Railton Road, 17 December 2006

Rejoice, but....

"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:

"Sing 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.

What's 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.

Josiah, 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.

Scholars 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 in Jerusalem.

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 today.

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.
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 week's readings.

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, rejoice!"

Christmas 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.

"Do not worry about anything,
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

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:
"he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing."

"And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."


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