Scripture: Zephaniah 3:13-20
I suppose every generation goes through this, but it is odd to think about that there are aspects of life that I grew up with that my children will never experience. Some of them are major changes to life and a little surreal to comprehend. For example, neither of my kids really understand what is going on with commercials as the vast majority of TV shows they have watched have been through on demand streaming services like Netflix. One of these experiences that my kids will probably never have, is reading the “Christmas letter”. Do you remember those? These were the annual letters that attempted to update someone on the events of a year. I know some people still do them, but it is without a doubt a practice that is quickly dying. Abigail and I never really did a “Christmas letter” we tried a Christmas email for the first couple of years, but did not stick with it. Mostly because I hated writing that thing. It is so hard to write a good Christmas letter. It is hard to get the right balance between serious and funny, between informative but not long, between cheerful but not bragging. It is the bragging letters that are perhaps the most infamous. Back in the heyday of Christmas letters everyone got the letter from that “one family.” The one that can effectively be summarized as such, “The father is, of course, the most accomplished attorney in the universe. The mother, despite the real estate market, has sold billions. The two sons are the smartest kids in college, ever. They do all this while traveling the word.” While I do mourn the fact that letter writing in general is not really a thing anymore, I am OK with there being less of those kind of Christmas letters. Too many Christmas letters were all about presenting a sugar-coated version of the truth that made a life look more fascinating and successful than it really was. I am not a big fan of that kind of passive-aggressive one-ups-manship.
Of course the reason why Christmas letters are less common is because for many social media has made the need for an annual update less necessary. People do not really need a once a year letter when they get daily status updates. This means that the image-crafting, humble bragging, and distorting of reality is clearly present on social media. A great example of this was when Australian Essena O’neil publically quit Instagram this year. Essena got very good at crafting a distorted view of reality on Instagram that made her life look like something it was not. She would spend hours trying to get the perfect picture, and then post it as if it was just a quick candid shot. Because of this crafted reality, she became very popular and had over half a million followers. Companies even began paying her to subtly promote their brands in her Instagram updates, and she could easily make $2,000 a picture. She got tired of living a lie. She deleted 2,000 pictures and changed the captions of the remaining ones to reflect how untrue to life the pictures are. She made a video explaining her decision and in that video she said, “I had the dream life. I had it all, but I was miserable because I let my life be defined by something that was not pure, that was not real. You don’t need to prove your value on social media.”
For a lot of people those eye-rolling Christmas letters were all about proving their value. For a lot of people, this is a hard month of the year, because they let their expectations of Christmas be defined by something that is not real. The expectations of a perfect Christmas gets lost in busyness, bumper to bumper traffic, boxes of decorations to sort through, and not enough time to get the cookies baked. For a lot of people Christmas becomes a bit of an annual let down, because reality is never as perfect as the imagined ideal. The Christmas blues are a real thing, and I think that is because we make Andy William’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” our Christmas song. We make our song the one with lyrics like “It’s the hap-happiest season of all. With those holiday greetings and happy meetings when friends come to call It’s the hap-happiest season of all.” When that is our song, it is no wonder that reality never meets the expectations. For a more well-grounded Advent and Christmas, our song should be something a little less grand. This morning’s scripture from Zephaniah points us more to what our song should be: A simple song of praise that reminds us that in the midst of life’s hectic pace God is still with us. Advent is all about reminding us over and over again that God is with us. Last week we were reminded that God is with us in time of uncertainty, this morning’s scripture reminds us that God is with us in the midst of life’s busyness and messiness.
Zephaniah is from the “fly over” section of the book of the Bible. The end of the Old Testament consist of the writings of twelve prophets, many of them tend to have unusual sounding names and they often write about unpronounceableplaces. The prophets often require some historical and cultural context to understand, and once we do the messages they contain tend to be deeply convicting and have a nasty habit of stepping on our toes. For all those reasons, we tend to skip the prophets, often to our detriment. Zephaniah was a contemporary to several other prophets and he lived in the 600s BCE. Zephaniah’s book of prophecy follows a model that is somewhat common in the prophets. The book begins with warnings. It states, often in graphic and vivid imagery, how God’s judgement will be rendered upon the earth. It does need to be stated that these are warnings not promises. The prophets, like Zephaniah, state what will happen andwhy it will happen as a way of warning the people to change their ways. For instance, Zephaniah points out God’s judgement is upon Jerusalem because the people do not trust draw near to God, the officials are greedy, and the priests are treacherous. In response to these sins Zephaniah states in 3:8 that God has “decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour our my wrath on them- all my fierce anger.” The prophets were not doomsayers foretelling gloom, they were servants of God pleading for God’s people to turn back to him.
