I don’t spend a lot of time reading for pleasure, but when I do, I usually gravitate towards mysteries. I love the way skilled mystery writers can weave together a complex plot involving a whole cast of characters, somehow leaving us hanging at the end of each chapter, eager for more. The situations the detectives find themselves in are always so complicated – there are numerous suspects with possible motives and pieces of evidence that don’t seem to fit, and we’re wondering how this tangled situation will ever be resolved. But, invariably, in the final pages the truth comes out, the villain makes a fatal mistake, a key piece of evidence comes to light, or the detective has a brilliant flash of insight, and the whole complex situation finds resolution. 95% of the book is spent weaving the complicated plot, and the last 5% is spent resolving and explaining the mystery.
Most of the time I find these kinds of stories satisfying. (I do like a tidy ending!) But at times the ending feels too neat and I think to myself, ‘that’s not how life works.’ Situations in life that are as tangled as this don’t resolve themselves quite this conveniently, most of the time.
This passage from the book of the prophet Zephaniah feels a little like that. It is overwhelmingly positive. Israel has every reason to “sing aloud” and to “rejoice and exult with all their heart” (v 14): the Lord has taken away the judgments against them, and has turned away their enemies (v 15). He has removed disaster from them and dealt with their oppressors (v. 18-19). God is in their midst, “a warrior who gives victory” and therefore they need not fear anymore (v 16). God “rejoices over them with gladness” and “renews them in his love” (v 17); he has “changed their shame into praise” and has made them renowned in all the earth (v 19-20). There is every reason to rejoice and sing!
It all sounds too good to be true. And reading just this excerpt we could easily overlook the fact that the rest of the book of the prophet Zephaniah has a very different tone: it is full of grief and misery, and contains, in commentator Scott Hoezee’s words, some of the “grimmest, saddest and most frightening stuff in the whole Bible.” Most of Zephaniah is pure doom-and-gloom.
The very hopeful and overwhelmingly positive words from Zephaniah 3 that we heard read this morning balance out the rest of Zephaniah’s message, and also help temper the fiery rhetoric of John the Baptist in our Gospel reading today. Perhaps we need to hear both the positive and the negative messages to maintain a proper balance. There will always be challenges in life – hardships and difficulties, enemies and oppressors, injustice and pain. No human being is exempt from the suffering that human life brings. But there is also joy and love and hope, and the reminder that God’s purposes always lead towards Life and Light. We may pass through difficult times, we may have to endure setbacks and tragedies, we may face tremendous and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but in the end Life and Goodness and Justice will prevail because that is God’s purpose. And in the end, the purposes of God will prevail. We have come to believe and are convinced that there is nopower on earth – no person, no government, no evil force – that is greater than God’s power; and that there is nothing that can thwart God’s purposes in the end.
St Paul believes this, and that is why he can instruct the Christians at Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord always.” “Do not worry about anything,” he assures them, “but in everything by prayer and supplication and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all (human) understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
It’s crucial to remember that Paul writes these words from prison. He has been arrested, beaten, falsely charged and imprisoned; his life hangs in the balance; and yet he finds reason to hope, to put his trust in God, and to give thanks.
Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk and writer, understands what it means to “rejoice in the Lord always” and to give thanks in every circumstance. He recognizes the love of God in everything – in every moment of existence, in every gift that we receive from God’s hand – and urges us to live lives characterized by gratitude:
“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us,” Merton said, “and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace… Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference…. We live in constant dependence upon this merciful kindness of (God) and thus our whole life is a life of gratitude – a constant response to (God’s) help which comes to us at every moment.”
Like Paul, Merton is able to hope, to trust, and to give thanks because he knows that God is good – “not by hearsay, but by experience.” He recognizes God’s love in every place, in every circumstance. Like Paul, he is convinced that nothing in the world – not even hatred and injustice – will be able to defeat God’s power and love.
Listen to Paul’s words to the Christians at Rome: “In all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us,” he writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:37-39).
Because of his unshakeable confidence in the goodness and love of God, Paul is able to say, even when he has been arrested, beaten and imprisoned, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything…let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God…will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s hope affects not only his present circumstances, but also stretches into the future: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” he tells the Christians at Rome (Rom 8:18). He hopes for the day when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” In like manner, he says, “we ourselves… groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.”
We hope, even though we don’t see clearly the way forward. We hope, even though we don’t have a clue how the tangled messes of our lives on this earth will be resolved. We hope, even when there appears to be little reason to hope.
“Hope that is seen is not hope,” says Paul. “For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom 8:22-25)
Zephaniah holds out a similar hope to the Israelites. Zephaniah promises that at some appointed yet unknown time, “God will bring them home…” For most of us, that promise of coming home warms our hearts. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” we sing, longingly. “There’s no place like home,” we declare.
God’s promise to bring us home is a promise to us all, even – and perhaps especially – to those whose experience of home was tainted by violence or abuse. The home that God is preparing for us is a place of love and acceptance, of healing and affirmation.
Perhaps you’re short on hope today. It may be that your life is complicated, and that you’re facing insurmountable obstacles. It may be that your world is a tangled mess. There is no denying the suffering and pain that are part of our human condition.
But today we are given reason to hope even in the face of difficulties. Today we are encouraged not only to bear our sufferings, but to give thanks in the midst of them. Today, we are exhorted to “rejoice in the Lord always.” The only reason we can do these things is because our trust is in God rather than in ourselves. “Whenever I am afraid,” the psalmist writes, “I will put my trust in you.” (Ps 56:3)
Dare to hope, even when you can’t see a way forward, even when no solution is evident, even when darkness overwhelms you. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” God is near and you do not need to be afraid.
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