Toorak Uniting Church

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Rejoice? The Lord is near? Are you kidding?

Zephaniah 3: 14 – 17   Philippians 4: 4 – 7
Rev. Robert McUtchen
13 December 2009

This is the third Sunday of Advent. The theme is "joy". For several reasons – that we reach the mid point of our journey toward Jesus Birthday, that we may start to turn from thoughts of repentance to celebration of Jesus coming.

For some thinking people this may be problematic, reasonably objecting that while the world faces so many problems, climate change, violence and war, greed, disease, inequitable sharing of the earth’s riches, religious tension, it is a nonsense for us to be talking about entering a period of "joy".

How is it that we read Zephaniah today – the one day this book gets read – with its assurances Israel will never experience fear of harm or of enemies, because of the action of the Lord? Or Philippians – Rejoice, the Lord is near – do not be anxious….. several questions arise - How are we to reconcile these texts with the reality of today with any integrity? Or indeed the celebration of Jesus birth – when evil appears to be as much a problem as it ever was. Is there a way the story of faith can be related in a sensible way to the present time that avoids faith and reality existing as it were in parallel worlds where faith talks of rejoicing and the world suffers?

Zephaniah was among the later and lesser prophets. He preceded and slightly overlapped the more famous Jeremiah. Israel then had a theocentric view of history – whatever happened was interpreted from the perspective of a people in a close relationship with God – you win – God is pleased with you, you fall – God punishing you. Zephaniah was an apocalyptic preacher, as we heard of last week, who warns of God’s intervention in history. He saw the judgement of Yahweh in the affairs of history – and so he warned urgently of a coming "day of Yahweh", which was to be matched later by Jesus proclamation the "Kingdom of God is at hand". His message was against infiltrating pagan practices, Baal worship in Jerusalem, astral cult practised on the roof of the temple, and the complacency of the people who believed Yahweh has no sway over history, that he was impotent to do good or evil. There would be an unspecified invasion from the North.

Yet in common with many prophets, Zephania appealed to a faithful remnant for whom he had words of comfort and hope. Those words we read today. I wonder if people of Zephaniah’s time did not have similar questions to us. They must have faced the same issues – wars, droughts, heartbreak – and even allowing for the theocentric messages of the prophets, I suspect many would have asked where was God in the strife they experienced. And to these Zephaniah’s message is clear – that the Lord has not turned away, but uses words suggestive of a wedding, in which God is likened to a bridegroom.

Perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings of humankind’s walk with God is the presumption that if God is on our side, then we will have a safe, prosperous life free of suffering or bad things. Central to this position is the human assumption that if God is on our side, then all will be as we would want it. Look carefully at the experience of Israel throughout the Old Testament. There is a continuing story of a people who did experience good fortune in their walk with God, but also suffered greatly from the consequences of human frailty in flawed leaders like David and Saul, and a succession of kings, among whom was King Josiah against whom Zephaniah had spoken. When you stop and consider for all the good things which occurred, there were always deaths, always sickness and suffering, seasons good and bad, injustices of various kinds. But through all things, even the bad times when prophets warned of dire consequence, was the promise of God who took a deep and abiding delight in his people, and desired an intimacy with them. It is this promise which is the focus of the call to joy Zephaniah makes to Israel.

I believe there is further support for this belief in the book of Job. Far too complex a case to analyse deeply now, but to observe of the conclusion in Job in Ch 42, where Job says:


‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.


"Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?"
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.


"Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me."


I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;


therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’

So what is it that is the joy and rejoicing to which people are called in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures? Less a rejoicing in a human paradise where all is what we imagine life should be. More so, a joy that God has chosen to notice us, to care and be interested in us, and to want to engage us in relationship, though why we can only wonder. It means we are not travelling alone in life, and that in the relationship we share with God, God promises to assist us to do more than we could achieve by our selves, drawing upon reserves of strength and inspiration that we cannot access in our own right.

So when the question is asked – how can you speak of rejoicing? We might answer in a different way. We cannot explain the continued bad things which occur in terms of God’s action or inactivity. What we can attest to is the promise – not only from Scripture but from the personal experience of ordinary people like you and me – of God’s journeying with us, sustaining and inspiring – even when we don’t know it at the time – enabling us to live and experience more of what it means to be fully human in the process.

When Paul wrote to the Philippians he understood that the resurrection of Jesus has radically changed all things, and human hope for the future. In this context he could say to them – Rejoice in the Lord always….. and the peace of God.… will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It was not a call to rejoice that all was at peace in the world. It did promise that God’s peace would be with us in whatever might come, and the deepest fear of all – of being alone and unsupported in the world – was now dispelled through the resurrection of Christ.

The call to rejoice in this light is not unreasonable, nor unconnected to human experience. It is about God being with us, whatever we do, whatever happens, and being recalled to the fact that this was all made possible because Jesus first took human form as the child of Mary. In this light we stand at the mid point in Advent and look with joy to celebrate the event which truly began our salvation and our peace. Amen.

© Rev. Robert McUtchen, 2009

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