Monday, December 14, 2009
Zephaniah 3: 14-20
On Christmas Day 1914, so the story goes, during the first winter of World War 1, there was a soccer game between the opposing armies of the German and English Armies. I know about this, oddly enough, through MTV, because of a video of the song “Pipes of Peace,” by Paul McCartney. The true story was that there were various events that happened across the trenches that first year, only some of which were games of soccer. Some armies exchanged barrels of beer, packets of tobacco and chocolate, others sang Christmas carols across the trenches, a few units took the opportunity to retrieve the bodies of comrades who had fallen in No Man’s land, and some others didn’t stop fighting at all.
The German armies erected small Christmas trees, “tannenbaum”, lit with candles on the front edges of their trenches. As the website firstworldwar.com notes, “On many stretches of the Front the crack of rifles and the dull thud of shells ploughing into the ground continued, but at a far lighter level than normal. In other sectors there was an unnerving silence that was broken by the singing and shouting drifting over, in the main, from the German trenches.”
This was a war that was to drag on for four more years, only to end in November 1918, and this event was three years before the American Army entered the war. By then, any vestige of humanity had disappeared from both sides, and a repetition of such a peaceful event became impossible. Hope had disappeared, as well. But that it happened was evidence of a spirit that could not be quenched, in the end. Hope never died, and the war did eventually end.
The biblical book of Zephaniah is believed to have been written during the reign of King Josiah of Jerusalem, who was known as the last righteous King of Judah, whose only equal or master was David himself. Josiah came to power in a very chaotic time, when people were not listening to the prophets and indeed, scholars believe, Zehaniah himself was looked down upon. To be true, most prophets were, and still are, but Zephaniah was probably ignored more than most. In the beginning of the book, he takes care to give his family tree, and it is in that place, in the name of his father, that a clue as to why he was ignored. His fathers’ name was Cushi. Those who were called “Cushites” were people who were from Ethiopia. Scholars speculate that Zephaniah’s father was of this nation, and in that time, as now, were people of darker skin than the native Judeans.
In a time of chaos and fear, as the time of Josiah’s reign were, that which is unfamilar is to be shunned. Josiah was the last righteous king of Judah, after him cameonly one or two more, degenerate and spineless, before Judah fell to the Babylonians, and was occupied, and so it would be by various armies until this century.
In a time of chaos and fear, ignorance and anger gain a foothold. The unfamilar breeds contempt and hatred. Something new, unfortunately, often brings a rise in humanity’s baser instincts, and God’s hand is often not recognized, because “we’ve never done it that way before”. But in the midst of chaos, death, ignorance, hatred and fear, peace often does still glimmer, if you have eyes to see. So it is with the Christmas day 1914 truce, and so it is with this scripture this morning, the ninth, utterance by a minor, probably minority prophet in a chaotic time.
Zephaniah’s words of prophecy are not “Woe be to those who are evil,” in this case. Instead, he holds out the hope that the Lord’s time is coming, and God will save Judah from its time of trial. He says: the Lord God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory!” and again: “I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach from it, I will deal with your oppressors at that time.”
It is a common thing in the prophets to understand the coming savior of Israel and Judah as a military leader, one who will unite the nations of Israel and Judah, lead them to prominence, and protect them from all attacks. Only the prophet Isaiah speaks of the coming savior of the nations in any terms other than victor, military leader, or sword bearer, and that is why Christians highlight those passages of that prophet that describe the coming savior as a suffering servant, or one what will save the nations through his own pain and sacrifice.
It is in the midst of ignorance, anger and fear that the true Spirit of the Lord shines through. Some respond to chaos by withdrawing from the world, reaching back to a time that seemed less chaotic and hateful in a time of nostalgia, and erecting walls designed to protect their lives, families and property. (We see it now, as the election of a new type of American president, while definitely not anything close to a Messiah, is nonetheless accompanied by a surge in the website hits and membership increases of white supremacist groups, and the distrust of and loss of civility by those who oppose him.)
But there is another reaction; one of possibility, and the joy of what is to come. The realization by many, as Christians believe, that the world will be saved not through military might, not through the preservation of the “way things have always been”, but through the birth of a child.
The wonder of such an event, the unlikeliness of a child born in a land occupied by a foreign military force, a second class citizen, who nonetheless will save the world. We as Christians believe that the savior of the world being born as a child tells us something of the Character of God. God does not believe in military conquest; God does not believe in weapons of war and hate to achieve his ends. Because God came to us, Emmanuel, in a form that requires protection, the care of parents, and nurturing over time, we can understand that our acts of faith should be of the same nature. In the past, Christians have said “convert or die”, when it is more properly been said, by our Savior himself, as “come and see”.
The armies of Europe did not listen to that slim expression of the spirit of peace in that first Christmas of the War to end all Wars. What followed was three more years of fighting, the construction of punitive peace that bred the distress that brought a second “World War”on, and a Cold War that followed among former allies.
The voice that cries in the wilderness, the voice of that who will “ bring us home”, who will “exult over us with loud singing,” and “renew us in his love”, is a small, still voice. Sometimes that voice is nothing more than a newborn baby’s cry coming from a little cave used as a stable.
For those who have ears to hear.