There are some passages in the Old Testament that are brimming over with the gospel message. This 3rd Sunday of Advent we have such a passage. It comes from the prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah lived 650 before Christ and is one of Israel’s minor prophets – minor not because he is less important, but because his book is much shorter than Isaiah’s or Jeremiah’s. Indeed, what he has to say to us this morning is of major importance.
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem! The 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.”
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you. It’s been said that life is a journey. A more insightful thing to say is that that life is a courtroom. All day long judgments are being levied against us, we are tried in any number of ways. In matters great and small we are found guilty or not guilty.
In the matters small department, Sam Bush noted the other day that every couple has one person who leaves the lights on and one person who turns the lights off. The light bulb has become the courtroom. I’m the leave the lights on person. Christie will turn off the lights above the sink and the stove in the kitchen, then leave the room. I will get up from my cereal and paper and turn them back on again. She will then come back and turn them off again when I’m refilling my orange juice glass.
When I come home after dark and she has failed to turn on the outside lights by the sidewalk, then I will try her before the grand jury of my own endangered wellbeing. “I could have been attacked and robbed by someone hiding behind a dark bush! I could have tripped on a dog toy lying on the sidewalk!” The verdict is… GUILTY! GUILTY OF NOT TURNING THE LIGHTS ON WHEN THEY SHOULD HAVE BEEN ON!
This is silly. But we all know how the little things tend to aggregate into the big things. Sadly, I was with a woman last week whose mother is very close to death. She hadn’t seen her mother in years and only came into town to make some final arrangements. When I asked her how she was doing she said that she had no affection for her mother. And that her mother had never taken responsibility for her own life and had egregiously failed in her duty as a parent. And furthermore, she would not be at her mother’s funeral. A more painful or damning verdict is hard to imagine.
The lesson she took from her estranged relationship with her dying mother was to be a better mother to her own children. Perhaps this will be the case. I hope so. But, perhaps it will not. That’s because life is not a journey that we can engineer according to our own plan. And when she comes to her own deathbed, there is no guarantee that her children will be by her side. By then, judgments small and large may have been levied against her.
We deal with the judgments against us in different ways. Do you live with someone who is never wrong? Someone who is never at fault? The pain of judgments against us is so great that sometimes we defend ourselves at all costs against them. IT’S NOT MY FAULT is the cry of someone who is afraid to admit that it might be their fault.
Admitting our own fault is a scary thing. Often the most severe prosecuting attorney trying your case is you – your own worst critic sort of thing. There is a brilliant new movie about Vincent Van Gogh called “At Eternity’s Gate.” You probably know that Van Gogh was both tortured and a genius. Now recognized as one of the most popular painters in the world, Van Gogh toiled in obscurity. Only at the very end of his short, difficult life did he receive any acclaim.
But when he did read one glowing review of him and his work, he felt like he was caught in a lie. He said, “Pride, like drink, it intoxicating. When one is praised, and has drunk the praise up, it makes one sad.” He felt that his lifetime of “weaknesses, diseases, and wanderings” mocked the article’s praise. “As soon as I read the article, I feared at once I should be punished for it.” Remember that praise and criticism are two sides of the same coin of merit. One feels better than the other in the moment, but can never fully satisfy.
The only thing that satisfies us is to be taken off the grid altogether. How I would like to say to Vincent the very thing his pastor father might have said to him, but apparently didn’t: The Lord has taken away the judgments against you. He has turned away your enemies, even when you are your own worst enemy. The Lord is in your midst. You shall fear disaster know more.
It’s hard for those words to sink in, isn’t it? Which is why we need to see their truth and power dramatized in story. It’s no surprise to me that It’s A Wonderful Life has such staying power. Like our passage from Zephaniah, it is brimming with the gospel message.
Remember the scene where George Bailey goes to the evil Mr. Potter to ask for the Saving and Loan’s $8000 that his intemperate Uncle Billy has lost? Of course, Mr. Potter has the $8000 that Uncle Billy inadvertently left in a newspaper he handed to Potter. But, instead of giving George the $8000 dollars, he gives him something else. “But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do for you, George. Since the state examiner is still here, as a stockholder of the Building and Loan, I’m going to swear out a warrant for your arrest. Misappropriation of funds – manipulation – malfeasance…”
George fears the worst and goes off the rails. His friends and family worry about him and pray for him. God intervenes in the most unusual way. I’ll fast forward to the script and set directions for the final scene. George returns to his house to find a big party of people putting money in a hat for him. Mary, his wife, calls out, “Mr. Martini, how about some wine!”
As various members of the family bring out a punch bowl and glasses, Janie sits down at the piano and strikes a chord. She starts playing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and the entire crowd joins in the singing. We see a SERIES OF SHOTS of the various groups singing the hymn, and some people are still coming in and dropping their money on the table. Carter, the bank examiner, makes a donation; the sheriff sheepishly looks at George and tears his warrant in small pieces.
His warrant is torn in small pieces. The Lord has taken away the judgment against you. The reason we read this minor prophet in Advent is because he points to One that prophets major and minor foretell – Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells us that “He did this by erasing the charges that were brought against us by the written laws God had established. He took the charges away by nailing them to the cross.” (Col 2:14)
Mr. Martini, how about some wine! Jesus Christ has turned the courtroom into a party. Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion! There is peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.