One of America’s greatest glories was in World War II when we fought against authoritarianism and evil. The newsreel footage of G.I.s liberating French villages: Townspeople lining the streets, tossing garlands of flowers atop tanks, kissing the troops, toasting with wine. That’s the kind of liberation described by Zephaniah: Enemies defeated; justice restored; freedom reborn.
But there was a dark side to the Allied advance. Collaborators, who were complicit with evil, had to answer for their crimes. The pro-Nazi, Vichy regime helped Hitler. With German defeat, justice demanded that they pay for ratting on resistance fighters and helping round up Jews for extermination. There were trials. Some went to jail. Some were executed. All forever bore the shame of what they had done. It was grim, necessary judgment.
Joyous liberation and necessary judgment are the themes from our readings today. Zephaniah welcomes the joyous advent of God’s salvation. John the Baptist warns of the dreaded arrival of God’s judgment.
We get these two messages during Advent because we’re preparing to welcome our God. Is God’s arrival a blessing or a curse? It depends on where you stand and whose side you’re on. If you’ve been a collaborator, comfortably co-opted by the worldly ways contrary to God’s reign; if you’ve been happy under the ego’s tyranny to put yourself first, you’ve been warned by the Bible. Because when Jesus sets all things right: The first shall be last – and the last shall be first.
But, if you have been part of God’s resistance movement, working with God to defeat the powers and principalities of greed, indifference, prejudice, and violence, then you’ve got nothing to fear and everything to celebrate: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, says Jesus, for they shall be filled.
In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells how her family was arrested for hiding Jews from the Nazis. When her devout, elderly father was interrogated by the Gestapo and when he had a chance to be free if he collaborated, he bravely, faithfully said, “If anyone needs help, I will always do all I can to help them.” Corrie’s father was imprisoned and he died. He was stuck down because he stood up. He stood with God and for others by doing what was right, just, and loving.
What are you and I doing to further God’s way in this world? The honest answer is: Not much. Certainly, not as much as we could. Rev. Mike Slaughter challenges his church during December, saying: “Christmas isn’t your birthday. It’s Jesus’ birthday.” Slaughter’s challenges his church to match whatever they spend on gifts for their families with gifts for the needy: “If you buy your kid a bike,” Slaughter says; “then you buy a bike and take it to the Boys and Girls Club so a needy child has a bike, too.” Slaughter says that since his Christmas list has doubled, his Christmas joy has doubled as well. What if we all did that? What if we remembered the poor not only when we hear a Salvation Army red kettle bell ringing at Christmas, but all year long? What if we worked every day to bless those who are least, last, and lost, loving all our neighbors as much as we all love ourselves?
How can we be more intentional about really belonging to God? What can we do to truly follow Christ? If Jesus came to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, what of our comforts can we share to bless those who are suffering?
As we rise to that glad challenge, then we will begin to hear joyous song Zephaniah invites us to raise. There is a higher, better, holier way to live. Jesus is that Way, Truth, and Life. Let us welcome him. Let us join the song. Let heaven and nature sing.