Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Raising the Rafters"

Message preached December 21, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Zephaniah 3:14-20

Order of Worship

            During a break between bands at a Christian rock concert a few years ago, I decided to make my way forward through the crowd to the front of the stage, in search of our youth group. Up to that point, Iíd kept some distance between myself and the source of the loud music. However, even back with those wishing to save their eardrums, my head was ringing from all the joyful noise. Earlier, Iíd taken a walk outside for an aural "breather," but even a block or so away the ground was vibrating to the beat of the good news. Having then snuck up front during the break to see how our kids were doing, I got caught there in the crowd as the music resumed.

            You know, when we picture the "heavenly host" praising God before that audience of shepherds who were "keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8-20), I doubt if many of us think about the volume. George Frederick Handel tried to imagine what it might have been like in his Messiah oratorio, but who is to say that Gabrielís band preferred a classical style? Maybe the heavens were thundering with the glory of God, such that when those shepherds finally made their way to the stable where Jesus was born, their ears were still ringing, and the ground still vibrating.

            When the prophet Zephaniah, after some heavy words of judgment, called the faithful remnant of Godís people to step beyond their present struggles, his encouragement was that they really let loose and allow themselves to rock and roll (if you will) over the salvation of the Lord. "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!" (3:14). Sing out loud! Shout! Rejoice and exult! Those are certainly not passive words, my friends. In Eugene Petersonís paraphrase, Zephaniah told Israel to "raise the rafters" with the sheer joy of their song.

            Weíre not talking about a good old Amish barn raising here, with people quietly working together to build a home for animals and farm implements. Actually, letís not dump this image of plain folk pulling together to construct something new, for thatís also part of the promise Zephaniah was called by God to proclaim. Even so, when he said, "raise the rafters," this prophet was encouraging Godís people to really let their joys be known, instead of being so quiet about it. The barn canít contain it all. The roof lifts with all the joyful noise. People on the outside are going to wonder what on earth is going on in there.

            It may seem strange to talk about "raising the rafters" at this time of year. Advent and Christmas, after all, are quiet affairs in our imagination. For heavenís sake, itís about a baby, after all. And everyone knows you need to keep it down, or else youíre going to wake him up. Itís one thing to thunder out in the field in front of a gang of shepherds, but you notice the angels didnít put in a noisy appearance in the barn where the Christ child lay.

            About as boisterous as it gets for us, as we picture this scene, are "cattle lowing" away. Wait a minute, what does that mean, "the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes" ("Away in a manger," vs. 2)? I guess putting it that way sounds better than "the cattle are mooing..." Thatís about as noisy as our Christmas celebration gets. Itís not our joyful voices that raise any rafters, thatís for sure. But maybe it should be.

            Having said this, however, one of the struggles I had this past Monday was trying to share a good word at a difficult funeral. The circumstances of the death are not at all pleasant, but when are they ever? Still, a man being murdered in his own home doesnít fit in with the joy of this season. Of course, earlier this month we remembered Herodís murderous rage against the infants of Bethlehem, so the story behind Christmas is more complicated than we often portray it.

            So is the story behind Zephaniahís call to "raise the rafters." We tend to think that in order to celebrate something, all our Ďducksí need to be lined up. I mean, we canít rejoice when good stuff hasnít yet happened, can we? You donít jump up and down for joy before you know you have a Christmas bonus. You donít party before the grades come in, before you know whether or not youíve got that scholarship, before things work out for good. After all, you never know, they might work out for bad. Itíd be silly to celebrate before your ship comes in, right?

            Well, if you listen to Zephaniah, his call to "raise the rafters" came before the fact, not after. His original audience was shaking in their collective boots over impending disaster. His own words were earlier telling them what was up. Israelís "barn," he had said, was not in the process of being raised. Just the opposite. All was not well. Jerusalem was on its way down.

            "Rock-a-bye baby in the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock, when the bough breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all." Iíd like to know how anyone came up with that nursery rhyme. Good thing babies donít understand words yet, or theyíd be crying, not falling asleep, over that one. Ever notice, though, that a lot of childrenís stories and songs are like that?

            With the barn coming down around Zephaniah and the faithful remnant of Godís people, his call to rejoice takes on a different meaning. Maybe, just maybe, thereís something more to celebration than everything having to be "just right" in order for us to rejoice. Think about it. The Christmas story itself is not about the perfect Christmas. What mother would want to give birth in the circumstances Mary did? Talk about things not working out according to plan! Then, again, they did turn out the way they were supposed to... hmmmm!

