Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 13, 2015
Zephaniah 3:14-20 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
I used to watch a TV show that was quite compelling and enjoyable but it did have one feature to it that I did not much like: on some episodes the show’s characters would find themselves sunk very deep down into dreadfully complex circumstances. The episode would devote something like 92% of the time to digging the hole deeper, to making the circumstances look even more imposing (if not impossible). “They’ll never get out of this jam,” you’d say to yourself. But then of course they always did, and what was a little annoying at times was the fact that the enormously prolix problems that had been so painstakingly developed throughout most of the episode suddenly evaporated and were too-easily resolved after all in the final six minutes. You just didn’t see that coming after all that had built up to it. It looked a little too convenient.
The Book of Zephaniah is kind of like that. If you were dipping into this book for the very first time and read no more than these seven verses assigned for the Old Testament lection for the Third Sunday in Advent (Year C), you could never guess that a book that wraps up this lyrically, this gorgeously and so utterly redolent of hope could have built up to this soaring crescendo of a climax with some of the grimmest, saddest, more frightening stuff in the whole Bible. Most of Zephaniah is doom-and-gloom defined. And some of the worst of it is aimed squarely at the people of Judah.
It’s really no wonder this is paired with John the Baptist’s fiery rhetoric in Luke 3. Or maybe it is a little surprising given that John never quite turns the corner from his fire-and-brimstone broadsides against the people of his day to the kind of upbeat future hope that Zephaniah finally holds out here. But maybe the combination is supposed to remind us that at the end of the cosmic day, God’s purposes will always be on the side of life and flourishing. We might pass through dark times, have to endure dark prophecies, have to have the roof blown off from over our heads the way Zephaniah did for Judah in his day and the way John the Baptist did for the people around Jerusalem in his day, but in the end, life will return because it is not God’s purpose just to punish or to lament or to be sad.
In fact, the closing verses of Zephaniah reveal God’s truest purpose by showing us a glimpse into the divine heart. And along those lines, it is Zephaniah 3:17 that is the kicker. Years ago I preached a sermon on this text. I entitled the sermon “The Divine Delight.” I remember the sermon less for what I said (typical!) than for the reaction it elicited from quite a few people in my congregation who found the concepts detailed by Zephaniah to be among the most moving things they had ever heard in terms of their relationship to God.
Because in that 17th verse God is almost giddy with glee. He says that his dearest wish is to take delight in his people. Have you ever seen people waiting at an airport, literally hopping up and down with eagerness to be reunited with someone in whom they take delight? They stand on tiptoes staring up into the gate area, they crane their necks, the shake their hands with anticipation. They cannot sit still. And when the loved one appears, the dam breaks and all the love and delight comes gushing out in a spectacle of giggles, tears, laughter—everything all rolled into one big burst of exuberance.
That is God vis-à-vis his people in Zephaniah 3’s prediction of the future restoration of God’s people. God will take delight. He’ll carry little pictures of us in his wallet, eagerly and gladly taking them out to show to anyone who will look. He’ll brag on us and be thrilled with every encounter he can have with us. He will quiet us with his love. What an image! This is a picture of being drawn to someone’s breast, smothered with an embrace and with a snuggling-up that is sheer bliss for both parties. When you are curled up with someone you love on a sofa or lying on a picnic blanket, there is no need for conversation. Words won’t add anything to the delight of just being there with one another. It’s simply one of those moments when, having been “quieted by love,” the best response is a sigh so deep, it becomes a semaphore for joy.
But maybe the silence will be broken as the one lover starts to sing, quietly and with a big goofy grin on his face, the beloved’s favorite song. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine you make me happy when skies are gray . . .” he will begin to croon and next thing you know the couple is rocking in rhythm to the tune. “[God] will rejoice over you with singing” Zephaniah says. This is a portrait of bliss, love, and delight with few peers in the Bible.
But surrounding it are all the reminders we need for what makes it possible. This kind of reunion does not come cheap. It is not the result of Almighty God’s merely waving off human sin or winking at wanton evil. No, real forgiveness has to happen. God has to find a way to put aside all that comes between these would-be lovers, all that could drive them apart all over again. That’s a hard work—so hard that it will land the Son of God on a cross eventually.
John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for that one. Zephaniah anticipated the whole of that salvation centuries before. But the Good News of it all is that when God’s Christ comes, when sin and evil are finally dealt with in the way they must be dealt with, God can say what he does in fact say through Zephaniah at the end of the passage: “I will bring you home.”
“In my Father’s house there are many rooms . . . I go to prepare a place for you.” He goes to prepare a home for us. A home!
