Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
December can be a colossal struggle. For people with depression, for people in poverty, for people in the midst of personal struggles. And so in this month, this season, we often hear stories about how to reach out and help. But not everyone gets press coverage, though their struggles in December are monumental. Jenny, a Lutheran minister recently told this story, about her son, an upper elementary school age boy named Ian.
Shortly after Ian was born, Jenny and her husband who is also a pastor, realized that he was different somehow. Eventually it became clear that their son was severely autistic. From an early age they began to deal with the realities of his autism. Ian is now in his final year of elementary school. The child of pastors, Ian attends church and Sunday school regularly. Even if it is sometimes a bumpy ride, Ian goes through life with the support of many caring people.
But when December rolls around, inevitably Ian lapses into his worst behavior. Everything changes around him. In the school hallways, on the city streets, in the stores, at the church. Lights, sounds, moving things. It’s incredibly difficult for children with autism to cope with change. The sudden shift in his world terrifies, bewilders, and overwhelms Ian.
Even at home. The Christmas tree is a problem of course. And the presents too. Ian never asks for a present. Not a single one. Every year his parents ask what he’d like to have. No response. On Christmas morning Ian’s siblings open their gifts but Ian won’t open his gifts. Won’t even look at them. The entire month is traumatic for Ian, and for everyone around him. Every December, it has gone down this way for eleven years now.
Jenny shared this story partly to help others understand what Advent and Christmas is like for people with autism. But she also had some unexpected news. In the car a couple of weeks ago the kids were talking about what they wanted for Christmas. Suddenly Ian announced, “I want legos.” Everyone was astonished. Jenny nearly cried.
Ian’s parents are delighted. This is a moment they are celebrating. They are not calling it a miracle, only a sign that in Ian’s life and theirs too, some movement is taking place. Perhaps it is mostly those whose lives are circumscribed by difficulty, pain, and struggle that know how to rejoice in the smallest movement in their universe.
The tremendous poem of joy that is Zephaniah 3, is but a long pause in a recurring story of a nation’s ascent to the heights of greatness and subsequent plunge into the depths of ignominy. Here, now, on the return from exile in Assyria, there would be a few years – not more than 30 or so – of stability for Israel. Until comes Babylon and then, more exile, loss, and tears.
Zephaniah brought the best news possible to Israel. God calls the frightened, the conquered, and the oppressed homeward. God is in the midst of the people. Not far away and hidden. God is Judge, King, warrior, and lover. God rejoices, renews, removes disaster, makes renown, restores fortunes.
It’s good news because this oracle recognizes that the people no longer had the wherewithal to conjure up that cheerful kind of “God is so good” faith that comes with an untroubled life. They were shattered, bent, defeated. Can such a people find home and joy again? The answer is yes.
Fortunes will be restored. But it will take time. And new fortunes will not allow a return to the complacency of the past. Zephaniah’s Israel, in her restoration, will be quieter and wiser, because misfortune has tempered her fortune. At least one generation, perhaps two, will have learned this hard lesson well. In the larger scale of things this is a small movement. But it meant everything to those generations.
Paul offered to the Philippians another way to pursue joy during uncertainty, difficulty, pain, and struggle. Understand that worry does not change the present or the future. Forget worry. Try prayer.
Prayer is an open-ended means of re-framing your circumstances. The etymology of the word prayer is rooted in the action of a beggar. Prayer done in the best possible sense of the word is an exercise in having nothing and welcoming anything.
Prayer is simply asking in the broadest possible way. What we might call “putting your need out there.” It works. An unexpected iteration of this is internet-based forums for trading. You name what you need and offer what you have in return. Then let go and wait. Just as it says in Philippians, being thankful along the way makes the ride a lot more rewarding.
In one of the most classic stories, one man began with a penny that he offered. Eventually he ended up with a house. Sure, it is a human thing going on there in the internet ether. But who is to say that God is not at work in the hearts of people as they give and receive?
In the gospel today John was working the same angle. He began with a warning, telling the people that if they wanted what he was offering, it meant starting over. He called them the children of vipers, unworthy to claim righteous Abraham as their forebearer.
As harsh as John sounded, he was the sound of hope. And who desired hope? The masses, the whole spectrum. They came advantaged, like the soldiers and the tax collectors, and they came without advantages like the ones who formed a large anonymous crowd. John charged all of them to live righteously and justly within the circumstances peculiar to each group.
John came in the guise of an ascetic wilderness prophet, wise in the ways of tormented souls. He understood they wanted movement. Something more than just getting by. John’s words were not threat, but promise: being wheat or chaff is not a fixed future. Anyone can move. And find joy.
Well. Joy again. Ian is getting legos this Christmas. His parents bought a large boxed set and Ian helped to wrap it up. This way there will be no surprise when he opens his gift. Jenny is pretty sure that Ian will open his gift this year because every day he points to the wrapped gift under the tree and explains, “This is my Christmas present. It is a box of legos.”
John points to a gift we already expect too. Jesus. But knowing doesn’t lessen our joy, right?
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.