a time for each one of us: we are, each one of us, told not to fear

Zechariah 3:14-20

What a hymn, anthem and sermon title for this week.
And I picked the sermon title last summer.
We picked the hymn (“Comfort, Comfort Now My People”)
and the anthem (Jeffrey Van’s “Christmas Lullaby”) this past Wednesday.
What a week.
Of course, somewhere, most weeks are.
Most just don’t hit us as hard.

Mom and Dad got back from three months in Germany
this past Thursday,
and when we dropped their car off at the airport,
we left a CD of German Christmas music in it.
The girls and I had been enjoying it—
the familiar tunes—
“Silent Night,” of course, originally written in German, Stille Nacht
as was O Tannenbaum, “O Christmas Tree,”
and Ihr Kinderlein Kommet, “O Come, All You Children.”
And they’d be in the backseat proudly proclaiming,
“We know German Christmas songs!”

One of my favorite German songs of the season is actually an Advent song
written by a lutheran evangelical pastor, Eduard Ebel,
published in 1895 in his Collected Poems with the title Weihnachtsgruß
Christmas Greeting—and the epigraph: Ein Kinderlied, a children’s song.
The song’s best known by its first line:

Leise rieselt der Schnee.
Quietly drifts down the snow.
Still and starr ruht der See.
Still and frozen the sea—or the lake.
Weihnachtlich glänzet der Wald.
Christmas like gleams the wood—or the forest
(the moon on the snow on the trees).
Freue dich, Christkind kommt bald.”
Take joy, the Christ child comes soon.

And the setting of the song—
the imagery—the circumstances described—
snow and the woods, the frozen lake
fit our expectations of the season—
a hushed, quiet winter scene of darkness-lit beauty.

But that setting doesn’t always match our own, right?
I’ve lived in places where it does,
but it’s kind of weird, if you stop to think about it,
to have a particular geography and weather pattern
so strongly identified with not just the season
but also with our faith story set in the season.

As if it was Mary and Joseph and not just Santa Claus
walking in a polar winter wonderland
on a sleighride with jingle bells whilst
dreaming of great tidings of a white christmas
and good news of toys for good little girls and boys.

I was singing on the walk into work one morning this past week
thinking about how geography is different everywhere
and circumstances are different everywhere
and different every year.
And how maybe we need more locally contextualized detail.
Leise regnet us heut’.
Quietly it rains today.
Laut und viel sind die Leut’.
Many and loud are the people.
Weihnachtlich wachset die Gier.
Christmas-like grows the greed.
Freue dich, Christ-kind kommt hier.
Take joy, the Christ-child comes here.

So, and what an important question for us this week,
do we sing at this time of the year—
do we, as those of the God story, sing of ideal circumstances
(of peace and justice and joy)
ideal circumstances that do not match our own?
Or do we sing the truth of our so very real
sometimes terrible circumstances
yet somehow without losing God’s word of hope?
Do we sing of some vision of how God will one day make things to be?
Or do we sing of the way things are into which reality Jesus still comes?

Amidst all that happens in big towns and little towns,
our towns and their towns, old towns and Newtown,
what does it mean to sing of peace and restoration?
What does it mean to sing of love?
Does that offer a much needed word of hope and faith?
Or does it represent a disrespectful word of denial?

One psychologist quoted in the news yesterday said,
“People in my neighborhood are feeling guilty about it being Christmas.
They are taking down decorations.”

If we have a word of hope and faith,
it certainly can’t be one ignorant of what happened …,
and of what happened in Geneva County, Alabama;
and Tucson, Arizona; Jonesboro, Arkansas;
Aurora and Littleton, Colorado;
Perry Hall, Maryland; Red Lake, Minnesota;
Binghamton, New York; Killeen, Texas;
Blacksburg, Virginia; Oak Creek, Wisconsin;
and far too many more to name.

A word of hope
is sometimes so desperately needed, no?
In the midst of the way things are.
A word of hope about how we’re better than this.
Except that we’re not.
Time and time again, we’re not.

Back to that German Advent song.
In den Herzen ist’s warm.
In our hearts, it’s warm.
Still schweigt Kummer und Harm.
Care and harm are silenced.
Sorge des Leben’s verhallt.
Concerns of life are hushed.
Freue dich, Christkind kommt bald.”
Take joy, the Christ child comes soon.

Definitely some kind of an ideal imaged here, no?
Sing a song that sounds nice—
a promise that’s truly more a wish
for things to be other than they are.
And in the midst of circumstances such as these,
to promise other circumstances
unrelated to what’s happened—
with no bearing on what is—
just on what we wish were—
what we hope will be—
pie in the sky by and by
in the name of God
is blasphemy—
the word of God unfleshed.
If that’s what we’ve got,
take down the decorations.

