradition in the last reading this morning.
But in Zephaniah, the phrase Day of the Lord, or Coming of the Lord, meant both a time of celebration and feasting and a time of hardship, difficulty, restitution and assessment of what we are doing. And when we ignore chapters one and two of Zephaniah on our way to the encouraging words of chapter three; when we gloss over all of the disasters of life on our way to amusing ourselves to death; then we lose the power and depth of the joy of the coming festivities. It is the refiner’s fire that turns holidays to holy days.
The ancient prophet was onto something. In the human heart, great joy and great sorrow live very close together. Our highs always have shadows. And often we are able to laugh even as our world disintegrates. As we approach this coming festival season, it is good for us to remember how closely joy and sorrow are woven together. They are not opposites as much as partners God uses in the project of making sense out of our lives while we are in recovery mode. This season we will rejoice, and at the same time our hearts will be heavy. And this season, our sorrows will find relief in the promised recover. For as God once said through an old prophet long ago: I will remove disaster from you.