The Story: Continues

advent 3

This is an Advent sermon delivered at Dunbar and Auburn Presbyterian Churches on Sunday, December 13, 2015.
The scriptural reference is: Zephaniah 3:14-20.
A recording of the sermon is available here.

Travel days are hard days. You see, my family usually travels for vacation back to the East coast where all of our family resides, so we don’t drive – we fly. With two toddlers, we’d rather spend one hard, long day traveling by plane than multiple long days in a car or on a train. Travel days become even harder when we must fly out of Omaha – for a number of reasons. First, we have to leave our house in Lincoln about 85 minutes earlier than the pre-flight arrival/check-in time, which means for a 10:00am flight, we are leaving at 7:30, maybe even 7:00am. Then we take our car to the long-term parking and schlep our stuff and two kids and usually a stroller (although sometimes two car seats, too!) to the terminal where we begin the fun of checking bags. After we get checked in, we await in the line for security, and then once past TSA, we play the waiting game where we are forced to entertain and keep relatively quiet our kids while we wait for boarding. Once on board we find our seats and then wrestle to buckle our children in, sometimes threatening the Pilot will make them ride on the wings if they won’t stay buckled. When takeoff happens, we feel like we’ve just completed a marathon successfully…until we land and rush through the next airport to find lunch and our next flight. Travel days become hard and long, especially when we have to fly out of another city.

As I sit here and listen to myself recount our family travel experiences, I realize again what a privileged life my family leads. We are a family who, while many miles and states away from our extended family, has the time and resources afforded us to make trips back East to visit. We are a family who can afford to fly – all four of us – and multiple trips per year, most years. We are a family who has luggage we must check under the plane, which means we have clothing and personal belongings. Having a car to park means we have transportation, and paying the parking fees means we have available funds. Our places of employment allow us to take days of vacation, meaning we are paid for days we aren’t actually in the office. Family welcomes us into their homes with open arms and grateful hearts, which means we are loved, desired, missed, wanted, and welcome!

All of this is to say that we are a privileged family and we live in a nation of privilege. And yet, we too often overlook our privilege and take it all for granted.

The arrival of our Messiah is a story with many layers, and we’ve been spending time in the Old Testament for good reason. We’ve been spending time with the Prophets because, well, they tell the story. Stepping away from the Gospel lessons that we know so well and delving into the history, the back-story, if you will, allows us to come to terms with our dire need of salvation. The truth is a hard pill to swallow, which is why I fear that we gloss over the Christmas story so much. And I don’t mean the presents, the family time, the Santa visits, the decorating, and the like. No. I mean the truth behind why Christ was born. Or, why God would have needed to rescue us from ourselves.

The prophets say the things that we’re too scared to read or hear for fear that we might be shamed, and yet, they are probably the words we most need to read and hear. As Deborah Block says, “The prophet is as much the voice of Advent as is the Evangelist. … Prophets say what no one wants to hear, what no one wants to believe. Prophets point in directions no one wants to look. They hear God when everybody else has concluded God is silent. They feel God. Prophet’s feel God’s compassion for us, God’s anger at us, God’s joy in us. They dream God’s dreams and utter wake-up-calls; they hope God’s hopes and announce a new future; they will God’s will and live it against all odds. Prophets sing God’s song and sometimes interrupt the program with a change of tune.”[1] Two weeks ago Jeremiah opened our story with a message of hope for security and reconciliation. The Gospel of Matthew from last week ushered in a word of peace in light of uncertainty about the coming of Christ. This week Zephaniah wallops us with a reminder of our need for love because, frankly, we’ve forgotten how to do it and recognize it, too.

Zephaniah is a contemporary of Jeremiah, and it’s also been suggested that he was probably the first prophet following the prophecies of Isaiah. Both Zephaniah and Jeremiah urged King Josiah to enact religious reforms, which we see in both texts. We know that he is also speaking to a people in exile. These people lived national devastation and isolation from community or home. But, what disturbed Zephaniah and caused him to speak for reform was the lamenting idolatry, the corruption and the injustice he saw in Jerusalem. This prophet didn’t hesitate to bring down the hammer. The majority of the oracles in this short book are judgment oracles – eight of the nine in the book! Zephaniah did not hesitate to invoke the yom YHWH, the day of the Lord, when all would be judged and found in breach of the covenant. This text was first presented and heard as a divine judgment against Jerusalem. While earlier portions of the book speak specifically to punishment, the words for us today from Chapter 3 are words of reconciliation.

Before we can take a step into these verses, we must prudently recognize that our privilege prevents us from understanding the text as if we are the intended audience. While we can in theory relate to the context from which it was written, we have yet to experience the realities of Jerusalem at this time. We can recognize that this was a nation embarrassed on an international scale, being a pawn for Babylon and Assyria, and we can empathize at a microscopic level with foreign armies being a constant threat. Still, we will not ever be able to understand, due to our place as a people of privilege, a reality in which we experience consistent lack of food, water or basic necessities of life; religious and political leadership instability that leads to mass deaths; systems that perpetuate slavery and servitude; or, a life in perpetual migration as a refugee.

Given this context, it seems almost trivial and all-too-typically “North American” to try and make the message fit our current circumstances. However, the message of love and our dire need for it does fit our circumstance adequately.

When considering love a basic necessity of life, we privileged are some of the most bankrupt and devoid. “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” (3:17).

We build houses with no front porches, but back decks and patios surrounded by six or eight-foot tall fences. Our idea of friendship has been boiled down to a connection on Facebook and a thumbs-up or a like from someone we hardly, truly know, for something we’ve posted on a figurative wall. We don’t speak to people in public anymore, rather we spend time speaking into our Bluetooth receivers for our phones while we are out and about. When we hear of a need, we’d so much rather throw money at “the problem” than roll up our sleeves and literally do something to help right the wrong. We have forgotten how to give and receive love. And lucky for us, God recognized that and rolled up his sleeves to literally do something about it for us.

