For our regular office devotions this Advent I set the readings from Zechariah. This often overlooked prophetic book is full of intriguing visions, many of which point to the coming of Messiah, the crucifixion, the final judgement and the coming kingdom of heaven, and of all the nations flowing together to worship the same Lord. It is the fourth most quoted book in the New Testament after Isaiah, Psalms and Deuteronomy - especially in the passion narratives of all four gospels and the book of Revelation. Looking forward to both the coming of Jesus and His return it is perhaps an ideal book to focus on during the season of preparation that is Advent.
This morning's reading was from Zechariah 7 – and it jumped out at me. In particular verses 5 & 6:
"When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?"
I am in the midst of a busy time helping my wife to prepare for Christmas, which we are hosting this year. The logistical planning is almost military in its detail and complexity – and it is so easy in the midst of all of this to forget that Advent is the season of prayer and penitence as we look forward and prepare for the return of Jesus. And when we get to Christmas, will we be focussing on "the Word becoming flesh", or will it be on the food and presents, and getting everything ready in time for the Queen's Speech at 3, or making sure we are ready to go off to visit the extended family on Boxing Day? Or will be focussing on the miracle of God taking frail, vulnerable humanity and what that means for us here and now? In fact, it brought me up short about all our festivities – because in Keeping with Isaiah 1:17 and Isaiah 58, it is all too easy to be religious without concern for others, for justice and fairness as well.
"This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.'" [v9-10]
But it also struck me that these were admonishments for God's people, not the nations that did not know Yahweh. So I find it hard to hear the constant whine we make as we see a secular world ignoring the spiritual core of Christmas, and focussing so much on the food, fun and excessive expenditure (in times of recession we are told, it is our patriotic duty to go out and spend, spend, spend, even if it means more unsupportable debt, just to keep the economy going - as if that isn't what caused the problem in the first place!!).
Maybe we should be living our Christmas so differently, so focussed on justice, on compassion and mercy (and not on spend, spend, spend) and ultimately so focussed on Jesus, that the World takes note. Are we out there in the homeless shelters this Christmas, or supporting developing countries through living gift schemes, or in a myriad of other ways approaching Christmas in a different sprit to the world? And let's stop having a go at the secular society for ignoring the spiritual root of Christmas – it does not make them more aware of God, it just entrenches us deeper in these pointlessly petty culture wars we indulge in at the expense of God's Kingdom. Let's rather live out the Kingdom first, and be salt and light rather than shrill noise.