Texts: Zephaniah 3, Luke 3
The great import-export holiday season has begun. Some already said goodbye last week, off ‘home for the holidays’, more repeated the news today: exports. Already, others emerge: imports. People we haven’t seen lately, or ever, asking which Christmas services accommodate family feasts, between ‘turkey hopping’.
I reminded you of the frequently rerun movie ‘White Christmas’, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye saving their retired general’s failing ski resort. You hummed along with the familiar sentimental tunes:
‘We’ll follow the old man, wherever he wants to go…’
‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…’
All the troops load up the trains and flood the barn when the stage show starts. How many other Christmases back in Brooklyn and Queens were ruined, for this patriarch’s grand event? Whose scripts for a reunion after the war, for extended families at home, were rewritten to satisfy ‘the old man’?
What if there’s no ‘old man’, no Rev. Dr. Frank Morgan, Rev. Dr. Orville Hossie, to command our loyalty? What if you aren’t spectators or audience or critics for the later round of inadequate replacement preachers, but the show yourselves? What if we are all in the show, and the world is watching and listening? What Christmas would you choose to celebrate, with whom?
What if the action is out there in the city, and we are all backstage in here in the church, the unsung heroes supporting what’s out there for a remnant to do in the name of God, anticipating a return from current exile? Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, or Tom Stoppard ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead’, are long forgotten in the narcissism of social media where everybody is a star.
If the post-modernism doesn’t move you, therapeutic/training common wisdom might provide a was to recognize the story of the season: “Trans-theoretical Models of Change” first published by Prochaska and Di Clemente in 1977.
You know it in many popularized forms of change management, from diets and cardiac care to addictions treatment or corporate training. Where have you ever heard of these stages of change:
Pre-contemplative (unaware of problem, denial)
Contemplative (readiness, recognizing possibility)
Preparation (research, practice)
Action (action, implementation)
Maintenance (consolidation of change)
Relapse (reverting to status quo ante)
Various experts break this down further into 10 or 21 processes for life-style modification, stress reduction, or habit-breaking. Where did you hear this talk? Go ahead and Google any of the terms, to refresh your memory.
As you reflect on our import/export Christmas, second in a new space, how many of you are ‘the old man’ in your homes, or bit players in others’ tired scripts at their homes? Our Christmas ritual has changed and must change again – so what stage are you at in engaging this change at Trinity?
Zephaniah spoke in times like ours: the Assyrians swept down from the north, Amos or Hosea could say ‘I told you so: if the rich don’t care for the poor, who will stand against invaders? The south as vassal of Assyria, accepted worship of sun and moon in the temple, paying tribute taxes to Assyria’s ‘World Bank’.
Once the Assyrians stumbled, overextended and falling back with the Egyptians chasing, there was a time between empires in the 7th century (the 600’s BC) to beg the people to clean up their act, so Zephaniah did, as of ‘The Twelve’, or ‘Minor Prophets’ we are reading daily online this season.
The reforms of Hezekiah, like those of Josiah, were worth trying. The Scythians swept past heading south along the coast, then, cartoonish, ran back north with Egyptians chasing them home. Reform was worth trying while empires were distracted, but no solution. Judah was vulnerable between empires.
The Babylonians would come next, bringing exile and destruction to the mildly reformed, as well as the corrupt elites of Judah and Jerusalem. The balance of power is never stable for long. We know that as Canadians sitting between China and USA in their current imperial contest, or between Soviets and EEC in Latvia, or between Muslim and Christian movements in Mali in Africa.
The times of Zephaniah did not offer the biggest and best festivals in Judah’s history. They were times of decline, struggle, and threat. The north has already fallen. Zephaniah says: sing and dance anyhow! The empires rise and fall all around us, with war and rumours of war, and grief and loss. Zephaniah says: sing and dance anyhow! Remember who you are, and whose you are!
Zephaniah introduces new ideas to make sense, construe meaning and purpose, and propose faithful responses in his time. “Remnant” is the idea of the humble left in the land, though the fat cats, the cream of society, are exiled to Babylon. Those who remain discover that we may still be the people, even if we are not the best and the brightest and those with get up and go have got up and gone!
“Return” is the other new idea, of coming home to our roots, physically or metaphorically, to mine the tradition that is ours, even though we have long since left and lost it. That includes the ‘ten lost tribes’ scattered by the Assyrians a century before, and the Judean elite exiled to Babylon.
That’s us here now: overdue to learn the songs of “Remnant” and “Return”. The joy of remnant and return is different from the joy of smug triumphalism. Whistling in the dark, laughing at the funeral home, supporting the Maple Leafs each year – that’s a character of courage, irony, joyful hope. That subtle distinction is too easily lost in good times that tempt us to smug false security.
Perhaps it’s not all our fault: someday, the forces that strip us back will change,
and soon, those who return will feel and find a sense of secure home among us. Zephaniah railed against the cultural accommodation of his day. I could challenge our glib participation in a Christmas used to celebrate what we used to call sins: greed, lust, envy, pride, as if it were virtuous to have the most stuff.
“Remnant” and “Return” might resist the consumerism of relentless progressive liberal joy. Perhaps we could syncopate, add some percussive, non-strophic elements to our musical vocabulary. Must we stick with Bach, Wesley, and the Victorian imperial colonial carols? How often can we watch reruns of mid-century masterpieces of film like ‘White Christmas’?
Within a century of the exiles from Jerusalem and Judah, the “Remnant” and “Return” began rebuilding a Second Temple in the late 500’s. Babylon fell to Persia, and Cyrus and Darius permitted governors and high priests to restore walls and a holy place in Jerusalem. It accelerated under Greek and Roman empires, till Herod did monumental expansions to the temple.
“Remnant” and “Return” from Zephaniah developed, conserved, and renewed a religious community and culture, generation after generation. By Jesus’ time, the Second Temple was 500 years old, just as Solomon’s Temple was 500 years old when Zephaniah and Jeremiah saw it destroyed.
People watched for a new day for “Remnant” and “Return”, and a Messenger of its Advent. When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, many came out to see him.
They hopped in their cars for a day trip out to this new show, this phenomenon rooted in their cultural heritage. It was a bit like the cultural response to Christmas: big crowds responding to a vague sentimental memory – secure with Herod’s expansions to a Temple recovered by Maccabbeans.
Of course, the sentiment risked detachment from the original context of joy: crises, disasters, politics, warfare. It started to sound like a triumphal joy of victory, or a sentimental one safely separate from struggles. So does ours.
If my harping on prophets and John the Baptist seems too much, maybe you only hear part of what I’m saying. I’m trying to move the pre-contemplative folks to awareness, and trying to motivate others through the processes of change. We need some joy and hope: Zechariah’s promised song of joy, John’s promise of Jesus’ baptism with Holy Spirit and fire.
If we’re the show together, this pageant needs your help. This Christmas needs your help. Trinity needs your help. The world needs your help. We can’t just echo Victorian imperial colonial carols. We can’t play postwar reruns forever. There are new songs of joy to learn – the joy of “Remnant” and “Return”.
My whole career prepares for something to follow, something or someone better to come. Perhaps that is the story of my generation. We don’t get to command and control. The stage is out there, and the work is to show and say something worthwhile to the world, with this as backstage to prepare and recover.
Whether you are import or export, writing a script or playing a bit part, backstage or star this Christmas: find some joy. Mind that it’s not triumphal smug gloating over unearned good fortune, or sentimentalism safely distant from the joyful passions more clearly grounded in challenges shared. Let’s try for the joy of “Remnant” and “Return”, proven valuable over millennia.