God Is in Our Midst -Zephaniah 3.14-20

December 6, 2015 – 2nd Sunday of Advent

Three Sundays ago I was standing in this pulpit trying to put words together after the Friday night murder of 129 people and wounding of hundreds more in Paris.

Today, a short 21 days later, two more shootings have garnered national attention. A week ago Friday 3 people were killed and 9 others injured at a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs, and Wednesday 14 people were killed and 21 injured in San Bernardino.

We’re coming up in another week on the 3rd anniversary of the murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Those deaths are a marker in my own despair about the national conversation about violence and guns. When 20 six-year-olds are murdered at school and we are unwilling to make any changes at a national level to stop access to assault weapons and ammunition, it seems to me we have morally gone off the rails.

I find myself thinking these days, “I am a citizen of a country I do not understand and do not want to understand.” And I think about how it seems we’ve become the dystopia we read in novels and see in movies. We have become the Hunger Games, sacrificing our children, our sisters and brothers, our mothers and fathers, our friends and our neighbors for sport.

And…then I got to walk with a dozen of you across the Lincoln bridge yesterday morning in the fog, alongside thousands of others, walking across the Ohio river on a bridge that we will never get to walk across again (unless we’re driving across and our car dies mid-way, as Joe Edmiston helpfully pointed out last week). We marveled at the engineering feat of building a bridge across a river; creating an interstate bridge across a river that is connected to other interstate connections that are already in use by thousands and thousands of vehicles. Isn’t it amazing that God has given people creativity and imagination, ingenuity and skill to make such a thing happen?

There’s something about being with a group of people who like each other, something about being outdoors, doing something together that makes us feel good, wondering at the amazing marvel of creation that mitigates the anguish and despair that creeps in—or drops in like a ton of concrete—that gives me a different way of looking at the world.

And the same night I went to hear Handel’s Messiah and heard Isaiah’s glorious words, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Arise, shine, for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.”

Maybe you’ve had a similar pairing of experiences of despair and experiences of hope.

The prophet Zephaniah brought a message of disaster and doom. Calling attention to the corruption and idolatry of Judah’s leaders, Zephaniah describes sweeping, overwhelming disaster that nothing will be able to survive. “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Holy God. I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble, I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Holy God.” (Zephaniah 1.2-3) Perhaps forgetting what God said after the flood way back in Genesis. After the ark and all its inhabitants have finally come to rest on dry ground and Noah built an altar to God, God said, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” (Genesis 8.21) Having those two stories stand in tension is something I like about the bible. Because the bible is almost always more nuanced than we want to let it be.

But this morning we’re in Zephaniah and the news is really bad. Not long after Zephaniah was on duty as a prophet, Judah was smashed and destroyed by the Babylonians and many of its citizens were marched into exile. And that was a terrible time. A time when the world seemed to end. When the people of God were pretty sure God had walked away and abandoned them.

And so we’re not expecting Zephaniah to say in chapter 3, “Sing aloud! Rejoice with all your heart! God has taken away the judgments against you, has turned away your enemies. The Holy One of Israel, your God, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. Do not fear and do not let your hands grow weak. God is in your midst. God will rejoice over you with gladness, will renew you in love, will exult over you with singing.”

We’re expecting it to all to be disaster. We’re expecting it to be over. Done. Finished. And then we hear that God is in our midst. God is in our midst. Do not be afraid.

It’s the message of Advent. Do not be afraid. God is with you.

The writer Flannery O’Connor said Christians “are burdened by [our] knowledge of an alternative world because [we] have encountered a God of grace and love. But the world that [we] look at [here and now] does not fit the alternative world. [We] know what the world should be but are burdened by the divine distance of humanity from divinity.”[i]

This is precisely where we find ourselves in Advent. We hear the promises of God: the wolf shall live with the lamb (Isaiah 11.6); every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low (Isaiah 40.4); the glory of God will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together (Isaiah 40.5); God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things (Luke 1.51-53); do not be afraid: I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people (Luke 2.9).

But the world around us looks very different: wolves devour lambs, valleys and mountains are treacherous and impassable; the glory of God seems scarce; the proud and powerful rule, grinding the lowly into greater poverty and greater indignity, taking bread from the mouths of children and gorging themselves on it instead.

And it would be easy to fall into despair and to say, “This is just the way the world is.”

But as followers of Jesus we know this is not just the way the world is. We bear witness to another way of being in the world; another vision of the world. We bear witness to the Advent story: Do not be afraid. God is with us. Even in the shadow of the valley of death, even there God is with us. Even in the darkest night there is always light. We might have to turn around in order to see it, but it is always there.

This is not pie-in-the-sky optimism. It is not a denial of the suffering and despair of life. It is a clear-eyed conviction of faith that God intends—and is bringing—something new in the world. And that even now there are gifts of grace and love all around us. That even now, God is in our midst.

When we start looking for where God is in our midst, we are much more likely to find God. On the other hand, if we assume God is not in our midst, it is likely we will have that assumption confirmed. Where we put our attention has a lot to do with what we see. Which will have a lot to do with which story we live.

Will it be the story that says “Be afraid. God has left us”? Or the story that says “Do not be afraid. God is with us”?

This is not to negate the reality of sadness and grief and anger and the real experience many of us have had of God’s absence.

Even in the great depths of despair there is still grace and love around us. But it can be much harder to notice because our sadness and grief and anger are taking so much of our energy and attention.

But even crying out to God to say, “God, where are you? Come and be with me in my trouble!”—even that is an expression of our trust in God’s promise to be with us.

And when we no longer have words to cry out, we come to be part of a community who will trust and hold God’s promise on our behalf until the time when we can again see God’s grace and love.

Next Sunday the choir will sing portions of Handel’s Messiah. And we will hear that profound story of hope and life and promise set to music.

This morning we gather around this table and with a small piece of bread and a sip of grape juice we will take into our bodies the promise that God is in our midst. As we eat the bread of life and drink the cup of blessing, we hear again the song of the angels: Do not be afraid. God is with you.

* * *
[i] Otis Moss III, “Dance in the Dark: Preaching the Blues Without Despair,” Christian Century, November 25, 2015, 23.