Zephaniah 3: 14-20
14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17The 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 18as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
So, here we are in this short book of Zephaniah, which sets itself in about the seventh century BCE during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Josiah is many times characterized as the last great king, whose only equal would have been King David. The identity of this prophet is not really very clear. His father’s name is Cushi, which could mean that he was of Ethiopian heritage (Cush being the name for what we call Ethiopia). This short book is primarily a book of judgment oracles that proclaim and invoke the coming Day of the Lord. The prophet announces what is essentially cosmic destruction and demise and then at the end, the part that we read, unfolds a ninth oracle of salvation and renewal, a promise of some sort of final resolution of judgment and an assurance that the world will finally stop shaking and moving in what oftentimes seems to be an unnatural and even unbearable way. And the Lord, no longer a seemingly inaccessible and unapproachable mover of Creation, is actually with us. The Scripture, using the present tense (rather than the future), says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” In other words, in the midst of all your worrying, all your bemoaning of lost opportunities of the past, all your despair, is God. God is there, right there with you.
In this Season of Advent, we spend a lot of time looking forward to God’s coming, both to the “big day” when we remember Jesus’ birth as well as the final culmination of Creation, whatever and whenever that will be. But then this…God is in our midst. God is here, now. There is no waiting for God’s Presence. God is in our midst. Yes, it is true that we live in what could be described as an “in-between” time. The world is now but it is not yet what it should be. There is still poverty, homelessness, and war. There is still a veritable shaking of the earth as it groans toward its completeness. But God is here—right here with us, in the midst of the poverty, in the midst of the homelessness, in the midst of the war, in the midst of the shaking. God is in our midst.
So what does that mean? When I was little I used to lay in bed and try to imagine God looking at me. I didn’t really understand what that meant, but I had been told in Sunday School that God was with us. It was odd to me. So I shut my eyes tight and opened them really fast to try to actually catch God peeking from behind some cotton-candy cloud, I suppose. (Apparently God was faster than I was!) I wondered, though, did God have time to watch me sleep? Did God watch me take a bath? I mean, really, doesn’t God have better things to do than to watch me all the time? So somewhere along the way, we convince ourselves that God is out there or up there or somewhere down that road on which we’re traveling and that our mission is to “find God” (as if God is the one that is lost!). After all, why would God spend a bunch of time in the muck of this messed-up world? But then we read that “the Lord is in our midst.”—not out there away from us, not up there over us, not down that road patiently waiting for us to catch up. God is in our midst. God is here…among us….with us.
Well, here we were desperately searching for God in our life and this little unsung hero of a book wedged in between all those Minor Prophets had it there all along. God is with US. No wonder we couldn’t find God! We weren’t looking in the right place! So all this time that we’ve been waiting for the Lord, God’s been here, waiting for US to notice. All this time that we’ve spent trying to figure God out and figure out what God wants and figure out how we can get to God when we should have been rejoicing. And the passage says that the Lord has taken away our judgments, just smoothed them right over, I suppose. (Actually, I think that’s called forgiveness.) The Hebrew Tanakh translation talks about it as God “soothing us with love”. I love that, the thought of being soothed with love. I mean, I guess it would be uncomfortable for God to hang around with us and continue to pick us apart at the same time and why would God hang around at all if it wasn’t for love?
So, try something with me. Look at these letters: G-O-D-I-S-N-O-W-H-E-R-E…What do they say? Well, it depends on your perspective. If one is cynical, mired down with despair, buried in what “was” or what “might have been”, one might read these letters as “God is Nowhere.” Sadly, so many in the world do read it that way! But if one is open to faith, open to the promise of new life to come, open to the assurance that things ARE going to change, one might alternatively read the letters as “God is Now Here.” This season of Advent is one that shows us how to relate to the notion that God is indeed now here, that God is not only with us, but has been with us all along, that God is walking with us through the darkness and leading us to the Light.
So, in the midst of a world that sometimes makes no sense, in the midst of a life that is sometimes riddled with questions and heartache, in the midst of the way we hurt each other and judge each other and divide ourselves into camps, in this time straddled between a pandemic that carries death and despair and the hope-filled sight of planes being loaded with a vaccine, God comes. God comes right there into our midst. You see, God didn’t wait for the world to be right. God didn’t wait for us to stop fighting with each other or arguing over who belongs here with us. God didn’t wait for terrorists to quit attacking innocents. God didn’t wait for us so-called innocents to quit attacking those who we think MIGHT be terrorists. God didn’t wait for us to feed the hungry or shelter the homeless. God didn’t wait for us to figure out what it means to be made in the image of God. God just came. God just showed up, really sort of uninvited because frankly sometimes we forget to do that. I don’t think that matters to God. God is not waiting for us to invite God to show up. God is waiting for us to notice that God is already here.
That’s what Christ was trying to show us. No, things are not the way they should be and they are not the way they will be. But God is in our midst. The Season of Advent is not just for us to prepare for God’s coming. It is to prepare ourselves to see with new eyes the Kingdom of God that is everywhere. The Kingdom of God is here, already spilled into our midst and as we wait for the coming of its full completion, as we wait and “look for that day when justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”, as we wait we are called to become the people that God envisions we can be. And “at that time I will bring you home, at that time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among [and with] all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.” Look! God is in our midst. God is now here.
Bidden or unbidden, God is present. (Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536; also attributed to Carl Jung, who supposedly posted these words above the door at his house in Switzerland)
Grace and Peace,