This morning’s scripture comes from the end of Zephaniah and this is part of the prophetic model. Many of the prophets, after they make their ruinous warnings, they follow up with promises of restoration. They promise that even though God may judge, God’s love will never fail. Many of the prophets, like Zephaniah end with promises that elude to the coming messiah. The prophets promise that “at that time” everything will be made right, that we can be glad, we can rejoice, and that the Lord will take away the punishment. The prophets end with promises like in Zephaniah 3:17“The LORD your God is with you.” Zephaniah was written over 600 years before this morning’s scripture was ultimately fulfilled when a baby was born in Bethlehem.
Our song during this time of the year should not be “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” It should be “O come, O come Emmanuel”. In our modern day world where our lives do not measure up to the photoshopped images we are presented with, we have to be reminded that God is with us. We need the song of the prophets that reminds us when mistakes are made, when things are not going our way, when we did not heed the warnings, dawn is still coming. The light will come again and we will once again be able to be glad and rejoice withal our heart. This is true because no matter how messy, unglamorous, or complicated our reality is, the inescapable, marvelous truth is that God is with us.
In the midst of Christmas shopping, parties, sending cards, cleaning house, baking cookies, attending concerts, and all of the other stuff that fill are schedules right now we have to be reminded that God is still with us. Every year it can become so easy to get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season that we forget. We get so focused on candy canes, missile toe, and chasing the dream of making this the most wonderful time of the year that we forget why we celebrate in the first place. What makes this the most wonderful time of the year is not all of pageantry, it is not the get togethers, the gifts, or the food. What makes this the most wonderful time of the year is that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. If this is the most wonderful time of the year, it is because God is with us.
Not only is God with us, but God cares for us deeply in a very personal way. The biggest reason why we need this reminder from this morning’s scripture, is it is not just about our song. It is about God’s song that God is singing to us. In this morning’s scripture Zephaniah wrote that God “will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you; but will rejoice over you with singing.” There is a story I read once, a personal favorite, that I think perfectly illustrates how God cares for us in this way. Youth Minister Mark Yaconelli writes about a story he observed once. Mark was out Christmas shopping trying to find the perfect gift for his wife. After a successful venture to the local mall, he sat down in the food court and noticed the hustle and bustle all around him. In the midst of this crowd one group of people stood out. Ten adults with developmental disabilities were being accompanied by two assistants with sweatshirts that read “Redwood Group Home.” The two assistants helped each person order from one of the many eateries in the food court. Except for one man with down syndrome, he shrugged off every attempt at help. This man knew what he wanted. He got in line at McDonalds, produced a coupon made some motions, and successfully got his very own 32oz cup of coffee. He returned to his friends, his face beaming with pride at his accomplishment.
At this point Mark got up to check out one more store before leaving the mall. As Mark left the mall he found that it was pouring buckets outside. The people from the group home were taking sheltering under the eaves of the mall entrance blocking the way. One of the assistants had pulled up a 15 passenger van, and the other walked the folks with special needs from the eaves to the van. The man with the McDonalds coffee was sheltering his hard earned brew, when without any apparent direction he took off for the van. The rain was harder than he expected, and he froze unsure what to do. The assistant called him to keep coming to the van, while he looked back towards the safety of the overhang. In this motion he twisted his body and the jerk caused him to drop his cup of coffee. The coffee began to wash away creating a mudslide on the wet pavement. In shocked horror the man looked at his lost purchase and began to cry. Soon his body gave way and he collapsed to the ground sobbing. It was a pitiful sight to see this young man wailing mournfully, sitting in a growing pond of coffee, the rain soaking his clothes. Then one of the assistants left the van, sat down beside him, wrapped her arm around him, and put his head on her shoulder to cry. For several minutes she sat there with the patience of God just holding the young man while the rain poured down. Once he calmed down, she helped him up, took him to the front seat of the van helped him fasten his seatbelt and kissed him of the forehead before squeezing herself in the backseat.
God is with us. God is there to hold us when the rain pours down. We celebrate advent, to remind ourselves in the midst of hardship busyness, and down pours that God is still there. Advent reminds us that we can fully put our hope in God, that God grants us peace, that we can find joy in God, and that God’s love for us is eternal and never ending. So no matter how hectic the next couple of weeks are, may you sing. No matter how awkward or messing the family gatherings get, may you shout aloud. No matter how overwhelmed you may fell, may you be glad and rejoice with all of your heart. Because, best of all, God is with us. May that be our song. May that be your song.