Preacher Revd Neil Summers
If you came to church this morning hoping to be cheered by the Bible readings, I’m afraid you chose the wrong Sunday! Thessalonians not too bad, but as for Zephaniah….
A few days after I became vicar, two smart-suited young men appeared at the back door of St. John’s asking if I was praying for the coming of the kingdom. I said ‘yes’, because I say the Lord’s Prayer daily. They asked me when I thought the kingdom would come, and I said I believed it was already here, that Jesus had established it through his birth, life, death and resurrection. It’s our job to try to make the kingdom Jesus exemplified come continually in our lives, our churches and our communities, here and now. They clearly believed the kingdom was still to come, and it would be the inheritance of only a chosen few. Yesterday, they came back, on a follow-up call, essentially a chance for them to have another try, and with a copy of their latest magazine, but also very kindly enquiring how my new job was going!
As we approach Advent, we are supposed to anticipate the coming of Jesus with a degree of excitement, aren’t we? But some of the readings that take us up to the start of the season seem to strike the fear of God into us instead. Last Sunday, for the OT reading, we had a choice between the prophecy of Amos and the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon. We went for Wisdom. Had we read Amos, though, we would have trembled to hear the prophet’s warning that the coming day of the Lord is ‘darkness, not light’. Today, Zephaniah is even fiercer, as he catalogues the calamities that the fast-approaching ‘day of wrath’ will bring.
Zephaniah belonged to a religious reform movement which saw the nation’s only hope, given the reality of greater political forces, was to be found in faithfulness to God’s law and covenant. So, he denounces foreign idolatrous practices which have undermined that allegiance. He prophesies that these will lead to destruction: to “a day of wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, devastation, darkness and gloom.” Hardly a comforting image, and not, I think, something to look forward to with eager anticipation. By the way, this passage was to inspire the Dies Irae, which became part of the old Latin Requiem Mass. In that context, it has often been linked with the individual’s judgement before God, but we should not forget that its origin is in the judgement of the whole people.
As if to prove the point, Zephaniah says that such a terrifying divine judgement looms over Jerusalem because its citizens have been dangerously complacent. They have said to themselves, ‘The Lord will do nothing, neither good nor bad’. It’s a kind of atheism, in effect, for a god who does nothing is effectively not there at all. But Zephaniah makes it clear his God will not do nothing. Rather, ‘in the day of his wrath, the whole earth shall be consumed’. This is strong and, I would suggest, strongly metaphorical language, but two points need to be made about it. First, it is not Zephaniah’s last word on God’s purpose for his people. No: his prophecy ends with God’s words, ‘I will bring you home… and I will restore your fortunes’, a somewhat calmer conclusion to this very short prophetic book we very rarely read, even in church. The second point is about moral complacency. If God is perceived as doing nothing, are we at risk of ignoring or anaesthetising God, or forcing God to fit our own desires? For the prophet, such complacency is so dangerous that the strongest measures, and the strongest language, are justified in confronting it. That doesn’t mean we need to use such language ourselves, but it does mean we should at least listen to it, and allow ourselves to be challenged by it.
The passage from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and this morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew, are heard in that same light. Paul and Matthew both speak with the prophetic voice, even if their styles are different. For Paul, the day of the Lord – that is, the Lord himself – will come suddenly, like a thief in the night. Matthew’s parable of the talents makes it clear that we should make the best, the most creative, the most productive use of the brief space we have before the Lord comes. The demands of the kingdom can confront us at any moment, in any part of our life, and we need to be prepared to respond.
Idolatry may seem unreal to us. We are far too modern and sophisticated to worship statues. But if we think that we have no idols, we delude ourselves. The idols of nation and race and ideology, of security and wealth, still claim our worship and can foster dark forces among us. In our recent and ongoing economic woes, the idol of ever-increasing prosperity has led us into an ever-widening divide between rich and poor, one which threatens to unravel the fabric of our society. The parable of the talents is, I think, misunderstood, if we assume it justifies massive financial rewards for already wealthy go-getters. The parable seems to me to reward achievement not with eye-watering bonuses, but with even greater responsibility and obligations. Somehow, I don’t think this story is necessarily good news for bankers!
Remember, the earliest Christians expected Jesus would return imminently. That turned out not to be the case. In any event, Paul warns those anxious about Jesus’ return not to speculate about dates, but to be prepared for whenever it occurs. His advice has routinely been ignored by certain types of Christian ever since. Some of them regard war and cataclysm, plague and famine as ushering in God’s kingdom, so see no need to work for peace and human wellbeing. To me, that misses the point. We may well have more dark and dangerous days before us, just as there have been many behind us. How we respond to them will be critical. Will we take refuge in escapism, dulling the pain with the narcotic of our choice, be it alcohol, drugs or even escapist religion, constantly projecting God’s coming into an unknown future? Or will we use those gifts today’s readings commend, the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation? Will we encourage one another to look to our better angels, to put back together fragmented lives, communities, societies, even a fragmented world, rather than collude in systems and ideologies that divide them still further?
Yes, there is a rather alarming tone to many of the pre-Advent readings. But the overwhelming message that comes through is that ‘the day of the Lord is at hand’. It will come ‘like a thief in the night.’ So we are not to fear, but be on our guard. There’s a world of difference between the sort of fear that enables us to step up to the plate, something that galvanizes us, and the sort of fear that paralyses us like a rabbit caught in the headlights, and which leaves us open to manipulation. The imagery around the day of the Lord isn’t about putting the frighteners on. It is about being able to recognise and clarify things that we hadn’t seen before, or had chosen to sideline or ignore. The paradox in these awesome images is that a dark day may actually enable us to see the light.
Don’t be put off by the harsh tone of these scriptures as we move nearer towards Advent. They lead us to be ready, and alert us to possibilities and realities as yet unseen. My own take on all this, for what it’s worth, is pretty much the one I tried to explain to my smart-suited visitors. I don’t think we have to wait for the appearance of the day of the Lord, because he has already appeared, once and for all, in the person of Jesus. Since then, our greatest challenge has been, and still is, to discern how the life of Jesus impacts on the situations of our lives; to see the face of Jesus in the people we encounter (not least those not like us); and to look for the values of the kingdom in all the dilemmas that confront us individually, as a society and on the world scale. Every day is the day of the Lord’s appearing. But how intently do we look for it, and how willing are we to recognise its appearing, especially when meeting it means we may have to reconsider our attitudes, lifestyles and habits, and let go of some of those things we have tended to idolise and which we always assumed guaranteed our security and comfort? This kingdom is not a place, nor do we have to await its arrival. It isn’t limited to a certain few at some future date: it is among us today and it holds the promise of potential transformation for all humanity, now and for all time. So, let’s not risk losing sight of it. Rather, let’s remain alert, just in case we miss it.