Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 1st May 2016 Zephaniah 3:14-20
‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.

The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more.’ (Zephaniah 3:14-15)
Zephaniah, in his short book – it has only three chapters – gives a snapshot of the story of the Israelites in the Old Testament. The people of God having turned away from the Lord and worshipped the Baals, God would punish them. The description of the punishment takes two and a half chapters out of the three chapters in the book! Then the ‘remnant of Judah’, the ones who were spared, suddenly find that God looks kindly on them and they are saved.
What a strange idea the people of the Old Testament seem to have had about God! As they saw things, God took sides. They were the chosen people: therefore they expected God to favour them and help them to overcome their enemies. In the weeks after Easter, at Morning Prayer during the week, Common Worship offers as a canticle ‘The Song of Moses and Miriam’, taken from Exodus chapter 15.
Here is some of it.
‘I will sing to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously,

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song

and has become my salvation.
This is my God whom I will praise,

the God of my forebears whom I will exalt.
The Lord is a warrior,

the Lord is his name.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in power:

your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.
At the blast of your nostrils, the sea covered them;

they sank as lead in the mighty waters.
In your unfailing love, O Lord,

you lead the people whom you have redeemed.’
And so on. ‘The Lord is a warrior’: ‘your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy’.
Quite apart from the divine sneeze – ‘At the blast of your nostrils’, this sounds very strange – quite unlike how we think of God. What about God’s love for all mankind? Surely we were, we are told, all made in the image of God. How can He favour one lot over against another?
God, in the Old Testament, does seem to be a kind of superhero, a sort of almighty trump card. If you have God on your side, you will prevail, you will succeed. Clearly this God, the one who comes down in a cloud or in a fiery pillar and speaks to Moses, is a sort of superman, who has a direct relationship with His chosen people, through his prophets. Prophecy is speaking the words of God, is being God’s mouthpiece.
But we really don’t believe in that kind of God any more. The God who blows people away with a ‘blast of his nostrils’ is of a piece with the image of heavenly king, sitting on some kind of magic carpet throne above the clouds. He didn’t really survive the Age of the Enlightenment. A God like that is limited in time and place. He is ‘up there’, or ‘out there’. That’s not consistent with being all-powerful, the creator from nothing, ‘Almighty, Invisible, God only wise’.
The thought is that Jesus has changed our outlook on God. God has come to us, our interface with God isn’t in a burning bush or through a prophet, but by His being a man like us, human as well as divine. Easy to say, but really difficult fully to understand.
Now this week, on Thursday evening we will remember and celebrate Christ’s Ascension. ‘While they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight’ (Acts 1:9). Up – He goes up, He ascends. He went up, He ascended. And then ‘two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’ (Acts 1:10-11)
In one way, it looked as though Jesus had gone up, gone up to a heaven above the clouds. But then these angelic figures contradict it. The ‘heaven’, where Jesus has gone, isn’t up above the clouds. Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’
Indeed, the lifting up on Ascension Day is not the same as lifting up was generally understood to be, something shameful, being lifted up on a cross. In the Jewish tradition, to be lifted up was a sign of shame.
Today is Rogation Sunday, so called because the name is derived from the Latin word for ‘calling’ or ‘asking for something’. In anticipation of Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday, we call on God, we anticipate Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday. It is a time of reflection and contemplation. For the farmers, the call to God is in the context of springtime, a call for God to bless their crops and make their flocks thrive.
Going to heaven is at the heart of our faith. What did happen to Jesus? Indeed, what does happen to anyone who dies? In St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians [1 Thess. 4:14-17], and in the beginning of Acts, we read this rather enigmatic reference to Jesus returning to us from the same direction as he went off to. ‘Lo He comes, with clouds descending’ as Charles Wesley’s wonderful hymn puts it.
He’s not ‘up there’ in a conventional sense. God, Jesus, transcends space and time. He is ‘at the ground of our being’, as Paul Tillich put it. It’s something of absolutely central importance. Think of all the things which we confront today. There are elections on Thursday as well as Ascension Day – and a referendum, the outcome of which could radically change our country’s place in the world. There is the most catastrophic war going on in Syria. Our doctors feel so strongly that they are going on strike. What difference does it make, where Jesus ascended to, or whether there is a heaven?
Think of all those Bible lessons that you have at funerals, when people have to confront this ultimate question. Is there life after death? Think of St Paul’s great first letter to the Corinthians, in particular chapter 15. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, and our faith is in vain. But He was raised: Paul lists all the people who saw him, who met him, in that amazing time. They were witnesses, witnesses just as serious, just as certain, as in a court of law.
And Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate incarnation. Because He entered into our human life, and because He was resurrected, so we will be resurrected. There is life after death. But Paul is properly cautious about exactly how it will happen.
He says, ‘So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.’ (1 Cor 15:42-44)
Now frankly that is hugely, hugely important. God is involved in our world: God cares for us. There is life beyond death. And Jesus, as he met again his faithful followers, after He rose from the dead, tells them – tells us – not to skip over it, but to
‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt. 28:18-20). It was the Great Commission, the great challenge. Our faith isn’t a quirky weird little secret society. It can give hope to all people, and that hope is the ‘sure and certain hope’ of eternal life.
So on this May Day, Rogation Sunday, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’ Among all the challenges, there is hope. Just don’t keep it to yourself.

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