Railton Road, 17 December 2006
- "Rejoice in the Lord always;"
says St Paul, "Again I will say, Rejoice."
- We had a good old cheer just there now,
with the children, didn't we? We were shouting for joy because
Christmas is coming, because Jesus is coming, because we are
celebrating the return of the Light, at this darkest time of year.
- Old Zephaniah knew something about
rejoicing, too. It was our first reading:
aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with
all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!"
- I don't
think I know very much about Zephaniah, do you? He's not one of the
prophets we usually read. But luckily in this day and age, just so
long as you have a computer, it's pretty easy to find things out!
So I have been looking him up. Only to find that nobody really
knows more about him than what is said in the text, which is that he
was the son of someone called Cushi, and the rest of his lineage is
given back to his great-great grandfather, who was Hezekiah, one of
the few good kings of Judah. Three generations later, and we are in
the reign of King Josiah, who was also a good king.
- This is
one of my favourite stories in the Bible, actually! You see,
Josiah's father Amon and his grandfather Manasseh had preferred to
worship Baal, rather than God. This is not too surprising,
actually, because the next-door kingdom, Israel, had been taken over
by Assyria, and although Judah was nominally free, in practice it
was a vassal of the Assyrians, so it made sense to worship the same
gods that the Assyrians did.
more, those gods were a lot easier to worship than the Jewish God
was. They didn't ask you to behave in special ways. You could
influence htem. If you said the right words and did the right
actions at the right time, they would make the harvest happen, that
sort of thing.
- And they
didn't really mind who else you worshipped, or how you behaved, or
what your thought. It was much easier to worship them.
however, probably prompted by his cousin Zephaniah, decided that he
was going to worship the Jewish God. And in 621 BC, when Josiah was
about 26, the King of Assyria died, and was succeeded by a much
weaker person who didn't mind much about what the people of Judah
did. Josiah had already cleared out altars to other gods from the
Temple, but apart from that, he hadn't dared do much more. Now,
however, he reckoned he could risk cleaning it up a bit.
- So he
sent his secreatry, a man called Shaphan ben-Azalia, to go and ask
the High Priest how much money they'd had in the collection lately,
and to tell him to give it to the builders to repair the place and
make it look smart again.
- The High
Priest was a man called Hilkiah., While he was looking in the
storeroom for the money, he found a book about God's law. And he
decided to show it to the king. We don't know whether Hilkiah had
known the book was there and decided that now would be a good moment
to show it to Josiah, or whether it was a shock to him, too.
think that this book was at least part, if not all, of what we now
know as the book of Deuteronomy. They reckon it was written down
during the reign of Josiah's grandfather and hidden away safely. Up
until then the priests had basically kept their knowledge of God's
law in their heads, and it hadn't really been written down, but this
was a time of both persecution and indifference, and they were
afraid that the time might come when there was no priest in the
Temple, and the people's knowledge of God might be lost.
- As it
was, a great deal had been lost, and the result of the discovery of
the book was a great religious reform.
- And it's
in this context, scholars think, that Zephaniah was preaching. It's
actually thought that the book may not have been written down until
a couple of hundred years later, because of the style of the writing
and so on, but it seems to be based on contemporary happenings. So
it was probably written before about 622 BC, and is definitely set
- Most of
the book is rather doom and gloomy. Again, remember that this is
being written in a time when most people aren't bothering to worship
God, and even those who want to aren't really sure how God is
different from the neighbouring gods. So there's a lot of prophecy
about gloom and destruction and the usual sort of stuff you expect
to read in the minor prophets, but after two and a half chapters of
that, we suddenly get this glorious piece that formed our reading
LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a
day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you
will not bear reproach for it.
- Not just
we who rejoice, you see, but God, too! And God promises to "remove
disaster from us", which, at this time when we're constantly
bombarded with warnings about the threat of terrorism, can be very
comforting. I forget what triggered it, but I do remember that at
the Circuit Forum last Sunday I suddenly realised that one of the
best ways, if not the best way, of keeping ourselves safe is to pray
that God will "remove disaster from us" - so you can
imagine how this verse resonated when I started looking at this
- But we
know that God doesn't always "remove disaster from us".
Sometimes dreadful things do happen, if not to us then to people we
know. There are natural disasters - earthquakes, tsunamis, and so
on. The terrorists have got through, and may yet do so again.
People get mugged and robbed all too frequently. Even ordinary
bereavement, when someone has died in due time, can feel quite
dreadfully like a slap in the face from God.
- Yet we
are commanded to "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say,
can be a very difficult time of year for many of us. People who are
alone, people who are ill, people who have been bereaved. Many
rocky marriages finally come adrift at Christmas. But we are still
commanded to rejoice! Not because of the tragedies, no way. But in
spite of them.
not worry about anything,
but in everything by prayer and
supplication with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to
And the peace of God,
which surpasses all
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ
- Many of
us find ourselves over-busy in the run-up to Christmas. It's all to
easy to get really stressed out, especially when the shops have so
much Christmas muck in them that they have no room for their usual
stock, and when what you want is something everyday, it's very
frustrating! And the government tells us to reduce our energy use
by 20% or whatever, and then puts up all the Christmas lights. They
are lovely, but do they need to be on 24 hours a day?
- For John
the Baptist, preparing for the coming of the Messiah meant, among
other things, turning away from the old, wasteful ways and starting
again. Sharing our surplus with those who haven't enough.
Tax-gatherers and soldiers are told to be satisfied with their
wages, and not to extort extra from people who can ill-afford it.
- John got
very frustrated when people just wanted to hear him preach and laugh
at him, rather than allowing their lives to be turned around. There
hadn't been a proper Old Testament-type prophet for a very long
time, and naturally people flocked to hear him, but they didn't want
to deal with what he was actually saying. But enough people did
hear him to begin to make a difference in the world. And they were
ready when Jesus came.
- It's not
just about cheering with the kids, but it's about that, too! We are
going to be celebrating the coming of Jesus, of course we are.
We're probably also going to eat and drink more than usual, and give
one another presents, and watch appallingly ghastly television, and
that can be quite fun, too, for a couple of days.
- So we
will rejoice, but we will be sensitive to those for whom it's almost
impossible to rejoice at this time of year. We will remember that
the Israelites had to go through terrible times, and their nation
was all but destroyed. Paul himself suffered dreadful things -
scourgings, imprisonment, shipwrecks, beatings....
- But we
can still remember, as we await the coming of the King, that:
will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his
he will exult over you with loud singing."
the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
to sermon index
to home page