It is a tired truth but a real truth nonetheless that the Christmas season has become clogged and clotted with saccharine sentimentality, with more vapid forced coziness than you could shake a stick at. All true. And some of the real power and punch of the gospel gets lost in the midst of all the glitter and tinsel and such. But Zephaniah is here to remind us that when it comes right down to it, the salvation we receive—the reunion we will have with God on account of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God’s Son—cannot finally be exaggerated. You can’t get quite lyric enough to capture the joy of what Zephaniah sketches when our God finds in us a source of unending delight and snuggles up with us in the shalom of love and flourishing he had envisioned all along. We will go home. And what a home it will be!
“Are you going home for Christmas?” What question is more commonplace in December? You are at the store paying for your groceries when a cashier glances over to the bagger to ask, “So, you going home for Christmas next week?” Two older couples meet up in the dairy section: “Hey, Charlie and Doreen! Are your kids coming home for Christmas?”
Are you going home for Christmas? It seems like the question to ask, as well as the theme to play on. One major retailer has as its advertising jingle on TV, “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” The U.S. Postal Service runs an ad showing people in far-flung places opening mail to convey the idea that there’s more than one way to be home for Christmas–send the right card, and maybe your daughter in the Army won’t feel like Iraq is so far from Kansas after all. Speaking of soldiers, most of us know the well-known World War II song, “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
Are you going home for Christmas? Frederick Buechner has written that in mid-December 1953 he was in church one Sunday, listening to a sermon by his mentor, Rev. George Buttrick. Buttrick, too, related overhearing some people in the church narthex the week prior talking about Christmas and home. And when in his sermon that Sunday morning in New York City Buttrick asked, “Are you going home for Christmas,” Buechner says the question was asked with such a sense of longing that tears leapt to his eyes.
Home. What is it really that we mean by that word? What do retailers and the postal service want to conjure by the word “home”? Is it a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, all soft colors, crackling fires on the hearth, wide-eyed children whose eyes sparkle in the light of the Christmas tree? Is that home? Is it the sense of “Home sweet home” counted-cross stitched and framed over the mantle, or Dorothy clicking her heels together three times and saying, ” There’s no place like home”? Is that home?
Is it finally actually a place? Or is home more a longing? Or maybe I can put it this way, how many of us over the age of 20 feel like we are really “home” right now? Isn’t it true that “home” for us summons up, as often as not, a whole battery of things that are past and that cannot, as a matter of fact, be retrieved? Maybe “home” is the house you grew up in but that now belongs to some other family. But it’s not really that house, either, is it? Yes, that place, that locale, those four walls, are all important. If we concentrate, most of us can still take a kind of “virtual tour” of our childhood homes. In our mind’s eye we can still navigate those corridors, staircases, and rooms; we can still smell the mustiness of the cellar, the mothballs in the front-hall closet. Through an act of imagination, we can still open the door to mom and dad’s room and when we do, we know where every bottle of mom’s perfume will be on the bureau, where we’ll find dad’s plaid work shirts in the closet, his favorite hat on the edge of the dresser.
That’s home, but it’s still not just that. A skilled Hollywood set decorator could probably re-create our childhood homes based on photos and our descriptions. But even if someone could re-make that physical place, few of us would believe that just going there would be like going home again. Truth is, “home” is as often as not a whole set of longings, it’s a set of special people, an array of feelings that combine to make you feel safe and loved. It’s like that untranslatable German word, “Gemütlichkeit.” If something is “Gemütlich,” it’s cozy and fitting and warm and right and, well, I don’t know but if you find a “Gemütlich” place, you’ll know. You just will. You’ll feel it in your heart.
Home is like that. That’s why “home” could be experienced most anywhere so long as the right people were around. “Home” could happen in a hotel room where your family gathers because the heat is broken at the house. Many of us know full well that stabbings of home can hit you while talking on the phone with your sister just as surely as they can bubble up were you actually to journey to some piece of real estate back in Iowa.
Are you going home for Christmas? You could say that this is just another piece of sentimental doggerel, the very type of Hallmark emotionalism that lards over Christmas and obscures its deeper meaning. “Home for the holidays” may have as little to do with the gospel as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A theological Scrooge could say, and with some biblical justification I might add, that whatever the gospels tell us about what we now call “Christmas,” it has precious little if anything to do with being “home for Christmas.”
Are you going home for Christmas? It doesn’t matter how you answer that question, it still evokes some longing in your heart. But if you can’t go home or won’t go home; if you can go home only to regret how much it’s changed or if you’re still basically at home but you know it won’t last forever–whoever you are and whatever your circumstance, the news of Christmas Day is that the One we call Jesus understands. If he didn’t, we would not have a Christmas to celebrate to begin with. But we do.
Because the One who left home for our sakes came down here. Are you going home for Christmas? Because Jesus did not go home for Christmas, one day we all will. With God. Home. As it was in the beginning, so forevermore. Home.
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