Hope!, Zephaniah 3:14-20
First United Methodist Church, December 16, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
It’s the Third Sunday of Advent, 9 days till Christmas, and you’d think we’d be sitting on top of the world. Feeling good. Excited. Ready! Some of us are, but a whole lot of us, aren’t.
When I was a little kid, getting ready for Christmas was a whole lot different than it is now. I had shopping to do. Every Christmas Eve, I’d go to my Dad’s family celebration. My mom would take me to K-Mart, and I’d go down the list and pick something out for grandma and grandpa, my dad, my aunt and uncle and cousins. It was so much fun! She’d buy it, I’d help wrap it, and I was set and ready to go. All I had left to think about was how much fun I’d have with my cousins, and all those presents under the tree. I couldn’t wait!
But, now that I’m all grown up, it’s a little different. I still go out shopping, but I have to pay for it. I have to wrap it. And the meal that I never paid much attention to as a kid (and considered more of an annoyance than anything else!) gets a fair amount of my attention now.
And that’s just the beginning of the things that need to be figured out!
It’s getting the family all together. I've come to believe there is at least one person in everybody’s family who is best appreciated from a distance. But we’re all thrown together during the holidays. You've gotta learn to hold your tongue and to watch your P’s and Q’s, and that’s not always easy.
Some of us are caught in the situation of trying to make everybody happy by showing up here and there and everywhere…and if you don’t, you feel like you’re a disloyal son or daughter. Sometimes the message is subtle, and sometimes, not so much.
Some folks are dealing with depression, others are dealing with addictions. Some folks have lost their jobs, while others are dealing with lost or changed relationships. There’s an empty place at the table this year for the first time, and that isn't easy.
If the challenges at home weren’t enough to keep us busy, we look out at all the other things that are happening both locally and in our world, and there's just that much more for us to worry about…more things that concern us.
The economy, politics, drugs, violence, accidents… All kinds of things. They wear you down after awhile.
Pretty soon, you just go numb. You just start taking all that trouble for granted. It’s not that you don’t want good things to happen, it’s just we get so accustomed to things the way they are, that we don’t expect that they’ll ever change. Sure, we believe in God, we talk about hope, we sing “Peace on earth, good will to all,” but not with any real conviction. It’s a pretty song, it’s a part of our tradition, but does it really mean anything? Things are as they are, right? Don’t we just do the best that we can, and get by day-by-day? Not really expecting God to do anything about it?
This morning’s scripture is a word from the Prophet Zephaniah, who wrote to people who were weighed down in the aftermath of oppression by the Assyrian empire. During that reign, there wasn’t a lot of freedom for the people of Judah to talk about God, and they watched as their political and religious leaders bowed down to foreign leaders and foreign gods. The poor and the outcast were ignored while those who could, pursued worldly wealth. There was corruption and violence that ran rampant all the way from the courthouse to the sanctuary. They felt like they were powerless. “That’s just the way life is, what can you do?” If God cared about them, wouldn’t God do something? They no longer expected deliverance. They didn’t think things would ever change. They became numb, complacent, indifferent. They just lived each day as it came to them, and got by, day-by-day.
The text we've read this morning, which sounds pretty upbeat and positive, are the final written words of Zephaniah—at the very end of the chapter. But those words need to be put in context with the rest of what Zephaniah has to say. The first 3 ½ chapters of the book is Zephaniah proclaiming the word of the Lord, who is railing against the people of Judah. God is mad! Big time! God is so mad, that in the first chapter, God basically “undoes” the creation story.
Through Zephaniah, God says,
“I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.”
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all who live in Jerusalem. I will cut off from this place very remnant of Baal, the names of the pagan and the idolatrous priests—those who bow down and swear by the Lord and who also swear by Molech; those who turn back from following the Lord and neither seek the Lord nor inquire of him…(1:1-6).
God is mad! This keeps going for 2 ½ more chapters, as God lays ‘em out flat for their lack of integrity, their lack of faithfulness, and their indifference as to who they are, and who they belong to. God is really mad!
But then, an amazing thing happens in Chapter 3: God’s heart begins to soften. It’s as though God is saying, okay—this is it, kids. I want you to know exactly why you’re in trouble here—but now that you know it, I want you to hear this, as well: I love you. I love you so incredibly much. You’re mine, and I will take care of you.
