December 13, 2015
The Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge and Marley, poor Tiny Tim Cratchit – there’s nothing that says ‘Christmas’ quite like a little Victorian gothic horror, is there? (Cue mutterings of ‘Bah, Humbug’!)
Just like those three ghosts of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we’ve got a little bit of past, present and future in today’s reading – we even have a passing reference to Tiny Tim, sort of.
In our passage, Zephaniah talks about what God has done, in the past. “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has cast out your enemies.” For the people who first heard these words, this harkened back to their celebrated history: when God’s presence was visibly among his people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; when Israel was a by-word for God’s favour; the golden era of King David and Solomon’s Temple.
No so any more. The present reality for Zephaniah’s hearers was more stone than gold. Zephaniah grew up at a time when wicked king after wicked king had filled God’s temple with idols until there was no more room for God to dwell with his people. The land was full of oppression and evil and shame. So Zephaniah spoke of a future restoration when God would step in to the wicked world and change things. God in the midst.
To an extent, this would come about when the exiles of Babylon would return and rebuild the temple. But all this was a long way in the future when Zephaniah spoke. Before the temple could be rebuilt it had to be destroyed. And before the people could be gathered, they had to be scattered. The 150 years following our passage saw God’s people face destruction and desolation before worship was reinstated, the temple rebuilt and their fortunes restored as Zephaniah promised.
But that was not the final fulfilment of God’s promise to be with his people. In 70AD that temple – which Jesus described by then as ‘a den of thieves’ – was torn down. The perfect future Zephaniah spoke of, of God in our midst, was not the temple. It was yet further in the future. And in Advent we listen for the footsteps of its coming.
For them, the present was a time of apostasy, with the temple desecrated by idols, and they looked ahead to a promised glorious future of faithful temple worship. Meanwhile, they had to live in a not-so-glorious present. No matter. God was still in their midst, even in the rubbish and mess of their lives.
For us, the present is a time of materialistic apathy where idols are made of image, achievement and autocracy rather than stone, but the effect is the same. We look ahead to a promised glorious future with God in heaven, if we are his children, but meanwhile we live in a not-so-glorious present. No matter. God is still in our midst, even in the rubbish and mess of our lives.
We live in the time that Zephaniah spoke about, the future restoration when God would step in to the wicked world and change things. The time of God in the midst. The days of Emmanuel. God stepped in as baby, born in Bethlehem. We have Jesus as the explanation and the outworking of God’s promise to be in our midst. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt 28:20.
In Advent we look forward to the coming of the one who is here now in our rubbish and mess, and who will be in glory. The one who is the symbol of God’s dwelling, the present temple and the future temple in the heavenly city. “its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.” Rev 21:22
Advent – a time of waiting, a time of looking forward to God dwelling with us, God who will come and who is right now and who always has been. Past, present and future. Jesus, the start of God in our midst. Emmanuel.
You will need a square of kitchen towel (about a quarter of a sheet), a bowl of water and water-soluble felt-tips.
God is in our midst, even in the rubbish and mess of our lives right now. As we look around and within we can see plenty of rubbish and mess. Fractured relationships, global inhumanity, foolish mistakes, deliberate sin. Can God still be with us, even in this? Choose one item of mess, from your own life, or someone you know, or from the world, and hold it before God.
Take your kitchen towel and hold a felt tip on it for a few seconds. It will make a dark, spreading blot, representing that mess. Choose other pieces of the mess and hold them before God as you make more stains. When you have several marks on your paper you will have the world into which Jesus was born, and the world in which you and I live – full of mess and brokenness and rubbish.
Dip your fingers in the water and let drops fall on the white parts of the paper. It is easy to see God in the nice parts of life. We see him in pretty scenery and new babies and family. Drip some more water on to the white parts. It is easy to see God in worship and in Christian friends and in loving relationships. But it is not so easy to see how God can be in the parts of life that are bad. Drip more water, but still only on the white parts.
Can you see what is happening? Are the stains blocking the water, or can the water go where it will, stain or no stain? God is with us, even in the rubbish and mess that we live in at present. The water is changing the stain and, in the end, will wash it away completely.
“Now God’s home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them, and he will be their God.” Rev 21:3
Thank you that you stepped down into our word of rubbish and mess.
Thank you that there is no stain or blot so black that you cannot go there and wash it away.
Thank you that we have not just an eternal hope of glory but a present reality of Emmanuel.
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has cast out your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Do not fear, O Zion; let not 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. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. 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 the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.
Revised Standard Version (RSV)
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.