Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lasting Joy

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Have you caught your favorite Christmas special on TV yet? I noticed “It’s a Wonderful Life” was on last night, but I didn’t watch it. In fact, I flipped through the channels last night and counted at least 6 or 7 different “classic” Christmas specials on at the same time. They’ve been going all week, and I know there are still more to come. We’ve watched some with our family as a last treat before bed. Recently we caught one of my favorites, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I just love that pathetic little tree!!

I realized as we watched this week that it had been a while since I had seen it, and I saw things I hadn’t seen before. I saw some very Advent things in the middle of that Christmas special – waiting, preparing, searching, discovering. I brought the opening scene for us to watch together.

Poor Charlie Brown! It’s one of the best times of year, and he just can’t get what he really wants – happiness. So much of Christmas is built around happiness, isn’t it? It’s what we’re spending all this time and energy and especially money on – happiness. We go shopping for the perfect presents so we can make our friends and family happy. Seeing them happy makes us happy, too. We throw parties or attend them, surrounding ourselves with friends, family, and acquaintances, dressing gaily, baking up a storm, pouring wine, singing the songs we love, so that together we can be happy! We decorate our houses and our town with lights and moving wire animals and inflatable snowmen, so that we can drive around or even just stay in at home on the couch and feel the happiness that comes from this special celebration.

There’s so much around us that fights against us, so much that seems to rob us of the big and little things that bring us good feelings that just trying to grab on to a little happiness doesn’t seem like too much to ask. What do you want for Christmas? What do I want? Like Charlie Brown, I want all of this, all that we do, the presents, the parties, the perfectly trimmed tree, to bring some happiness to my life, to the world.

For years I have wondered why some churches have gone to using blue for the liturgical color at Advent. Traditionally, the season is a purple one - one of penitence, spiritual discipline, preparation of our hearts and our lives to receive the good news of the coming of our Savior. This year I finally learned that some churches have taken up blue for the season, still a color of darkness into which light will break, but not quite as intense and repentence focused as Lent. But for me a mini-Lent is OK. We have the traditional break on the third Sunday of Advent, today, for Gaudate Sunday, or Rejoice Sunday. The colors adorning sanctuaries in churches more liturgical than ours are rose this day, like our rose colored Advent Candle.

However, the color of purple for preparation is, I believe, appropriate. It signifies a time of honest introspection, of clearing away the cobwebs of our spiritual lives. You wouldn’t receive an important guest in your home without a thorough dusting, so turning Advent into a spiritual clean-up? That sounds to me like the perfect preparation for the impending arrival of Jesus, who is, as the angels say, Christ the Lord.

The song of rejoicing in Zephaniah is a wonderful aid on a Gaudate Sunday, leading us in singing and rejoicing and exulting. But it might be a little misleading to just read this section from Zephaniah and think we have a taste of the whole book. Zephaniah is a short little prophecy, just those three chapters long, and the portion we heard wraps it all up in triumphant and thankful song. But the rest of the book sounds completely different; it is all doom and gloom. It’s one of those books of prophecies that might lead some to doubt that the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. It starts with a declaration from God that everything will be swept away from the face of the earth. “I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth,” says the Lord. The day of the Lord is described as a “day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of cloud and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry.”

All of that (and more) and then, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion….Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O Jerusalem!” It hardly sounds like the same book; it hardly sounds like the latter can come out of the former. The bulk of Zephaniah sounds like the “Charlie Brownest” of prophecies. It’s a picture of life in ruins, people torn from what they know and love, livelihoods lost, communities and families not just disintegrating, but violently being ripped apart by forces beyond their control. It’s the world not as it should be, a depressed and fearful world.

Fear is a hard feeling to shake. It’s a pretty natural feeling. Survival is sometimes based on fear. Fear brings out our instincts for “fight or flight.” It’s what drives us to make decisions about whether to stay and battle for life and what we believe in or run and save ourselves as best we can. It’s normal. Maybe it’s even helpful at times, but living in fear is no way to live all the time. It isn’t peaceful. It isn’t comfortable.

It might also be the source of our search for happiness, happiness that seems just out of reach sometimes even in the middle of Christmas. Happiness that we try to create with all the usual trappings of the season may be something we’re reaching for out of the fears we don’t want to face in our lives – the fear of being alone, the fear of having no one to love, the fear of being unnecessary, the fear of no one loving back. The celebrations of the season can certainly come from pure and uplifting impulses in our lives, but if we find ourselves feeling like Charlie Brown, “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy,” than maybe just maybe in shooting for happiness we’re missing the real gift of Christmas.

Zephaniah, for all his doom and gloom, tells us the answer to our fear. It isn’t about creating happiness. It isn’t about making lists and giving gifts. It isn’t about decorating and baking and getting dressed up and staying out too late at one more party. It might, though, be about singing. No, even singing is the result of this answer, not necessarily the cause of it. The answer to our fear, from the Charlie Brownest prophet, is the gracious and power presence of God. “You shall fear disaster no more….Do not fear, O Zion….The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” That is what removes all fear.

Happiness just tries to cover it up. Momentarily delights and instant gratifications just try to ignore the fears a little longer, but the presence of God that has come among us, the presence of the one who CAN destroy and distress and devastate, but who chooses instead to come among us remove all disaster, take away all judgments and turn away our enemies, THAT’S what will shatter our fears! That’s what will cause us to rejoice! Gaudate! Rejoice!

Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! O Church of Christ! Rejoice and exult as God rejoices and exults over us. The happiness we seek is just a fleeting feeling, but a life of rejoicing, a life of delight in the presence of God is lasting joy, a gift from God. Joy is more than a feeling we conjure up with nostalgia and traditions; it’s a way of life, a transforming reality that has come upon us because God has broken into this desperate situation. God is right here in the middle of our worries and our fears. And God’s very presence is cause to wipe them away, because God’s presence can’t go unnoticed. In Zephaniah we are called to sing and rejoice and celebrate with God who is already rejoicing. God is already singing and rejoicing and celebrating, and God invites us to this divine and lasting joyful party.

In Charlie Brown’s Christmas, Lucy advises Charlie Brown to get involved in the children’s Christmas play as a way to overcome his fears and unhappiness about Christmas. He does, but it only leads to more frustration. In another attempt to find meaning for the season beyond the “commercial racket”, Charlie Brown decides to get a Christmas tree for the show. He brings back, of course, the most pitiful, droopy, sad looking tree at the lot. The cast of children mock him and laugh at him, leaving him more discouraged than he was before until Linus steps in again.

That’s what God gives us at Christmas – good tidings of great joy, joy that will last, joy that will conquer our fears, joy that comes from God who is rejoicing and singing over us and in our presence. God’s gift of joy is God’s gift of presence. The happiness we spend too much time seeking at Christmas isn’t what it’s all about. Christmas isn’t about what we can buy or give or eat or decorate. Christmas is about God’s presence, God-with-us, God who comes to live right in the middle of us, just as one of us, but with love that will renew our love, and joy that can rid us of our fears. We are waiting and preparing and hoping for THAT joy, lasting joy, so that together we may sing and exult and give praise to God who comes to share it with us.

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