Listen again to these final words of Zephaniah:
“Sing aloud, O daughter, Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter, Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 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. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at that time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”
After everything that has happened, after all they’ve done, and after all they’ve left undone…God offers this word of hope! In the midst of their everyday lives; in the midst of their troubles, God comes to them, and promises to save them. God says, “I will rejoice over you with gladness, I will renew you in my love, I will exalt over you with singing, as on a day of festival.”
It's a beautiful, incredible, word of hope.
Can you imagine God singing over you? At first, it comes as though from a distance, because you’re not expecting it…and then, you begin to hear it more closely, more definitely, and it’s as close as was your mother’s voice that sang to soothe you when you were a baby. It’s as close as a lover’s whisper, who sings softly in your ear. God says, “I love you. You’re mine.”
God sings a word of hope.
In difficult times.
In the midst of trouble.
In the midst of our lives.
God sings to us a word of hope, sometimes, in unexpected ways. In unexpected times.
Maybe it’s been 10 years ago now—my mom sent me a letter. She wrote it around the time of my birthday and sent it to me. It was really sweet. She and my dad were married when they were 17 and 19 years old, and they were married for 11 years. I was about 5 when they were divorced, and my dad wasn’t around a lot, so I don’t have a lot of memories them together. But in my letter, my mom told me about this handsome young man, and how much fun they had together…how much they loved each other. She told me about the things they used to do, and for the first time in my life, I realized how much they loved each other at one time. That was good for me to hear, because I didn’t know that. I’d never really thought about it before, but it was so good for me to learn that I was born into the midst of the lives of these 2 crazy young people who at one time were head over heels in love with each other.
In my mom’s letter, God sang me a word of hope. That lifted me up in unexpected ways. Gave me a history I didn’t know I had.
A pastor was visiting a member of her congregation at a V.A. hospital some years ago. They were in a patient holding area waiting with a number of other people for the various tests and procedures that had been scheduled for them, when their visit was interrupted by the sound of a man groaning loudly and the softer sound of a woman humming. As the noise continued, the pastor excused herself and followed the sound of the groaning and singing.
Around the corner she found a badly scarred man, lying on a gurney, groaning and speaking words that didn’t make any sense. Beside him sat a woman, stroking his brow, and humming gently to him. The pastor introduced herself, and asked if she could sit for a bit. The woman seemed glad for some company.
She told her story. The man had been wounded in battle, resulting in severe physical and mental handicaps. “He’s been like this ever since,” she ended. The pastor realized after a quick count, that they had suffered like this for decades. The pastor asked: “how have you endured?” The woman smiled and said, “I know that one day God’s gonna come and heal him, and I intend to be here when he does.” And she began humming again.
And in the sound of her humming, God was singing, too. A love song. In an unexpected time, in an unexpected place. God sings a word of hope, a word of healing.
A man received an email from his son who was a freshman at Virginia Tech, and a member of the Corp of Cadets. It had been a tough year for him, he hadn’t done so well in his studies, and he felt like his commitment to the Corp has been a part of the reason for that. But he enjoyed the camaraderie of the Corps, and was learning some important lessons there.
He talked with this dad when he was home at Thanksgiving about his future. A couple of weeks before that, his entire Corp had been involved in a memorial service for a recent Virginia Tech grad who had been killed in Iraq. With taps, a 21 gun salute, and the chiseling of his name on the memorial wall, a young man can’t help but think about his own future. Their Thanksgiving conversation involved his son’s sharing that he wants to grow up, to have a family, to get old…and that going to war and dying would be a major obstacle in achieving those goals. His original hope was to get an ROTC scholarship, but now, he wasn’t so sure.
When it came time to send him back off to school, his family encouraged him to do what he needed to do—forget about the scholarship, to concentrate on improving his grades, and having some fun.
Then something happened just a couple of weeks later that prompted the email. The young man was at McDonald’s dressed in uniform.
An old man approached him, and just stood there, looking at him. Then the older man put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry…God will take care of you.” And then he left.
His Dad asked him how he felt, expecting him to say, “weird.”
Instead, he said, “it felt good.”
Dad asked him, “Do you think it might have been an angel sent by God, knowing that you’re struggling with the stuff we’re talking about?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
(After a little bit, the dad asked his son…”Or, do you think maybe he was just some old geezer who likes to play with the heads of soldiers?”
“Thanks, Dad, for taking away the moment.”
In unexpected times, in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, God sings to us a word of comfort.
In difficult times. In the midst of trouble. In the midst of our lives.
God sings to us a word of hope…a word of healing…a word of comfort.
Listen for his voice.
Listen for the sound of a crying infant.