Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
The prophet cries out: “The day of the Lord is at hand.”
Paul encourages: “Keep awake.”
The message of warning and challenge still comes to us today. The words are different—as our world is different—but the urgency and the hope can be heard even now.
In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world has a little over a decade to bring down greenhouse gas emissions before dangerous levels of warming become inevitable.
In November a United Nations report found that the nations of the world are failing to take the action needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change and called on governments to introduce additional measures as a matter of urgency. Joyce Msuya, deputy executive director of UN Environment, said: “We’re feeding this fire, while the means to extinguish it are within reach.”[i]
On the day after Thanksgiving, the Trump administration released a major climate assessment. It was the culmination of years of research by our nation’s leading climate scientists. The report is required by Congress every four years and is issued by 13 federal agencies and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. This new report is the most detailed and blunt assessment yet of the dangers of unchecked global warming.
“Climate change is happening here and now,” co-author Katherine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University said. “It is affecting all of us no matter where we live. And the more climate changes, the more serious and even more dangerous the impacts will become."[ii]
Our president said that he has read parts of the report. “It’s fine,” he told reporters at the White House, although he said he doesn’t believe that climate change will cause devastating economic impacts for the U.S.
And since it’s been unusually cold in many parts of the country lately, including Washington, D.C., the President also tweet-asked: “Whatever happened to Global Warming?”
Actually, it’s still very much with us.
In four sentences:
Global warming heats up the Arctic Circle.
Warmer Arctic air rises and pushes the jet stream south.
The jet stream brings to the US, Europe, and Asia cold air we never used to get.
Temperatures go down, making our winters longer and colder.
Oh—and the summers will continue to be hotter.
Zephaniah spoke words of warning to “those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will God do harm.’” Such people think that actions have no consequences.
So, too, for us in our times, the important question is not so much “Does God exist?” but: “Does it matter?”
Judgment tells us that God does matter. In faith we understand that the Creator continues to be active in the creation.
The day of the Lord is at hand.
Writing about that terrifying warning of Zephaniah that we heard this morning, the biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier once said: “The sin of trying to live without God—the …attempt of trying to run the world without God—is the sin of all the earth.” The destruction becomes universal.
And so we begin the season of Advent.
Advent, as you know, is a word that means “coming.” These are days that call us to look with expectation toward the coming of Christ.
Some of this involves a kind of hindsight—we look backward and prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Each year that birth warms our cold hearts. Each year it brings light to our shadowed world. We need that. We desperately need the warmth and light that we experience in looking backward.
At the same time we are challenged to look forward to the Christ who continues to come into our lives and our world. These days call us to keep awake as we anticipate what ancient people of faith called “the day of the Lord.”
One way in which we at the Congregational Church look both backward and forward is through music. Next Sunday the choir will present their annual December musical offering—you’ll want to be here for it and, really, you should bring a friend or two. It’s Bach’s cantata “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”—the German words mean “Awake, the voice calls to us.”
That music, that title got me thinking about what it means to wake up—or as Paul suggests in his letter to the Thesssalonians, to keep awake—at a time when the urge is to hibernate, to fold our hands and close our eyes, to, as the poem suggests, settle in for a long winter’s nap.
While Ariana Huffington has a campaign that encourages people to get more sleep—and she’s right about that—both Jewish and Christian tradition encourage us to stay awake—that is, to be alert, to be vigilant, to see what’s going on.
The proverb warns us: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.”
Christians remember Jesus on the night of his arrest asking Peter, James, and John to stay awake with him only to have them fall asleep.
And this morning listened as Paul admonished the Christians in Thessalonica: “Let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober, for those who sleep sleep at night.”
Maybe children can help us this time of year. They are good at looking forward. As soon as Halloween is over, they start thinking about Christmas. And maybe they change their behavior accordingly—maybe. As they look to what seems to be the distant future children can help us to keep awake.
That was certainly the case last Sunday during the children’s message. If you made it here in spite of the threatening snow you’ll remember that I was talking with the children about what they want—not just what they might want for Christmas, but something more. Evelyn Keogh looked at me and said: “I want the earth to continue.”
Children know what’s going on, where the danger is. They are awake and looking forward.
We thought that our children and grandchildren would be the ones to deal with the effects of climate change. And they will. Now we awaken to the reality that we, too, must address these radical changes. Climate change is our problem—now.
We have the calling and the responsibility to be stewards of God’s creation. Yes, we have failed tremendously in that responsibility. But this earth is still in our care.
We hear again the Advent warning of Zephaniah: “The day of the Lord is at hand.” With vivid images the prophet underscores the moral seriousness, painting a picture of a day of wrath, of distress and anguish, of ruin and devastation, of darkness and gloom. And the wealth of the people will not be able to save them. The physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne says: “There is nothing trivial here. The judgment of God is not a superficial matter. It does not measure us by conventional standards. The judgment of God is recognition of the nature of reality.”[iii]
The nature of reality...
The judgment of God is not simply a looking back at what we have or haven’t done. God’s judgment is also an offer of what we might yet become. The judgment of God “is a process rather than a verdict.”[iv] It is designed to diminish our fear and caution as it strengthens the good and faithful servant in each of one of us.
As Paul suggests, we are challenged by the hope that we have in the coming of Christ. Because we can see by hope resurrection beyond death, we can dare through that same hope to act for the good even when confronted by all that disheartens and discourages.
We are challenged to live though our own actions are of consequence.
As we hear these words judgment, as we keep awake to the dangers we are inflicting on the earth, remember that Zephaniah was not a scold. He was a prophet. His work was not to chastise or criticize His work was to call the people to turn in a new direction, to change their minds and move in new directions.
The religious word for this is “repentance”—and repentance is a major theme of Advent.
The words of the prophet are a call to repentance—an offer of new life.
This life comes to us as we live in relation to others: So, shortly following the words that we heard this morning, Zephaniah tells the people: Seek the Lord all you humble of the land…Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath.”
The prophets always hold out hope: “Perhaps…”
And Paul writes the message that comes to us today: keep awake.
Continue the good and valuable work that you are doing. While it may feel like it at times, especially at times like these, it is not over. Our work, our vigilance matters. What you are doing matters.
We don’t know the day or the hour when the realm of heaven will come breaking into our lives.
We don’t know what that in-breaking will look like.
And there is so much more that we don’t know in addition to this.
The prophets reminded us that God’s ways are not our ways.
We don’t know.
This life is a time of expectation.
Our lives and what we do with them, how we live in the years we have—are of great and lasting significance. Through our efforts God is able to accomplish far more than we can imagine.
Let us keep awake.
[iii] John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World, pg. 129.
[iv] ibid. pg. 130.