"...for now we see as if through a flawed pane of glass..." (I Corinthians 13:12, my paraphrase)
Monday, December 10, 2018
I suspect most of us
have been in a home where there was a new baby. …unforgettable sights, and
sounds—the smell of burped milk on crib sheets, mingling with the smell of baby
powder. Bright colors in the nursery; twinkling musical toys, gurgles and coos,
Or, watch a child a play.
They can use anything: an old spoon and a pile of dirt; the box in which a very
expensive toy was shipped.
And it doesn't matter
where they are. I know it's more and more unusual in the age of television and
video games and personal earphones; but some children still can entertain
themselves without electronic media: creating games, and sometimes even entire
civilizations, while strapped in the back seat of a mini-van.
Where there is a healthy
child or baby, there frequently is joy, for children haven’t yet been jaded by
materialism, or cruel experience or cynical influences. And nowhere is pure,
unadulterated joy more clearly expressed than on the face of a child at
Christmas: lost for hours in a Christmas catalogue wonderland; nose pressed
against the toy store window; eyes wide and mouth agape on Santa's knee. Anyone
who says that to give a child a gift at Christmas is to make Christmas
commercial just never looked deeply into the innocent eyes of a child anticipating
Leave the child alone!
Soon enough he'll learn the “true meaning” of the season—how to keep his joy in
check—like the rest of us. I was visiting a church some time back, enjoying the
role of participant in the pew. On the row in front of me was a little boy, oh,
maybe two years old. His mother was wrestling with whom I assumed was his baby
sister—not yet walking, but plenty active. The little boy was standing in the
pew, chewing his fingers and looking around.
When his eye caught
mine, I made a fatal mistake: I winked at him, and I had his full attention. He
turned around to face me, and stood there, smiling. He wasn't disturbing anyone
or anything; he wasn't climbing over (or under) the pew, he wasn't tearing
pages out of the hymnal, he wasn't laughing out loud. He was just smiling and
drooling. But his mother rather harshly jerked him around by the arm, sat him
down roughly, and, in a stage whisper audible for several rows, said,
"Quit that! You're in Church!" (Have you noticed, or is it just me?
Parents often make more disturbance correcting a child than the child was
making to begin with!) As the little fellow rubbed a tear from his eye, his mom
actually said—she actually said,
Has it come to that? Can
we not smile at each other in church?
Even the joy of
Christmas, it seems, must be curtailed. The lights and the glitter and the
tinsel, we're told, are commercial and take away from the "true
meaning." I don't know; I think "JOY!" isa part of the
"true meaning." And I think it’s OK if some of the joy spills out
into parts of life that aren’t “spiritual.”
I was on an elevator,
and overheard part of a conversation—the annual litany—you know it; you’ve
probably memorized it: "They start putting Christmas decorations up
earlier every year! They used to wait until after Thanksgiving; now they
start before Halloween! Christmas has become so commercial! They ought to
put Christ back in Christmas!"
She actually thought it
possible to take Christ out of Christmas!
I wanted to take that
pathetic woman aside and assure her that Christ was, indeed in my Christmas,
and that he’d be in hers, too, if she wanted him. We can ignore Christ, but
that doesn't mean he's not present. We can drown out the sound of his voice
with the clatter of shopping malls, and we can lose sight of him in the
traffic; but we cannot take Christ out of Christmas, because we didn't put him
It's not our job to
"put"—or to “keep”—Christ in Christmas. Christ never left Christmas!
It’s our job to recognize his presence, and in that presence to recognize
“Emmanuel: God with Us”.
I suggested in a sermon
many years ago that the very lights and glitter that spell "commercialism"
to some can be to us symbols of "JOY!" They can point us to the
presence of Christ. But, one woman said, as she shook my hand after church,
"No. God made the straw. Man made the tinsel."
Why is it difficult to
be joyful? Is it because we've allowed ourselves to be more present to pain and
violence and stress? Is it because the voices of grief and sadness, hunger,
fear, human oppression, arrogance and
corruption in public office are louder than the voices of hope and
peace and Joy and love? Why might that be?
