Generally, I think it’s human nature for people always to see themselves in whatever story is being told. I also think it’s human nature to see ourselves favorably; everybody wants to be the hero. When we hear a story from the Bible, we see ourselves as David, not as Goliath. We are Israel, not the Canaanites, or Moabites, etc. We are the Jews following Jesus, or we are the disciples (but preferably not Peter, and definitely not Judas) or we are the oppressed in Philippi. We are NOT the Pharisees and we are NOT the Romans.
So, when we hear the readings from Zephaniah, this morning’s Canticle, (which is also called the first song of Isaiah) and the epistle to the Philippians, we all hear the common theme of comfort that these passages have to offer. We even just sang “Comfort, Comfort ye thy people” as our sequence hymn. These passages are all comforting; one can imagine they truly accompany and are representative of the Peace candle of the Advent wreath. We think that this comfort is ours for the taking, because we are following Christ, trying our best to be Christian and we see ourselves in the grand arcing story. And yet, the comfort that comes in these particular stories is not out of the blue, and more specifically it is not arrived at without strife.
Specifically, what we see in the stories is the following: Zephaniah presents both a picture of salvation of the people and the restoration of Jerusalem after God’s judgment is carried out, we didn’t read that part. (His prophecies are before the fall of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon.) Likewise, the first song of Isaiah promises rejoicing in the presence of the of the transcendent Holy One in their midst. Again, after divine judgment—we didn’t read that part, God’s final word is one of consolation and joy. The Philippians have participated in the past sufferings of Christ, and Paul now encourages them to recognize and establish joy as the atmosphere of their life. This joyful lifestyle means they can be gracious, unselfish, free from anxiety, and be thankful. Doing this will allow the peace that passes understanding to be with them in the midst of trial—we don’t focus on the trial.
So, you see that the suffering the precedes the peace is not inconsequential. All of these readings have in common that the people are distressed, and things are not good, they are not peachy. Although temporally set in the days preceding many people’s favorite feast day, with its calm and restful feeling to it, this Sunday theme of peace was originally designed to break up the Advent season of repentance and waiting, so that we would not be wallowing in repentance for too long, remembering Advent used to be more than 4 weeks. Instead, when we read the background to the readings, we are kind of left pondering, what do we have in common with these readings? Are we being offered peace after some trial we have been through? Most of us have not had much trial to speak of, in the big picture. And most of us have not been wallowing in repentance.
And then, of course, there is the Gospel…
Aren’t you glad you have me for a preacher rather than John the Baptist? Rarely in the Bible do you have out-right name-calling, but here we do.
John is preaching; and the crowds turn out, they come out to the wilderness to see what is going on. And John is as serious as a heart attack, he is emphatic, that you don’t just get to show up at worship and that be enough. The meat of what John is saying is this: you have to live a life that demonstrates the change you want to be. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” This peace that passes all understanding doesn’t come out of the blue, and just land on you without effort.
So how I make sense of all of this is the following:
We are all shades of gray, aren’t we? We are not all good, nor are we all bad. I think it’s probably best that we not pretend otherwise. We are David, and we are Goliath. We are disciples AND we are Pharisees. And we do actually have to repent of the time that we are Pharisees, AND we have to live a life of discipleship. Repenting is not just being sorry, or feeling bad. Repentance involves turning the situation around. Being passive through our Christian life is not an option. A passive participant is a contradiction in terms.
God’s judgment on us, then, is our salvation. And God’s consolation to us is also our salvation. To the Pharisees and disciples that we are, God comes. To the Goliath and the David that we are, God comes. To us, the people in trouble and the people who trouble others, God comes. With judgment and consolation; with challenge and comfort; with demand and with strengthening; with the sword of righteousness and with the peace that passes understanding. Thanks be to the God who comes to us in Christ, with absolutely everything we need.