Sermon by Andy Wurm, Advent3, December 12th 2021
Today and over the past few weeks, in our scripture readings, we have heard prophets talking about judgement. Today we heard from the prophet Zephaniah. Although one of the shortest books of the bible, his message is perhaps the most extreme, for his book begins by announcing that God is going ‘utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth’! By the time we get to today’s passage God has calmed down a fair bit, and is merely going to destroy Israel’s enemies.
To hear God saying anything meaningful for us in all these sorts of writings, we have cut to the core message, and so let go of everything except for God’s passion for healing and justice. So we must translate God ‘will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth’ to mean ‘God is really sad that things aren’t what they could be and will do all that he can to change it’. That means there will come a time when there is no more injustice or poverty, domestic violence, war, exploitation and everything else that’s wrong with the world. It’s a concept that’s conveyed in a number of ways in scripture, particularly during Advent through the notion of the ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, when all the world will become Christ-like. It’s a wonderful image, but is it realistic?
Zephaniah promised his people that God would deliver them from captivity in Babylon. Did his people then break out the champagne and start packing to go home? Not at all. And if God was going free the people of Israel, would God not set free all other oppressed people, even today? So why hasn’t God freed the people of Israel and Palestine from the violence they are trapped in now? When I hear the words of Zephaniah and think of the middle east or the Uyghurs in China, or others, I don’t head for the cellar, yet Zephaniah actually promised healing for the whole world.
It all seems a bit ‘fairytailish’. Yet for thousands of years people have read Zephaniah’s words and found comfort and inspiration, within their suffering. Similarly, from the writings of St Paul, who, although wrongfully imprisoned, encouraged the Christians in Philippi ‘rejoice in the Lord always’!
Why is there this strong current of encouragement in ancient Judaism and Christianity to rejoice and celebrate when there is so much wrong in the world, and even great suffering amongst those being encouraged so?
The first thing to realise is that those who imparted those messages and their listeners generally didn’t expect God to fix the world immediately. (Paul is an exception, as he believed it would all happen in his lifetime, but later let go of that.) Then, as well as realistically not expecting God to make everything wonderful straight away, there was even the expectation that suffering would continue, or get worse! Christians knew that an empire that seeks to dominate and control the world, such as the Roman Empire, would eventually see Christianity as a threat, because it stands for the very opposite. So Christians not only thought persecution was possible, but they expected it (and were surprised and glad when it was absent.) The point is, Christians and Jews have been quite realistic in what is expected from God. There is to be no superman to the rescue. Does this then leave us with no divine help? Not at all.
Here we must think of God as loving creator, who creates and loves by providing the potential for love. What that means is that in every moment, God makes available a variety of possible outcomes to any situation. Take for example a chocolate cake which someone gives me. I can eat the whole cake by myself. Or I can share it with a friend, or I can share it with friends and also strangers, so I might walk into a bank and offer the staff some chocolate cake. I might also save some crumbs for the ants in my garden, and use the situation to teach my children about caring for other creatures. So you see, in this one example there are numerous outcomes: some selfish and limited, but many generous and producing wider forms of love. They are merely the possibilities I can imagine, but there must be far more, and starting to share may inspire me in more ways. And as God is infinite, God’s creativity and capacity to love and inspire to love, are infinite. So there is no limit to the potential for love in any given moment and situation. All the time, this is what is trying to break through into our lives, to be born.
Apply that then to the violence throughout the world. Imagine the potential for peace and love that God is right now making available to every individual, group and nation. It’s beyond 0ur imagining actually. But this is the reality that the ancient prophets, Paul and others were encouraging people to celebrate. Because one day, something’s going to be allowed to break through, and everything will change. And they see this in a worldwide perspective. One day it will all be different. Not that it will really happen in one day or all at once, but eventually, we will get there.
I strongly suspect that it won’t be in my lifetime, but it actually could be. Miraculously, it could. That miracle would not be God intervening in the world. It would be the world, or some in the world, or even perhaps just one person, making an opening for God, so that something of all that potential God is ‘offering’ can become real in the world.
Why isn’t it happening now? Because of sin, which is both physical and spiritual, e.g. denying hungry people food is sin, but so is the attitude that says it’s not our problem. All that blocks God giving the world what it needs must be addressed physically and spiritually. So we must strive to understand what’s really going on, through social, political and economic analysis, and then address those issues however we can. But at the same time, we must address the spiritual aspects of sin, and that’s where prayer comes in. It may involve soul-searching, but probably for most of us, we are already at that point of seeing things aren’t right and wanting change, in which case, our prayer is simply to ask God to fix it.
This is not asking God to do something God doesn’t already want to do, though. It’s a matter of opening a channel. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he didn’t say that as God doesn’t realise you need bread, ask nicely if he would he kindly send a few loaves your way. Rather, he said tell God to GIVE US TODAY OUR DAILY BREAD. Similarly, Jesus would say tell God to BRING PEACE TO THE MIDDLE EAST. Tell God, but only because God wants us to tell God, for doing that is offering a tiny opening in our lives to bring about whatever is possible. It doesn’t mean we are likely to solve the whole problem ourselves. It just means we are offering to do what we can. It’s about unblocking what is blocking God. Tearing away the barriers. Freeing God to be able to do what God wants, yearns, aches, to do. God just wants a chance to get in there and pour out love. Imagine if everyone made such an opening for God.
We live then with the reality of domestic, communal, national, transnational forces and systems which resist life, perpetuating injustice, poverty and violence. But God passionately desires to give love into the world, and waits for opportunities to do so. Psalm 23 describes that as God’s love and goodness pursues us, all the days of our lives. How do we live in that tension? Paul and others tell us: become what you hope for. Live the love you believe is possible. In other words: live with joy.