A text from
Zephaniah has a word for us: It’s late in the 8th
century, BCE. Ahaz is king of Israel; but he’s Assyria’s vassal. Hezekiah
followed Ahaz, and instituted sweeping reforms in government and in the
religious practices of Israel. But then his son, Manasseh, and his son, Amon
led Judah into the lowest depths of political, religious and moral corruption
ever seen in the history of God's people.
Finally, Josiah—who was
only eight years old—became king. Since he was a minor, Judah was governed by a
regent. Josiah was tutored by priests, who instilled in him the love of the
Lord. As an adult Josiah would institute an age of great faithfulness and moral
integrity. The writer of 2 Kings wrote, "Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king
like him who turned to the Lord as he did..." (2KI 23:25 NIV).
While Josiah was still a
minor, the prophet, Zephaniah, came on the scene. He was cousin to the King,
and a great, great grandson of Hezekiah, the only other “good” king in Judah,
after David and Solomon. He influenced Josiah as King.
The following text is a song
of joy; but it seems almost totally out of place, because the rest of the book has
some of the gloomiest passages in Hebrew scripture. The Lord will invade the
darkness of Judah's heart like a person with lamps who ferrets out secret and
hidden sins (1:12). The result will be a terrible day of judgment, a
"bitter" day "of distress and anguish," "of ruin and
devastation," "of darkness and gloom," "of clouds and thick
darkness," "of trumpet blast and battle cry" (1:14-16)! Words spoken while Josiah was still a boy, when Judah was still reeling from the
evil influence of previous kings. They are the words of a prophet driven almost
to despair by the sorry conditions of Judah's life.
Then, abruptly, the
clouds part, and unexpected light breaks through:
that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who
gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in
his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so
that you will not bear reproach for it. 19I 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. 20At that time I will bring you home, at the time
when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples
of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord. (Zephaniah
Joy is kindled where
least expected: in the recognition of the distance between God's vision and
intention for humanity, on the one hand, and the realities of life as it really
is, on the other. Escapism? Pollyanna optimism? I don't think so.
I think we have in this
text one of the clearest examples of a process of biblical formation spanning
several generations. A prophet confronts a situation and announces the will of
God for that day and time. The message is clear: judgement is coming. The
prophet's work ends there; but, there's no last chapter. No ending.
Sometime after the
prophet is gone—in this case, a half-century later, Jerusalem falls to Babylon,
and the people are dragged into exile. The prophet’s words become reality. But
even in exile, God is present. Under divine guidance, the leaders of Israel
persuade the people to turn back to God. A remnant survives and returns to
Jerusalem, and the covenant is renewed.
Later, the sacred
writings were collected, including much of the present text of Zephaniah. And
in the process the above text is added: a tag—a closing doxology. The last
chapter finally is written. It is the testimony of a people who had survived
exile, and who could look back and see the hand of God through it all. It was
placed in the text for later generations, a testimony written by those who had lived
the last chapter, saw that whole process and could rejoice that, even in the
worst of circumstances, God can and will redeem.
God made the straw. Man
made the tinsel. But we've read the last chapter. We know Jesus didn't stay on
the straw. We’ve read the last chapter! He went home to Nazareth. He went to
the cross. And now he sits at the right hand of God, from where "He shall
reign forever and ever; King of kings, and Lord of lords. Hallelujah!"
And from that place, his
glory so overpowers the glitter of our puny celebrations that when we really
become aware of his presence, there’s no problem with commercialism; there’s no
problem with lights and tinsel and Santa Clause. If we can maintain the
prophetic perspective of those Israelites who looked back on their history and
saw the hand of God in it all, all these things take their proper place in the
scheme of things which are summed up in the words of this season: “His name
shall be called, ‘Emmanuel’—God with us,” the only appropriate response is
gratitude and "JOY!"