7. A song of joy
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Let us pray. Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
According to Zephaniah 1:1, the prophet Zephaniah delivered the Word of the Lord during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah. Josiah reigned from 637 to 608 BC. His reign, then, came to an end just 20 years before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and Judah was taken into captivity. Josiah is the king who found the long-lost book of the law in the temple and tried to reform the people who had drifted so far into idolatry and wickedness. Zephaniah, then, was a part of this effort to call Judah, and especially Jerusalem, back to God.
Today I want to explore something with you that I think is going to be an issue in the whole of the church for the remainder of the 21st century, unless the Lord returns in power and glory. Let me begin by reminding you that no matter what other issues may be attached to the missionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, those movements planted seeds that are producing still incredible harvests of new Christians. For example, in 1900 there were about nine million Christians in Africa. At the turn of the 21st century that number had grown to 380 million; by 2025, just ten years from now it has been estimated that the Christian population of that continent will be 633 million. I have also heard a prediction that by 2050 the Christian population in Africa will reach one billion souls. As Philip Jenkins, one of the world’s experts on the history of Christianity puts it, “Global denominations are going to have to figure out what to do when the bulk of the power and money is in the North and the bulk of the people is in the South.” Or to put it another way, one of the issues the Roman Catholic Church will need to deal with is that the Vatican is about 2,000 miles too far north.
Part of the reason I raise this issue of where Christians are in the world is that people hear the Word of God in different ways depending on the background they bring to that hearing. Let me give you an example. Many of you will know that I am one those odd ducks that would much rather travel by train than any other mode of public transportation. One of the realities of train travel is that most of the time, because the tracks have been in those particular spots for decades, travellers often pass through some of most destitute parts of a city.
Like last month I travelled from Chicago to Detroit. Our family lived in Windsor from 1981 to 1991, so I knew Detroit was a city in trouble. Things have gotten worse. I had heard stories of houses being abandoned but as I made my way from the Amtrak station in Detroit toward the tunnel to Windsor I became aware of entire buildings in what used to be a vibrant city centre that had also been totally abandoned. I found it difficult to comprehend that a ten storey building occupying a significant part of a city block had simply been left to the elements. Do you know why that is?
My entire 65 year life has been marked by what I was consistently told was progress. I know it is tedious to hear these sentences that begin with I am old enough, but I do have a recollection of travelling by bus and street car from Scarborough to the corner of Yonge and Bloor to ride the brand new subway that had just opened on Yonge Street that went all the way from Eglinton Avenue to Union Station.
Another example: I know people slightly older than me whose mobility was severely limited and whose lives were shortened by polio. But by the mid 1950’s a polio vaccine was available. My point friends is this: it has been a part of my life to expect the inevitable march of progress and I am not sure how to get my mind around a detour in that.
However, there are millions of Christians around the world who know they cannot put their faith in the government of their country or the banks that finance the building of houses and businesses. They know that if there is such a thing as progress it moves in a three steps forward—two steps back sort of fashion most of the time. I think most North Americans find our text today from Zephaniah much harder to hear and understand than perhaps most of our African sisters and brothers in the faith. Let’s turn to that text and do our best to hear what God wants to say to us.
Sing aloud…rejoice and exult with all your heart… the Lord has taken away the judgements against you…the Lord is in your midst. Most of us are less than comfortable with the language of judgement. I think many of us when we read this last part of the prophesy of Zephaniah think something like this: “This is the God I want to deal with, the God of grace and compassion, not the God of judgement.” The same sort of sentiment can be heard in those who say they prefer the New Testament God to the Old Testament version.
I have never been the sort of pastor to tell members of the congregation what they should believe, and this is no time to start, but, if you subscribe to this notion of two gods, one revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and one in the Christian Scriptures, then you need to know you have strayed outside the bounds of historic Christian faith.
The Word of God spoken by Zephaniah points us in the direction of the God who in order to bring us rejoicing must also deal with both the wrongs we have done and the wrongs that are done to us.
One of the most fascinating Christians of the 20th century was the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer saw very early on the sort of evil that Hitler represented and believed he was called to resist that evil by every possible means. Bonhoeffer was well connected. His father was one of Germany’s pre-eminent psychiatrists and a teaching position was found for Dietrich at Union Seminary in New York City so that he could escape the horrors of life in Nazi Germany. But he returned to Germany convinced that he had to fight this evil from within the country, not from outside. That included being an active participant in the plot to murder Hitler.
That is not the sort of thing that one normally expects a pastor to be involved in. We could, I suppose, argue the ethics of someone who preaches Christ also plotting the murder of one of the most evil people in the history of the human race. But what is made plain by the Holocaust is that what our world needs is the God who renews his people in his love because he has also removed disaster from you and dealt with all your oppressors. That’s right—there are some things that are disasters for people of faith and there are thousands upon thousands of enemies of the church who believe the god they serve has called them to oppress and murder Christians at every turn. They are not simply misunderstood; they are evil and the singing and rejoicing of God’s people depends in part upon God removing the disaster of this oppression.
I suppose it is possible friends that I am emboldened today by the circumstances of our life together, three months from this very day will be my last Sunday at Blythwood. After all, as the expression goes, the worst thing that could happen is that the Board would fire me. So there is a certain freedom that comes with that realization. But I also think it is good for us to hear this word in a way that perhaps shakes us a bit.
For example, try to put yourself in the position of the parents of those more than two hundred school girls kidnapped more than a year ago by the radical Islamist group known as Boko Haram. Could you think anything other than this, that your rejoicing, your assurance that Lord is in your midst, can only come when this disaster has been turned around and your oppressors have been dealt with?
Not only Christians but also Muslims are threatened in India. I wish I was making this up. In April of this year a radical Hindu leader in India called on the national government to declare a state of emergency in order to force Christians and Muslims to undergo sterilisation because the growing population of these groups is a threat to the dominant Hindu culture. The same leader also called for Hindu statues to be placed in churches and mosques.
This is dangerous territory, I know, but what are the people to think who are being forced from their homes and turned into refugees because of attacks from ISSIL in Iraq and Syria? Would they not, no matter what their faith or lack of it, long for a day when this disaster was overcome and the oppressors dealt with?
Friends, I do not pretend to know how it is that God is going to deal with this world that is part of the created order. The list of disasters is a long one; some of you would likely add the effects of climate change to this sermon’s litany of disasters. How is God going to deal with all this? The truth, of course, is that I don’t know. Does God work through the efforts of all people of good will, through any person’s commitment to justice? I am convinced that is exactly what God does. But I am also convinced that the only news that is truly good news includes this unmistakable word, that the Lord God in our midst will remove the disasters and deal with the oppressors, that those who insist on their own selfish and evil purposes will not be part of the rejoicing that God brings.
I heard an interesting story a month or so ago. It concerned some pamphlets that were distributed at a location here in the city, Christian literature. Some people were upset about it and in response set fire to as many of these pieces of paper they could find. The person who told me the story concluded by saying, “The message was quite positive; would it not make more sense to read it and think about it than set it on fire?”
In this time and place, let the church recover its courage and boldness. We are those who have set our feet on the path of Jesus Christ, on the path of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23). We are those who follow the one who leads us in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves. We are those who walk in the steps of the one who gave us a new commandment, that we love one another just as he has loved us (John 13:34).
Let the church recover its courage and boldness. When the end of history comes it is the one who gave himself over to death on the cross who will be revealed as the Lord of all the ages and at the name of Jesus every knee will bend and every tongue will confess that he is Lord. In that worship and in that confession, friends, I believe all of creation will find a reason to rejoice.