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Sermon for Advent 3 year C Zephaniah 3:14-20

November 1, 2015

doomThe Lord has taken away the judgements against you. Words from our first reading.

In the name…

In St. Thomas’ Salisbury, on the chancel arch, is a well-preserved doom painting showing God sending some people to heaven And a lot more people down to Hell.

That’s what many people think we believe in A judgemental God. If they’ve followed some of the news about the Anglican Communion’s current troubles They will assume our God is obsessed with sin – sin defined as sex.

Today is traditionally Gaudete Sunday. The old introit began with the word Gaudete = ‘Rejoice’. The third advent candle would be pink instead of red. The vestments rose-coloured instead of purple. Yet we get this reading from Zephaniah, the gloomiest book of the Old Testament. Or is it?

Two and a half chapters are devoted to telling us that God has looked at the Jews and the Gentiles, surveyed North, South, East and West and he is going to judge them all.

Gloomy? But also one of the most politically, socially and religiously radical. Zephaniah is not obsessed with sexual sin. He indicts social sin. The religious leaders – other prophets, speak pompously to serve their own ends. Priests tell lies. People worship idols and rely on their gold and silver, wealth they have amassed by deceit. They have grown hard and calloused in their abundance, prosperous and complacent, not scared of judgement they say, “The Lord will not do good nor will he do ill.” The love of money is not a separate problem from arrogance, self-sufficiency and idolatry. They are all of a piece.

headlamAnglican priest. Stewart Headlam was a Victorian Zephaniah serving in a Church obsessed by sexual sins and snobbery. He posted bail for Oscar Wilde. While Victorians saw any sex as bestial, Headlam contended that God took human flesh so true religion is earthy. While Victorians romanticized virginity and, hence the virgin birth of Jesus, Headlam argued that every human being is conceived by the Holy Spirit. He condemned the rich who amassed wealth at the expense of the poor, who did not believe in the fatherhood of God which made all men and women brothers and sisters but idolatrously pursued their own selfish ends. Capitalist competition was the secular equivalent of sectarianism in the church. He warned wealthy churchgoers that if they were deaf to workers’ cries their skirts would be stained with the blood of the souls of God’s people

While they condemned prostitutes, they charged high-rents for them to live in the slums and paid them low wages working for the likes of Bryant and May matchstick-makers.

He outraged parents by teaching Sunday School children to dance on a Sunday and to doubt and question everything in the Bible. He believed that everyone was a child of God, not just churchgoers. Baptism declared a baby to be what every human is – a child of God. The Eucharist declared bread and wine to be what the whole material universe is – the body of God. He was a ritualist who adorned the eucharist with robes, bells, music and incense because God’s creation was a thing to celebrate. At a time when dour protestants forbade fun on a Sunday while Church Leaders saw theatre going as a sin because it encouraged licentiousness, he was a great patron of the music hall.

Those wearied by long hours of drudgery can be uplifted by dancers so graceful that they mirrored the grace of God and administered divine healing. Christ is as much present on the Alhambra stage as he is on the altar. He argued for the repeal of blasphemy laws that protected the established church because the real blasphemy was the poverty of God’s children. The Victorian church taught children the Ten commandments but did not see that murder included working people to death and theft included paying them low wages while enjoying the profits made by their hands. The creed, he said, did not reveal a cruel tyrant but a compassionate creator. He believed that God would save everybody

Would ‘redeem the humanity which philosophers, Pharisees, beggars and harlots share together.

GaudeteThat was Zephaniah’s belief too. Zephaniah uses the word paqad three times (1:8,9,12).
It is translated “punish,” but originally has the idea of “to visit” or “inspect in order to take appropriate action.” This is not just a visit from God to dispense blind destruction or judgment. Zephaniah says God will search Jerusalem with Lamps (1:12). – personal involvement. God will be silent in His love. Jewish commentator Rashi says the “silence” is the withholding of judgment. God holds back his judgment because of His deeply felt love. God is absorbed, infatuated in his thoughtfulness over that which he loves. As he looks at his people, Zephaniah says God feels such joy in us that it is too great even for God to utter. Then he judges. The verdict? The Lord has taken away the judgements against you.

Some commentators say Zephaniah was so gloomy that he couldn’t have ended his book like this. It must be the work of a later writer. OK, if that’s so, then we see how the bible corrects itself. We should take the whole of scripture, not bits out of context.

The Lord has taken away the judgements against you. Instead of predictions of judgment and doom, Zephaniah predicts an amnesty for his people, a return to the land and the temple, the removal of guilt, the freedom of salvation. The Lord who is coming intends good things for his people.

He will bring about the kind of world that humans, in their greed, have not.. Then the Gentiles will be saved. Those exiled will return to Jerusalem. The lame and the outcast will be bought in.
The scattered people shall throng the city with dancing and love poems.

THEN people will repent. We tend to think we have to repent first, then God will forgive us. But it’s the other way round. Because we know God loves and forgives us, we respond by changing our lives. Living out of gratitude, not fear. Discovering you have more to you than you dreamt or knew. Becoming bored with being only a quarter of what you are and tasking the risk of surrendering to the whole and thus finding more abundant life. The old catechism phrase: ‘Man is made to know, love and serve God.’ should read, ‘Know that God longs to love and serve men and women.’

The Anglican Communion needs another Zephaniah, another Stewart Headlam. People need to be told about an inclusive, non-judgemental God. The outcastes need to be gathered in not cast out.

Gaudete, rejoice. The Good News of advent is that God is infatuated with us, is coming to us, not to destroy us but to refine us, to help us to become what we were meant to be.

The Lord has taken away the judgements against you. In the words of Julian of Norwich: ‘I saw no wrath except on man’s side, and he forgives that in us, for wrath is nothing else but a perversity.’

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