Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7
"I'll home for Christmas. You can count on me." Oh, this is the most sentimental time. People dream and sing and hope for coming home. Our two Scripture lessons this morning seem to be full of the sentiment and the longing and the hope of this season.
The word from the prophet Zephaniah dreams of a time when people will come home and the old American Christmas song seems to be echoing back through the ages to the Old Testament prophet. St. Paul, in his letter, to the church at Philippi talks of peace and rejoicing. We imagine that St. Paul surely must be feeling the same sort of Christmas cheer that we feel this year. Indeed, we are tempted with the superficial reading of the text to believe that perhaps these authors, Zephaniah and St. Paul, were full of the glory and the wonder and the joy and the prosperity and all that is wonderful about the season. Nothing could be further from the facts of the case of their time.
Zephaniah, the strange Old Testament prophet, whose little book at the end of the Old Testament we so rarely read, is one about whom we know little. Nor do we know much about his time, except we can see as we read the last chapters of his prophecy, that this prophecy was not addressed to a people who were full of the joy of a holiday season. Rather this prophecy was addressed to people in the terrors of the most awful defeat and exile that any human group has ever known. Israel had been defeated by a foreign power. Its most prominent citizens, indeed most of its citizens, had been hauled away as refugees. A terrible national humiliation had been befallen the people. Indeed, if you can--in any small measure--imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim refugee from one of the little villages of Bosnia seeking to eke out a winter existence in one of the so-called safe areas, then you get some taste of what Zephaniah's people and time experienced as they were exiled, hundreds and hundreds of miles from their. They wondered whether it was possible to sing the Lord's song in a foreign land. into that situation, the prophet comes and says, "Sing! Shout! Rejoice, for you are coming home." In the midst of a most terrible defeat, with the burdens of an incredible exile, with the embarrassment of a total national humiliation, Zephaniah could say to the people, "Sing, shout, dance. You me going home. You are going to go home."
St. Paul's situation, as he writes to the church at Philippi, sounds--as he says, Rejoice and the peace of Got be with you"--as if he must know Christmas joy and cheer. Yet Paul writes to a church that is suffering opposition and threats and persecution. If you read the entire letter to the church at Philippi, you will see that this church is not in a good time. This church is facing terrible odds as the first Christian congregation Paul planted in the European continent. They struggled and they remembered back to the time when Paul and Silas were there founding the church and found themselves in prison. Now Paul, again in prison somewhere else, writes back to his old friends at Philippi and he says to them, in their oppression and their state of external threat, "Rejoice in the Ford always. Again I say rejoice. The peace of God which passes all understanding be yours.
Such joy, such hope, such promise in such terrible situation. I am reminded of one of Dietrich Bonnhoeffer's letters written from prison in Germany in 1944, just months before his own execution by the Gestapo. He wrote to his fiancee and said, "You must not think that I am unhappy. What is happiness and unhappiness? It depends so little upon circumstances. It depends only on that which happens inside a person."1 The peace of God which passes all understanding.
What did Zephaniah and Paul and Bonnhoeffer know and understand that we need to hear? What dirt these people have? They did not have great churches. They did not have beautifully decorated Christmas trees with presents under them. They did not have parties and friends and activity and health and prosperity. No, they had exile and imprisonment and the threat of imminent death; and yet these people had something else that we need in whatever our condition may be this Christmas. That was hope and rejoicing and peace.
Zephaniah, the prophet of the exile, said to the people, "The Lord is in your midst. " As they were exiled to a foreign land, as they were refugees, as they had all these terrors raining upon them, Zephaniah says, "The Lord is in your midst." The Lord is not just back in Jerusalem. The Lord is not just back at the Temple. The Lord is here in this terrible place, in this lonely place, in this place of sorrow. "The Lord is in your midst." With that promise and that hope that God was present came also then the hope of homecoming. If God were with them, then God might indeed take them home and Zephaniah promised that one day, one day, one day, they would go home. Sing, shout, the Lord is in your midst. We are going home.
St. Paul, in jail, could say, "Rejoice. The peace of God passes all understanding." St. Paul was an odd man. If you knew him, you probably wouldn't like him very much. He was stubborn and opinionated and head-strong and often insensitive to the needs of others. In prison, this flawed and failing human being knew that God in Jesus Christ had loved him, had forgiven him al that was flawed and failing in his life, had embraced him in the arms of an everlasting love, and in Jesus Christ had delivered him out of all of his human failing. In that assurance and that faith, St. Paul--like Bonnhoeffer--could say that outward circumstances mean little. It is what one knows inside that matters. The love of God in Jesus Christ had given Paul an assurance that nothing in life or death would separate him from the love of God. It had given him the assurance that the outward circumstances in his life somehow played into God's larger purpose. Was he in Athens on Mars hill preaching the Gospel? Or was he in some unknown prison in leg irons, singing his hymns to his jailers? In either circumstance' somehow his condition contributed to God's great plan to redeem and love humanity. In that belief from prison to an oppressed people, St. Paul could say, "Rejoice in the Lord. Again I say rejoice. The peace of God which passes all understanding be yours."