A colleague, Rev. Erik Dailey, is a modern-day, pop-culture theologian. Maybe even a pop-culture prophet. Recently he shared his observations about the movie Home Alone. If you’ve not seen this Christmas-season classic, I commend it to you. This 1990 movie is the story of the McCalister family of Illinois who is traveling to Paris with the entire family for Christmas vacation. Due to a number of issues, they leave their youngest child, Kevin, home alone in Chicago as they travel to France. When they realize that Kevin isn’t present, they scramble to contact friends, neighbors and local authorities to find him, as well as trying to make it home. There is one particular neighbor they exclude, but Kevin ultimately befriends…in church, of all places. Kevin and Marley swap stories at the church and part ways. As the movie concludes, Kevin and Marley are reunited with their respective families. Rev. Dailey states: “The real failure of the McCalister parents is not leaving Kevin at home alone, but failing to love their neighbor. In France, they call every neighbor they know, but not the lonely old man, who is in fact at home    and willing to care for Kevin. Why don’t they call him? Because they don’t know him! They’ve never reached out to him. Luckily though, he knows God’s inclusive love (“everyone is welcome at church”) and helps Kevin, which becomes a blessing to him as well (the subsequent      reconciliation with his family).”[2] There is so much profound truth in what Rev. Dailey shares. In the midst of loneliness, fear, separation, fright, chaos, sadness and desperation, two unlikely characters become friends who then experience, share and receive God’s inclusive love with and from one another.

What will it look like when God renews us in God’s love?

Kevin McCalister went to church seeking sanctuary, and ends up watching a choir perform. There, he ran into Marley, who sat with Kevin and they shared stories, where Kevin learns that Marley is actually a nice man and that the rumors about him are false. He tells Kevin he is watching the choir rehearse because his granddaughter is in it, but because he and his son are estranged, Marley can’t see his grandchild. He shares though, that everyone is welcome in church, and therefore he’s able to see her if even at a distance. In this, Kevin shares his fears in his parent’s being gone and Marley becomes a temporary parent-figure, and savior in a very dangerous situation that Kevin doesn’t have. They open themselves to one another, share their vulnerably, and God renews each of them in his love.

In Advent we are granted the time to be vulnerable as we prepare for the arrival of our Messiah. This time of preparation should be a time for us to step away from our privilege as much as possible and recognize that we still exits in a world that very much needs salvation. While we are most likely not a people that fears disaster as Zephaniah taught, we are a people who need a God that will change our shame into praise. We need our eyes opened to see where love is depleted in our world. We have become deaf to the cries of our neighbors near and very far away who ring out for help. Our minds are no longer informed about, and our hearts no longer compassionate for sisters and brothers around the world who experience the world today in ways much more like the world of Zephaniah’s hearers. If we are to be restored and renewed in God’s love, we must join in solidarity with our fellow children of God around the world and here at home who are experiencing disaster, conflict, harm, hurt, or lack of companionship.

In her work The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg speaks about being made in God’s image: “If we return now to God’s project for man, we are confronted by the most eloquent and mystifying of all God’s creative words: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our form.’ This creature is to be, in some essential way, similar to his creator. This resemblance will give him dominion over the earth’s resources. Clearly, man is to hold a special relationship to God; in a sense, he is to be the symbol of God’s presence on earth. But how is one to understand such a notion of being like God, given that he human being is limited, mortal and contingent, while God is infinite, eternal, and absolute?”[3] I am drawn to this particularly for her statement about humanity holding a special relationship with God, because we do. We have a God of love who wants nothing more than for us to live into the fullness of our creation – out of love, for love, in love, to be love to and for others. Still, we struggle with being like God. We struggle with the humanity part of our creation because we are human-made with the likeness of God. Our Messiah, our Savior, our Renew-er, though, is both human-made and God-made. Jesus Christ is God, not merely in God’s image. Jesus Christ came to model for us, to be among us, the love that we can’t grasp for ourselves and even more miserably share with others.

Today’s words of hope, peace and love from Zephaniah point us toward the coming right-relationship with God that will be restored in Christ. While the prophet speaks in cycles of punishment and renewal, “the cycle of punishment and restoration is key to God’s relationship with God’s people, from the beginning of Genesis down to present day. God will always restore. There is good news for any day and any age.”[4] It is imperative that we heed the lenses of privilege and affluence through which we read the Scriptures, or hear the Christmas and Easter stories. These lenses obstruct our view and disturb our listening. In claiming them (hard as it may be) we recognize that we exist, regardless of our opportunity or deficiency, in the middle of a very similar cycle. We may bodily be the image of God, but in Spirit and substance we disappoint. As we approach the manger, we realize that we, too, would probably have been love-less and turned away the pregnant teenage woman and her fiancé on the busiest night of our holiday season. Would we not? We are the innkeepers – we have much we could give, but we fail to do so when presented the opportunity.

The Lord of Love is working to restore, renew, and reconcile our relationship with him. Many years ago it was through a baby with unwed parents. How is God working to renew you in his love, and change your shame, and gather you to make you renowned and praised?

Oh God, open our hearts this Advent.

[1] Deborah A. Block, “Pastoral Perspective on Zephaniah 3:14-20” in Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship, ed. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 57.
[2] Rev. Erik Dailey, from a post shared on Facebook. This is both a direct quote of his, and an original thought of mine stemming from his ideas.
[3] Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb. The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious (New York: Schocken Books, 2011), 4-5.
[4] Seth Moland-Kovash, “Homiletical Perspective on Zephaniah 3:14-20” in Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship, ed. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 61.

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