During Advent we are encouraged to look backwards over the founders of our faith. For the second Sunday in Advent, that is drawing inspiration from the prophets. So, what do the prophets have to teach us today?
This sermon was preached at our gift service, where presents are donated to a local organisation to be distributed to families in need. I used McConville 2002 Exploring the Old Testament: The Prophets for some of the background information on Joel and Zephaniah.
It’s now 19 days until Christmas! So, how are you doing? Have you written your Christmas cards, wrapped your presents, ordered your turkey, arranged to see friends and relatives, put up your decorations? Frankly, I feel exhausted just thinking about all that, let alone doing any of it! Although my wife did comment ‘it’s a good job you don’t do any of it then’!
Advent is a time of preparation, a time of looking back and remembering why we’re here, why we’re in the run-up to Christmas. So, how are you doing? And is that a harder question to answer, perhaps, and harder to do things about.
Well, we’re here, and many of us have brought gifts to this Gift Service, which will go to children of families who would otherwise struggle to get them presents.
That’s why on the advent wreath we remember the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist and Mary. We remember those who prepared, and who prepared others, for the coming of Jesus, both as a helpless baby, and also as an adult. We remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, who were the first generations to hear God’s promises.
We remember the Prophets, those people who spoke God’s words and called his people back to him. We remember John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets, and Mary, who stayed faithful to God.
And so, as today is the second Sunday of Advent we remember the prophets. We’ve heard from two of the prophets this morning, from Joel and from Zephaniah. And we’ve heard two of the things that many of the prophets talked about. These were two of the main strands that come again and again as the prophets told people what God thought, what he saw, how he felt.
We heard from Joel the call to repentance, and from Zephaniah the promise of forgiveness and salvation, of restoration and the coming of God’s kingdom in a new and better way. And the third main strand of the prophets’ preaching is what the people needed to repent of. The oppression of the poor, the foreigner, the widow and the orphan. The belief that they were better than them, more important, more in need of consideration than others, the belief that it was enough to just turn up to worship without really engaging, without it really affecting the rest of their lives. These were the things that the prophets spoke of. And they are the things that we still need to hear as well.
We don’t know when Joel was written, but probably some time in the 8th or 7th centuries BC. The main part of the book of Joel is the prophet’s response to a huge plague of locusts which is ravaging the kingdom of Judah. Joel encourages his hearers to repent and to believe that God will save them in the end. But it starts with a lament, a cry of sorrow that the world is like it is, that the judgement of God has come upon them.
And then Joel speaks the words that we heard this morning. This is the end of Joel’s call of repentance, before the start of the promises of salvation that the rest of the book contains. It is a call to repentance. It is a wake-up call “rend your hearts and not your garments”. God, we’re promised shows mercy, compassion and loving-kindness.
But, as we heard, it ends with the question ‘where is their God?’. Where is God in the midst of all the pain and suffering and anguish and anxiety. That is the question that we are encouraged to think about during Advent:
Where is God in the midst of the mess and pain and confusion?
Which is probably quite an easy question to have been thinking about, given what’s been in the news over the last few weeks.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby was asked whether such things ever caused him to doubt and question. His answer was mis-reported, but what he actually said was:
everyone has moments when they question things, and one sees that in the Psalms. The psalmist in Psalm 44 asks God if he is asleep, and challenges him in the most direct terms about his failure to deliver Israel. It is a psalm of protest.
When there are tragedies like Paris, when friends suffer, when evil seems to cover the face of the Earth, then we should be like the psalmist.
Archbishop Justin also went on to say:
It’s very much part of my normal prayer life, together with praise and wonder, with delight and awe, with petition and lament, with celebration and rejoicing.
Let’s hear that challenge, and seek to encourage each other to have that range in our prayer lives too, both when we gather, and through the week. That doesn’t have to be very long or deep, or use big words. Thank you, Sorry, Please covers most of that. And we’ll come back to that during our prayers.
One of the great Advent hymns, which we’ve just sung, O Come O come Emmanuel also picks up on this theme – it’s a cry to come and sort out the mess of our lives. And, of course the end of Advent is the celebration of Christmas – the reminder that God sorting out the mess looks like the birth of a child to come and be with us in the midst of the mess.
Zephaniah was prophesying in the 7th century, and may have been the great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah. As a total digression, Hezekiah is in the news this week as archaeologists have discovered a clay impression of a stamp-seal with his name on it. Which I found exciting, anyway!
Back to Zephaniah. He was prophesying during the reign of King Josiah, who is remembered as one of the most faithful kings of the Kingdom of Judah. He rediscovered the Law of the Lord, and tried to bring people back to worshipping God. Zephaniah seems to have prophesied before those reforms, however. He was calling for those things to happen, for people to return to God.
Like Joel, and many of the other prophets, Zephaniah started with a call to repentance, a reminder of what God had done for his people, and a call to return to the Lord. But, the bit that we heard was from the second half of the book, where Zephaniah shifts from talking about repentance to talking about God’s promises if they did repent. It is at the end of this short book and talks about God’s promises of a king reigning forever.
It is a hymn, a call to celebrate that God has saved his peoples. It’s a celebration that God will restore the good things to his people. It’s a shift from looking backwards to looking forwards.
Which is what we’re encouraged to do during Advent; look backwards and then look forwards. Look backwards over our own lives and our shared life together so that we can look forwards with renewed hope. Hope that God is with us, hope that God is calling us on to new things, hope that God has plans for us, hope that God will bring his kingdom, hope that God is bringing his kingdom in our lives, into our town, into our world. Hope that he is doing this through us his church. And hope that he sends his Holy Spirit on us so that this is possible. This Advent let us seek God with renewed hope, let us be changed by that hope and let us look forward in hope to the future that God is calling us to.
So, to come back to my original question, how are you doing?
Are there things that we need to turn away from?
How can we worship God with the whole of our lives?
One of the challenges that people are taking up this Advent is to do a reverse advent calendar, where each day people put aside one item to give to the local foodbank.
Or you might want to think whether you can give an hour or so a week to volunteering, or a bit more of your money to supporting a charity or the church. You might want to think about supporting Money Spider Credit Union.
You might want to recommit to praying for the streets in our parish which are on our noticesheet, or going to the prayer meeting after drinks in the Church Hall. As a family we’re doing a Jesse Tree, where each day we tell part of the Old Testament story and decorate a tree with a symbol of those stories and events. It’s not too late to start! And it’s equally for adults as well as children.
Above all, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the words of the prophets, who were looking forward to a new beginning with God, particularly as they looked back over the problems that God’s people had caused themselves:
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love. [Joel]
He will rejoice over you with singing. [Zephaniah]