Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in Your midst. (Zephaniah 4.16-17)
Enflamed with Defiance
Last Friday I was on the phone with a San Diego colleague who'd been awakened in the wee hours by an earthquake. “It went on quite a while,” he said, “long enough to look out and see the water sloshing around in my pool.” I told him I lived in L.A. when the Whittier earthquake struck and knew how unsettling it is. “Then there’s the eerie period waiting for the aftershocks,” I observed, adding that I was so unnerved that, for the first time since relocating to the West Coast, I seriously considered moving back home. “In the Midwest, we have the advantage of knowing a tornado or blizzard is headed our way,” I said. “We have time to brace ourselves. Earthquakes don’t give you that.”
As we concluded our business, I kidded, “Here’s hoping nothing else rocks your world today!” To which he replied, “We’ll be fine.” No sooner had I hung up than Walt rushed into the study and turned on the television. There it was: 27 dead in elementary school shooting. The ground shook so hard I gripped the arms of my chair. The prior evening, at our church's annual holiday remembrance service, I recited the roll of nearly 150 young Chicagoans killed by firearms in 2012. We sang songs of solace and hope, heard Advent poems about light’s power to conquer darkness, and prayed God’s strength in our endeavors to vanquish gun violence in our city. And now this—the latest in an increasingly frequent series of moments when it feels as though there’s nowhere to hide from an onslaught of mad violence we can’t foresee or contain. A brutal flood of emotions poured through me, threatening to take all of Advent’s optimism with it. I felt stranded in a midnight world of menacing evil.
This weekend, as we gather in our communities of faith, we must adamantly reclaim Advent’s promises of peace and salvation. We must attend closely to the prophets’ assurances that God hasn’t left us. Our worship—the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, and every word we speak—must be enflamed with defiance. We will not surrender hope. God is with us. Christ is coming to us. Darkness will not stand.
Out of the Ancient Mist
Sunday’s Old Testament reading (Zephaniah 3.14-20) steps out of the ancient mist to grab us by the collar, confronting issues that could be ripped from today’s headlines. The prophet addresses a nation gripped with religious and social malaise. He takes prophetic office during the reign of Josiah, Judah’s great reformer. Previous kings were lax in honoring God’s demands for faithfulness and justice. As a result, the nation founders on the hollow shoulders of idolatry and conspicuous consumption. Unlike other prophets, who seek to restore the faith of God’s people after long nights of foreign opposition, Zephaniah speaks to a country rotting from within. The gaps between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, are wider than ever. Violence, injustice, poverty, and despair have reached intolerable levels. Only those who profit from Judah’s indifference feel safe. An even slimmer minority realizes their nation has lost its way. The vast majority has grown woefully apathetic, presuming things have got so bad they can't be fixed. “Not so!” Zephaniah cries. With true reformist zeal, he proclaims the advent of better times—“the day of the Lord,” he calls it—when God’s righteousness and faithful presence will once again prevail. Does any of this sound familiar?
After he scorns the corruption of Judah’s officials and indicts the majority’s lethargy, Zechariah speaks to the relative few profoundly distressed with their nation’s descent into chaos and violence. Listen to the confidence—the unshakable defiance—with which he assures them their faith will be vindicated:
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; God will rejoice over you with gladness, God will renew you in God’s love; God will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
Then, speaking in God’s own voice, Zephaniah declares:
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.
Tragedies like the one we’ve just seen in Newtown, Connecticut evoke natural reflexes we struggle to absorb: first the horror, next the grief, soon followed by reproach and recriminations for not having prevented them, the vast majority of us ultimately believing the lie such horrors are unpreventable. We are momentarily quaked out of our national slumber and wring weak hands, as if nothing can be done to brake our perilous slide into chaos, violence, and fear.
But the Word of God reaches us this weekend in the defiant voice of a reformer from long ago, urging us not to surrender hope. Do not fear, it says. Do not let your hands grow weak. God is in your midst. The day of the Lord draws near. God will renew us in love and exult over us in loud singing. In the crushing darkness of our anguish, confusion, and despair, we listen for the faraway strains of God’s song beckoning us to the light of God’s day. The darkness that presently engulfs us will not stand.
God is with us. Christ is coming to us. The crushing darkness of our anguish, confusion, and despair will not stand.