This is a sermon for the third Sunday of Advent, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is Zephaniah 3:19.
Let me tell you a story and see whether anything about it seems familiar to you.
Many years ago, when I was a youth leader in another parish, one of the teens – a lovely kid – was going through a phase of experimenting with his appearance. He went a bit gothic; dying his hair and painting his fingernails black and so forth.
He was still coming to church every Sunday and interested to learn more and grow as a Christian. But this created a problem for him, because many of the older people in the church couldn’t cope with his changing look, and there were a lot of pointed and quite nasty comments made to him and to his parents about all of this.
Eventually I had had enough, and dyed my own hair (I couldn’t quite cope with going black, so I went for a very deep purple; it didn’t really suit me!), and pointedly went to sit next to him in the pew. Really I kind of dared the people who had been criticising him to be nasty to both of us at once.
Mature of me? Maybe not! Today I might try a different approach. But I didn’t want to see a young man walk away from the church – and potentially from God – because he was being shamed for how he looked.
Why do I tell you that story this morning?
When I looked at the readings for today, I was struck by the line in Zephaniah that says that God will change the shame of the Israelites into praise. And that got me thinking about shame and how it functioned in ancient Israelite culture, and what we can learn about that for our own context.
Ancient Israel functioned as what is sometimes called an honour/shame culture. That is, people’s social interactions were regulated by a kind of system of reward and punishment. If you did what was expected of you, that was honourable and it was rewarded; if you broke expectations, that was shameful and it was punished. In this kind of social system, the individual person’s quest is to seek honour and to avoid shame.
In this morning’s reading, the “shame” of the people came about because of their defeat and oppression by an outside culture; they saw this defeat as the result of punishment by God. The implication of oppression was that the more powerful culture was in some way superior, more honourable, hence its success against its rivals. For ancient Israel this presented a particular problem, since they believed in a God who was superior to all other gods and who should have been able to prevent all external oppression; so the only way for them to make sense of their oppression was to see it as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God and the covenant they had made with Him.
Zephaniah uses this idea of defeat as shameful punishment to encourage the people to return to God, to renew their commitment to the covenant and thereby to seek to remove their shameful status and receive praise. And he uses the opportunity to reassure them that despite their current circumstances, and their past misdeeds, God’s love for them is steadfast and will restore and renew them.
For a tribal society surrounded by hostile forces, like ancient Israel, this kind of system promotes shared values and social cohesion; and it can work to build up a healthy society as long as the expected, honoured behaviours protect the vulnerable and generally seek the common good. And I don’t want to come across as saying that this approach to motivating people to do good is intrinsically wrong.
The problem for us, I think, comes when we take the same kind of approach and let it flow over in our own cultural context, even perhaps telling ourselves that it’s appropriate because, after all, it’s Biblical. But we have to live in a multicultural society, which does not necessarily have a coherent system of shared values, and where personal identity is much more fluid than it was in the ancient world. More than that, our culture prioritises the identity and worth of the individual, and the pursuit of personal goals, over group life and interdependence. In our culture, allowing communal expectations to dictate individual behaviour can often be seen as overbearing and a sign of poor boundaries.
More than that, this kind of system of encouraging conformity by shaming undesired behaviour is very susceptible to abuse. It’s one thing to limit the ability of an individual to damage the community; it’s quite another to bully a teenager trying to work out who he is in the world. And these kinds of expectations of conformity can easily tip over from being beneficial for group survival into socially corrosive behaviour like war, or indeed, the kind of church mentality which has brought us to the current royal commission.
It’s also deeply problematic for us to buy into the kind of group dynamics which shame the less privileged or the minorities in our context who might not meet our comfortably middle-class expectations. While I was preparing this sermon, I went looking for images online which might help portray something of the idea of shame turning to praise. One website which I found was a compilation of images of Biblical figures, including Jesus and his mother, and angels and saints through the ages; all of them portrayed as black. Many of the pictures were stunningly beautiful. Clearly, the person who had compiled these images recognised the need for black people to see themselves reflected in key figures in their faith, in positive terms, as a corrective to the many racist and stereotypical attitudes they would encounter on a daily basis.
And that’s just one example.
So where am I going with all of this? The church – like ancient Israel – needs a system of shared values and goals. And more than that, the Biblical view of human relationships pushes us towards a level of mutuality and interdependence rather than individuality as an end in itself (which does make us profoundly countercultural). But I want to suggest today that we’ve reached the point in our culture where an approach which shames people who don’t happen to conform to my idea of how they should behave needs to be left behind.
Not only for the sake of the people who are here, and our freedom to be truly who we are in Christ, but also for the sake of the many, many people who right now have no interest in coming to church, not because they don’t believe in or care about God, but because their perception is that the church is all about control. That if they come to church they will be expected to speak in certain ways, to dress in certain ways, to think in certain ways, dare I say to parent in certain ways. And all too often they are correct.
We need to put that approach to building church unity behind us. We need to find other ways to pass on our values and to build one another up. It’s in that way that our shame will truly be turned to praise; not because we will have earned a reward from God, but because we will have chosen to leave behind the dynamics of social reward and punishment and seek for a more loving way to interact with one another.
It is, after all, a season of putting our affairs in order and preparing ourselves to stand before God, is it not? Surely paying attention to the ways we interact with one another is an important part of that, so that when he comes, we can be truly confident of his praise.