            This past week, the much anticipated final installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was released in local theaters. In the previous segment, there is a scene in which the forces of the dark Lord are arrayed before ĎHelmís Deep,í a fortress within which stand an outnumbered army - the faithful remnant - and their families. Fear is upon most every human face as, outside, a huge inhuman army starts making itís dreadful noise.

            By the way, the director, Peter Jackson, collected the sound of this horrible advancing army from a crowd gathered in a New Zealand soccer stadium. On cue, thousands of people followed the direction of this chubby, bearded man in shorts, to stomp their feet and make noise. Seeing him do it in a Ďbehind the scenesí film makes you laugh. Remembering this comical little aside makes that episode in the movie a little less frightening.

            Anyway, it might be helpful to remember that terrifying scene from "Lord of the Rings" as a backdrop to Zephaniahís call to "raise the rafters." The fortress of Jerusalem, the "barn" (so to speak) of Godís people was going to come crashing down. Thatís what Zephaniah had said. In the middle of it all, however, he spoke of joy. He called the faithful to "raise the rafters," saying:

"The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival..." (3:15-18a).

            Real "raising the rafters" doesnít depend upon outward circumstances being just right before the first "Glory to God!" can be sung, no matter what kind of music you employ. While a lot of our praise of God is for what the Lord has already done, some of the best celebration among Godís people doesnít take place "after the fact." To use a big word, itís what we might call "proleptic," which literally means "taken beforehand." Call it the celebration of anticipation.

            Such joy is based in faith. Now, faith is itself proleptic. To have faith is to live into the future. We "take beforehand" the promise of God and live it out, believing that - though we may not be able to see at this present moment Godís fulfillment of that promise - it will happen. Last Monday, for instance, I proclaimed the resurrection and the life, even as we laid a man in his grave. His earthly barn has come crashing down. Thatís the reality we see at this moment. But the promise - the Easter promise - is that God will raise him and us up on the last day. We live that promise today, leaning forward into tomorrow. Itís like weíve already arrived.

            In words we heard earlier, the apostle Peter put it this way: "even though you do not see him now (that is, the risen Christ), you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Peter 1:8b-9). Believing and rejoicing, faith and joy are tied together. The outcome, salvation, is taken beforehand. It is received now, even though it is still off in the distance.

            On this day, two persons stepped forth into the waters of baptism. The promises they made beforehand are based in the promises of God. In stepping forth from the water, they are living into the future, whatever it may bring. We often say that, following baptism, the Ďdark Lordí tries to shake the faith of persons new to it. Our encouragement to our young brother and sister is to remember that - no matter what tomorrow may bring - the hope, peace, joy, and love of God in Jesus Christ will get you through. Amen? Godís promises are true. So let your faith sing out! Let the Holy Spirit empower you now to "rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."

            Zephaniah said, "raise the rafters" now, even if you canít actually see the outcome. As you "raise the rafters," however, remember this. The Lord is with you. Not only that, but God is singing right alongside you. If the truth be told, we are just the back-up band, so to speak, and God is center stage. You think Gabriel and his group were something. Wait till the Lord comes to sing. The truth is, whenever Godís people really "raise the rafters," itís not just us making melody and harmony. Consider that the next time you open your mouth to sing praise.

            Speaking of which, our last hymn is one that transcends the Christmas season in which weíve so often stuck it. The words move beyond the birth of the Christ-child and anticipate the coming of Godís Kingdom. As we sing this song, however, we arenít just looking back upon a past event. We arenít only celebrating a done deal. Our joy isnít tied to things having to be Ďjust rightí for happiness to "raise the rafters" of our present Ďbarn.í No, our joy is tied to the future, as we are being pulled forward into Godís promise. Our praise is proleptic, we are leaning into it.

            Therefore, as you sing this hymn, stand on your tiptoes (if you are able), and really let loose! "Raise the rafters." Donít worry if you think there is not enough of us here this morning really belt out the song. Remember, weíre surrounded by Gabrielís band, and the lead singer is the Lord. As Zephaniah said long ago, "(God) will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival..." Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Receive your king!

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Zephaniah.

©2003 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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