The trick to integrity in our faith affirmations
is never to dismiss real circumstance
in all its raw harsh horror,
but to also not lose the assurance of a word of hope and promise.
Within realism not to turn to escapism,
but to hope—
and the possibility in the work of transformation.

So it was in the days of King Josiah of Judah
(more than six hundred years before Jesus)
that the call of God came to Zephaniah ben Cushi—
Zephaniah son of Cushi.
Now in Scripture Cush was a great empire in Africa,
so Zephaniah may well have been a son of Africa—
more than six hundred years before Jesus
receiving a word of God—
a word that still, we believe—we proclaim—
resonates today with power and relevance—
a word way back from the days of King Josiah.

“The central motif of the book of Zephaniah
is the coming of the day of the Lord
as a time of terrifying judgment against Judah
and all the earth …”
(Robert A. Bennett, The Book of Zechariah:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in
The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in
Twelve Volumes, Volume VII
Abingdon Press, 1996] 664).

Now most of you know my view of prophecy.
Speaking of what will be in order to name what is—
in order to name the truth of what is.
So Zephaniah spoke to the tears and the terror of his day—
Zephaniah spoke to the news of his day—the fears and horrors of his day.
But the name Zephaniah is made up of the letters of the divine name—
God’s name, and a form of the Hebrew word
whose meaning is “to hide” or “to protect” (Bennett, 659).
So, very subtly, it’s suggested—not boldly stated—
suggested—subtly that Yahweh protects
in the midst of the truth of what is.

Now that pretty much has to be subtly suggested
because it begs the question just how and just whom
does God protect in the midst of the way things are?

And, just because it’s being said out there—
by ignorami (how often do you get to use that plural?!)
God’s protection has nothing—nothing to do with whether or not
there is legally sanctioned corporate prayer in schools.
Now I don’t need to tell you that.
I don’t need to tell you that that’s absurd—
offensive, shallow, ridiculous, reprehensible, blasphemous idolatry.
Yet apparently popular.
My experience of the people of God consistently reaffirms
that what we make of God constitutes one of our greatest sins.
Kyrie elaison. God have mercy.

Our text this morning comes from the third and final section
of the book of Zephaniah following words of judgment
directed against Judah and Jerusalem
and the foreign nations—
following words of judgment and yet offering words of hope and promise
and precisely for those judged:
Judah, Jerusalem and even the foreign nations.
And the image at the end of the book of Zephaniah
is of those who survived the judgment
and are gathered into a new reality.

“Sing aloud, shout, rejoice, exult,” Zephaniah exhorts,
“for God is with us.
God is in our midst.
Do not fear. Do not be afraid.” It’s repeated.
“God is with us as king—as warrior.
Pick your powerful metaphor.
The greater truth simply God with us.
And God will rejoice over you with gladness.
God will renew you in divine love.

Okay. Translation issue. Big time translation issue.
God will renew you in God’s love
is the translation of what literally means:
God is silent in God’s love.
Okay, now that’s admittedly a little harder to deal with,
so, as happens, it doesn’t get translated,
but gets interpreted in a way easier to understand.
But I invite you today to consider our context and our text.
We’ve been told to what? Sing, shout, rejoice and exult
because God is in our midst.

Then amidst being told that God will exult over us—
sing loudly and rejoice,
we read that God is silent in God’s love.

So does God do what God told us to do
(right?)—rejoice, exult, shout, sing—the verbs are all the same.
And if so, then God’s silent love makes absolutely no sense.
Or—or—is God present and is God at work
in our obedient response to God—
in and through our singing of the songs of festivals—
in and through the singing of the faithful the songs of faith
in the midst of circumstance?
The familiar liturgies—the stories and prayers—
in our Advent and Christmas words of expectation and waiting and hope—
in our commitment to them,
God speaks even through God’s silence—
the silence the prophet assures us is the silence of God’s love—
the silence given voice in the lives of the people of God.
What a profoundly prophetic word—
one that honors what so many hear as the silence of God,
and the horror of what is,
and then asks of us, “So, today, are you singing the songs of faith?
Are you singing the songs of love and grace—of forgiveness?
Are you telling the stories of Jesus?
Rejoicing in the good news even today?”

Because it never means bad things won’t happen.
It means bad things won’t define us.
It never means bad people don’t cause unimaginable grief.
It means good people sing goodness even in response.
God will protect us in the truth of what is.
God knows—in Jesus, God knows that doesn’t mean we’ll be kept safe.
It does mean we might be kept good.
Singing. Believing. Hoping. Loving.

