A Family Reunion on Judgment Day
There is a certain tension between Advent hymns and Christmas Carols. Advent songs are somber and sad. Christmas carols are fun and happy. No wonder most Christians prefer Christmas carols instead of Advent hymns. Let's look at the contrast between Advent hymns and Christmas carols. For there lies a truth that is the key to understanding the prophet Zephaniah's message to us today.
First, let's ponder the Advent hymn called "O come, O come, Emmanuel." The first thing we may notice is the somber tune of the hymn. Listen to the tune as I hum the first verse:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
Note the lyrics:
"Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
The rejoicing in this Advent hymn is a muted response to a future tense deliverance.
In contrast to Advent hymns, Christmas carols are fun and joyful in the present tense. Even the tunes are more joyful. For example, listen to this tune: (Hum tune to "Joy to the world!")
Now listen to how the lyrics burst forth with unrestrained joy:
Joy to the world! the Lord is come:
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and heaven and nature sing.
As you can hear, Christmas carols have it all over Advent hymns when it comes to joyful expression of a present reality. I suppose that is why Advent hymns are like the advance party that goes forth into the promised land of Christmas. The Advent hymns are necessary precursors that let us know how bad things really are.
In a similar way, the prophet Zephaniah begins his brief, three chapter prophecy with a sad review of the way things are. I will use Eugene Peterson's Bible translation called The Message for the scripture references this morning. Listen to God speaking about a day of darkness at noon through the voice of Zephaniah in chapter 1.
"The Great Judgment Day of GOD is almost here.
It's countdown time: . . . seven, six, five, four . . .
Bitter and noisy cries on my Judgment Day,
even strong men screaming for help. (v. 14)
I'll make things so bad they won't know what hit them.
They'll walk around groping like the blind.
They've sinned against GOD!
Their blood will be poured out like old dishwater,
their guts shoveled into slop buckets. (v. 17)
Zephaniah begins his prophecy with what sounds to me like an Advent hymn on steroids. Strong stuff. Tough message. Fiery images. No prisoners taken. Hard words of judgment.
That is where Zephaniah begins but that is not where he ends. Somewhere toward the end Zephaniah makes a shift. After one last warning of doom to the rebellious city, the home of oppressors--Sewer City! (3:1), God turns the corner in chapter 3 and says:
So sing, Daughter Zion!
Raise the rafters, Israel!
be happy! Celebrate! (v. 14)
Did you notice God's movement from judgment to hope? It is similar to the movement from Advent hymns to Christmas carols. There is no doubt that Christmas carols are full of joy. And if you listen to the lyrics of the carols you'll hear a hopeful message.
Several Christmas carols focus on the nativity scene. Visualize a nativity scene. There is the manger looking like a small squat house like structure. There are the characters gathered around the stall: Shepherds, wise men, angels, cows, sheep, Mary Joseph and baby Jesus. A nativity scene looks a little like a family reunion. And I think that is a good way to think of a nativity scene -- as Jesus' first family reunion.
Jesus family is made of love and not blood. Think of the nativity scene. Only two of the characters are surely related by blood and that is Jesus and his mother Mary. The other nativity characters are related by their love of Jesus: The angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the donkey, the cow, the sheep, the stars above -- all of creation that is present in the nativity is related by their love of Jesus.
Advent hymns move from expectation and longing to fulfillment and joy in Christmas hymns. Many of the Christmas hymns present a nativity scene full of characters that are united as a family by their love of Jesus.
The truth that Zephaniah would teach us is that on judgment day the family of Jesus, composed of all who love him, will be ... well, let's let God say it in his words, as spoken through the prophet Zephaniah in chapter 3:
On Judgment Day
I'll bring you back home--a great family gathering!
You'll be famous and honored
all over the world.
You'll see it with your own eyes--
all those painful partings turned into reunions!"
GOD's Promise. (v. 20)
Our final family reunion will be one of great singing and rejoicing as all who love Jesus are reunited, forgiven and heavenward bound. God will bring us back home--a great family gathering of all those who love Jesus! We'll see it with our own eyes--all those painful partings turned into reunions! This is God's promise. In the meantime, we have work to do.
The famous "Praying Hands" picture was created by Albrecht Durer, the son of a Hungarian goldsmith. He was born in Germany in 1471 and died in 1528. As is the case with nearly all men of genius, fact and fiction become interwoven and created the legend of the artist as we know him today.
It is said, that while studying art, Albert, as he was called, and a friend roomed together. However, the meager income they earned on the side as they studied did not prove to be enough to meet their needs for rent, food, clothing, and other living expenses. Albert suggested that he would go to work to earn the necessary income for both of them while his friend pursued and finished his art studies. When finished, the friend would then go to work to provide support while Durer would finish his studies. The friend was pleased and happy with the plan, except that he insisted that he be the first to work and that Albert continue his studies.
This plan was followed and in time Albert Durer became a skilled artist and engraver. Returning to his room one day, Albert announced that he was now ready to assume the burden of support, while his friend studied art. But, as a result of his hard labor, hi friend's hands were so swollen that he was no longer able to hold and use the paintbrush with skill. His career as an artist was ended.
Albert was deeply saddened by this disappointment which his friend had suffered. One day when he returned to their room he heard his friend praying and saw his hands held in a reverent attitude of prayer. At this moment, Albert received the inspiration to create the picture of those wonderful "praying hands." His friend's lost skill could never be restored but in and through this picture, Durer felt that he could express his love and appreciation for the self-sacrificing labor which his friend had performed for him. Durer also had another thought that such a picture could inspire a like appreciation on the part of others who may also be willing to sacrifice and give on the behalf of someone else.
The story is now legend. I cannot verify if this is factual or not, but it sounds wonderful. Self-sacrificing is a brand of love that is not too often seen in our too-busy kind of a world. Yes, in the act of sacrificial love we have identity as being part of the family of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as the Church. (Robert Strand, Moments to Give, Day 1)
You may notice Albrecht Durer's painting "Praying Hands" painting is on your bulletin cover. It reminds us of the sacrificial love of Christ for us. That is the same kind of love we are to have for one another. As Jesus said, "Greater love has no man, than a man lay down his life for a friend."
Somber Advent hymns remind us of the darkness and desperation in which we find ourselves in our separation from God. We await the joyful Christmas carols that signal dispersal of darkness as the light of the world is born anew into the world and into our hearts. Christ in us is what ties us to the rest of Christ's family. No matter how grim or drear we will have no fear. For we await a family reunion on judgment day and there will be no tears. Christ has come. Christ is here. And Christ will come again.
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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 13, 2009.