I tried learning to sail once. 4 lessons in tiny topper dinghies at Gorton Reservoirs, in the evenings after work.
One of those evenings there was no wind. As you might be able to imagine, it was a frustrating experience. A lovely location, bright evening sunshine, blue sky and no clouds. But we could do nothing – the sails were limp and the boats would not move. …. It was a beautiful evening, but so deeply frustrating.
The truth is that – beautiful calm seas and lakes only exist when there is no wind! Ultimately calm seas mean no sailing, no progress.
Zephaniah’s prophecies in the 3 chapters of his book include images of a storm wind sweeping away everything in its path. Just like a tornado lays everything waste. … The storm is raging around God’s people. And at the end of a series of verses of vivid and dark imagery comes the passage we read this morning. Zephaniah is lifting the hearts of his people:
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
he has turned away your enemies. The Lord is in your midst.
Do not fear, O Zion; the Lord God is in your midst.
‘Do not be afraid. Be encouraged’, says Zephaniah, ‘God is with us. The storm is over, the dark times are coming to an end’.
We read similar upbraiding words from Paul in Philippians. ‘Rejoice, don’t worry’, he says. These might seem to be unrealistic, unreasonable words for Paul to say – how can we rejoice when times are hard? Paul cannot seriously expect us to rejoice when we are worried about our health, or about our families.
Yet Paul himself was in prison as he wrote Philippians. He is able to say later in the chapter we have just read, that he has learnt to be content in all situations – whether hungry or well-fed; in both difficult and good times.
That’s as it maybe, but how do you feel when you’re struggling and someone says to you, “Just rejoice, don’t worry! Pray about it – it’ll be OK!” ……….. If it wasn’t for the fact that we know Paul was in prison, we’d think he’s saying that Christian life should be about sailing through troubles as though on a calm sea – life should be wonderful!
But as I discovered on Gorton Reservoir, calm water does not allow progress or learning or growth. And in life, even those of us fortunate enough to live relatively peaceful and stable lives know that progress, or growth occur only through facing the challenges that life brings our way. It’s great at times to experience calm waters but we know that choppy waters will come whenever we experience the wind in our sails.
Perhaps we can take the analogy about sailing a little further?
When Paul talks of God’s peace, he is not suggesting something like the beautiful stillness of a lake on a summer evening. He’s thinking much more of something like the eye of the hurricane. That elusive place in the middle of the storm where the sea is calm. Paul has learnt in the middle of the storms and difficulties of life to rejoice because he has found God’s peace. He longs that those who read this letter will experience the same peace.
Zephaniah has a similar image in mind – that in the midst of all the turmoil surrounding Israel, they can be confident because God is with them.
However, in our Gospel reading, John the Baptist seems almost as though he is the hurricane, ripping through the sin and hypocrisy of his day and pointing forward to Jesus who will strip away the chaff and gather those faithful to himself, just like a farmer will gather wheat into the safety of the barn.
It would be nice to be able to say, as we approach Christmas, that we are filled with God’s peace, but the truth may well be far from this. Worry and fear, darkness and depression sit so close to us at times, and Christmas can for some of us be the most difficult of times. Some of us have lost those dear to us at or around Christmas time in previous years. Christmas is promoted as family time, yet so many of us are lonely and will be lonely over Christmas. The circumstances that surround us and the emotions that we feel can be like a storm raging around us. Our emotions feel out of control. And circumstances feel as though they will destroy us.
Zephaniah’s promise is that God is with his people, ‘with us’. … At Christmas we celebrate ‘God with us’, Emmanuel.
John the Baptist tells us that when Jesus comes he will gather his own and keep them safe like wheat stored in a barn. …… However we are feeling, God is with us, at the eye of the storm, longing to reach out to us with his love and peace. Promising that he will never leave us alone.
And what some of us need to hear more than anything else are God’s words of comfort as we struggle through difficult times.
Others of us, however, need to hear the challenge that these words of comfort can bring. We need to reach out to the lonely, those struggling with fear and worry, those who feel their loss most deeply. Because as we do so we begin to make God’s promises tangible, we give them a human form.
So if the challenge is appropriate for you, what can you do? What can we do this Christmas? It might mean helping in one of the hostels for the homeless over the Christmas period. It might mean giving sacrificially to a caring charity. It may be as little as inviting someone to share your Christmas meal.
The challenge is to be part of God’s mission. For some, to receive the gift of God’s love and peace through friends. For others to heed the challenge: to get into the boat with those caught in the storm.