Bald ist heilige Nacht.
Soon it’s the Holy Night
Chor der Engel erwacht;
Choir of angels awake.
hört nur wie lieblich es schallt,
Listen how lovely it sounds—peals—rings.
Freue dich, Christkind kommt bald.”
Take joy, the Christ child comes soon.

Now I like this: the phrase “choir of angels awake”
can be heard as an indicative statement—
the angel choir is awake and singing,
but can also be heard as an imperative—
the demand for the angel choir to awaken.
Therein lies the integrity of our word for the world—
simultaneously testimony and prayer.
For we are the choir of angels—
God’s messengers in our world (or we’re not).
We are the singing in which God is manifest—
the stories in which God is incarnate—
the living in which God is made flesh (or not).

We read Scripture at this time of year
that proclaims, “Do not fear!”
But there’s so much of which to be afraid.
So much that is and so many who are out of balance—
not receiving the care and attention needed.
So much numbness and anger.
So much immaturity in our culture and self-centeredness.
So much bad theology. So much uncaring attention seeking.
So few good healthy models of confrontation
and disagreement.
So much of what it means to be strong
defined in stories of vengeance, not grace—
violence, not forgiveness.
So much fear.
And God weeps.

And we are a culture
that has determined guns and bombs
and violence will protect us and make us safe,
and those are the stories we promote and tell—
even though we have all of human history
to testify that it is not so.
And God weeps.

When God said, “Do not fear,”
it’s not because God was issuing licenses to carry.

And God’s strategy for living fearlessly
wasn’t arming the disciples
so they could kill anyone who threatened
God incarnate.
The one disciple who actually tried that
(with the technology of the day)
was rebuked.

The technologies of violence do not overcome fear.
They sustain it.
And anyone “will only give up their gun
when it’s pried from their cold, dead hands,”
lives afraid
in loud rhetorical compensation.
And God weeps.

Hear me well.
Hear me carefully.
A gun is a tool.
Some are wondrously made—
Like all tools they can be used for good and for ill.
Please don’t hear me saying guns cannot be
and should not be good and useful tools.
But some guns are not necessary for good,
and some tools do not belong in some hands.
And freedom is not validated, ignoring wisdom,
but abused.
And God weeps.

Can we be a community—
as those who own guns and those who don’t—
can we be a community that models a conversation—
not about some absolute ban—
not about taking guns away from responsible gun owners,
but about figuring out together
what common sense steps we can take
to protect our children and our goodness.
Gun regulation, I know, isn’t the only step needed.
Of course it won’t solve our immense problems by itself.
But it is one step we can and must take.
Along with, as those who follow God in the way of Jesus,
living ever more like Jesus.

Do not fear, we’re told.
And yet we do.
So we’re not there yet?
We’re not yet to that time—
that time when God will make all things right?
Or we’re not there yet—
we’re still on the way
to becoming who God calls us to be—
in the midst of the way things are—
as God calls us to be.

And God is silent in God’s love.
God’s word was made flesh among us.
God spoke the definitive word of love already,
and now it’s up to us to sing the songs of our festivals—
of Advent now—
of Christmas coming—
of waiting and expecting
and living into what we await and expect.
In the Saturday night online preachers’ forum last night,
I wrote at one point,
“If we have nothing to say today—
if we don’t have a good word today, we have nothing to say.”

You’ve heard the story of the monastery
that was in trouble?
Loss of morale—of interest—of commitment.
Until a word of prophecy indicated the Messiah
was there to be found in their midst.
And each one began to treat the others as if
they might be the Messiah,
and the monastery flourished—
survived the judgment of what was
and regathered into a new reality.

That’s a key component of our faith understanding, is it not?
That’s part of what incarnation continues to mean—
that Jesus is in our midst.
And our gospel texts indicate that Jesus—the Messiah—
is identified as the least of us—
is to be found among the least of us.
And so Jesus is born, again,
and even in our country of great privilege,
dies of hunger.
Jesus is born again and, even here, is the victim of violence—
on the street, at a movie, the mall, at school.
Jesus is still born into the way things are,
and the way things are still kills him.

Our proclamation is not of an assurance of circumstance
but of trust—
not the promise of what will be or even who will be
but the assurance of who is—
and who is always coming to us in the truth of what is
to remind us of the story to tell—
the songs to sing—
the love to trust—
that in the face of what is—
the worst of what is,
angels might sing, wiping tears from their faces,
but singing of joy and of peace—of hope and faith—
naming the profound love of God’s silence
made incarnate even here and now.

Quietly tears fall again.
Things must be different but when?
Christmas comes bringing God’s word.
Let us live so it is heard.


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