I think it is fair to say that we live in a world which people afraid a lot of the time. The shocking news on Friday of the murder of twenty primary school children and six teachers in Connecticut in the USA, reminded everyone of how dangerous the world can be and how fragile human life is. That the hands of one man could end so many lives, barely begun, certainly fills me with fear. Fear of what human beings are capable of. Fear of what the response to all this might be, with people calling for teachers to be armed to defend their pupils.
Sometimes our view of God reinforces our general state of fearfulness. Advent is a time when we dwell long and hard on the coming judgement, when God will make all things right and just and true. But the world we live in isn’t just and true and good. I am not just and true and good much of the time. If God is coming as judge, what will happen to me?
It’s in the middle of this season where we are asked to think about the coming judgement, that we read a remarkable passage from the prophet Zephaniah. This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent in year C, is the only chance we get to read the words of this Old Testament prophet on Sunday mornings. Zephaniah lived in the seventh century BC. Moral, religious and social corruption had chipped away at the life of the southern kingdom of Judah for almost fifty years under the reign of two terrible kings, Manasseh and Amon. Judah had become a wicked society, full of idolatry and the abuse of the poor. Zephaniah’s prophecy doesn’t take long to read through. It is only three chapters long, and it is full of God’s judgement, of fear and impending doom.
But right at the end of the book is this joyful prophecy. Zephaniah tells us of the day of the Lord: a day of singing, a day when God’s judgement on his people has come to an end. Where Israel is no longer paralysed with fear. A time when arms that hung limp with terror can be raised up in praise to God. A time where God’s love will cause the people to rejoice and grow in strength, because God has come to live with his people.
Zephaniah is very carefully spelling out the hope of Advent. It is the hope that, however horrendous the world sometimes seems, judgement is never the last word. That God will come to save us and that we should not be afraid.
We live in a world of fear: ecological, environmental, political and economic fear. The media thrives on terrifying us on a daily basis. Depending on what news paper you read, you might have heard that the world will be coming to an end this Friday, according to an ancient Mayan calendar. Unless, of course, you live in the small french village of Bugarach, whose residents will be rescued by aliens. It is all quite ridiculous, but silly stories like the Mayan calendar apocalypse give voice to the deep, underlying fear which we all experience.
So the question I want to ask is this: in a world permeated by fear, what would it look like if the church placed less emphasis on the fearful, terrifying God of judgement, and more on the God who rejoices and sings over us (Zeph 3.17). In the Hebrew scriptures the word most commonly used for God’s love is hesed, it means an unfailing, steadfast love and fidelity. It is as much a matter of the will as of the heart. It is a beautiful word which reminds us that God’s love for us is not dependent on how lovely we are. But in Zephaniah’s song, a different word for love is used. Zephaniah uses the word ’ahaba, a passionate love which delights in the beloved with songs of adoration. It is a beautiful word, because it reminds us that however bad we feel, however much we feel morally ugly, God finds us beautiful, and a delight to behold.
Perhaps the calling of the church in our day is to not be overcome by fear, but to rejoice, because God has come to be with us in Jesus Christ. It’s right to observe Advent properly, to prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming, and to try not to arrive at the manger too early. Advent is, after all, a time of waiting. But we’re not waiting to find out whether God loves us or not. We wait for our lover to return home. We wait for Jesus’ return with confidence and hope, rather than panic and fear. When God came among us in human form, when he united heaven and earth in his own person, he was singing a song of delight in his creation.
As we move further through December, the world is getting physically darker and darker. As it gets darker, we string up lights on trees and in the high street. In a way we try to battle against the darkness; to proclaim that light has come into the world and the darkness has not and never will overcome it. We are full of joy and excitement about Christmas. But I think when you scratch the surface, Christmas cheer soon disappears. We often feel a lot of Christmas anxiety: Are the family going to get on at the big get together? Will they like the gift I bought for them? Where on earth am I going to find the time to do everything that needs to be done? How am I going to pay off that credit card bill in January?
Advent is a time when we don’t have to burry those fears we have. It is a time to be honest about the things that trouble us. But as we feel the darkness around us, it is also a time to listen to and rejoice in God’s song: ‘Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The 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 as on a day of festival.’ (Zeph 3.16–17)