SUNDAY 13 DECEMBER 2015 – Advent 3
When I was preparing last week’s sermon, I should have looked ahead to this week’s Gospel reading which contains much of what I was preaching about last Sunday ! So, rather than repeat all the things I said about John the Baptist, I decided to preach instead about the prophet Zephaniah and what he represented for the future of Israel and, by extension, what he represents for us today.
Very little is known about Zephaniah, except that he is described as living in the days of King Josiah of Judah, which dates him roughly to between 640 and 609 BC. This was a time just before the exile to Babylon, which took place in the sixth century BC. King Josiah did (according to the Second Book of Kings) “what was good in the sight of the Lord”, in contrast to his two predecessors who did “what was evil in the sight of the Lord”. This is therefore the context for the short book of Zephaniah.
The three chapters of his book are in stark contrast to each other: together they describe what has gone wrong among God’s people, what God’s judgement will be, and how the future will look. The prophet describes how priests and people are indulging in idolatrous worship, an indication of widespread religious apathy. Civil and religious leaders are breaking God’s law, and such disregard for genuine religion makes the rich and powerful feel free to oppress the weak and the poor. These wrongs are symptomatic of a universal corruption.
So Zephaniah speaks of God’s intention to undo the work of Creation by cutting off humanity from it and sweeping away everything people had known and loved (bear in mind this is just before the Exile to Babylon). Chapter 2 is devoted to oracles against the nations – Judah and her neighbours – accusing them of sins similar to those of Judah: arrogance, pride, and an almost blasphemous self-confidence. God has a Day when both the proud and the mighty of the people of God will be judged together with those of other nations – in other words, the Israelites are in danger of being regarded by God as no more special than anyone else.
But Zephaniah, like most of the other Hebrew prophets, does not see human sin and God’s judgement of it as God’s last word. The humble and poor who have been on the receiving end of oppression by the powerful will be delivered. In fact both the oppressive nations and the rich and strong in Judah itself are all lumped together as the enemies who God will defeat when the people of God are rescued.
Neither human power nor wealth will enable the mighty to escape God’s action. God will purify the humble so that they are able to reflect God’s divine righteousness, and then all Creation will reflect the character of God, who will reign over the whole world from Jerusalem. So you could say that the prophecy of Zephaniah is therefore not only religious but also political, because we are talking here about corporate values as well as individual ones.
All this is of more than passing interest to us, living in the world of today where sins of arrogance, pride, and blasphemous self-confidence are just as evident as they were two and a half thousand years ago. Today we see attitudes that convey an impression that we have discovered so much about how the world began and how it functions, that God has frankly been relegated to insignificance. This overlooks, but not necessarily intentionally, the fact that the more we know about the world in which we live should enable us to marvel at and appreciate all the more God’s goodness towards us, who are his human creatures, made in his image and likeness.
There is of course the final word of God through the mouth of Zephaniah, and we have heard that word this morning in verses 14-20 of Chapter 3, described as a Song of Joy. In verse 8 of the same chapter we read the words “therefore wait for me, says the Lord, for the day when I arise as a witness”, and in verse 9 the words “at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord”. Four hundred years does seem rather a long time to wait, but then something does happen which is announced in such a dramatic form by the one we call John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, which brings us back to the Gospel reading for today.
In the most spectacular of God’s actions to be found anywhere in the Bible, apart from the events of Easter, Jesus Christ is born on what could be called the Day of the Lord. God’s purpose is about to be revealed to us in his own Son’s life and teaching, and then in his death and resurrection. Human life and activity are still far from perfect, as we all individually know, but the difference for us is that we have had recorded several Gospel accounts of God’s intended way of living for us, which have been further interpreted by Paul and other writers. So we can with confidence put our trust in God that he, with our help, will eventually root out all evil from Creation, as we wait once more for his arrival at Christmas and, more importantly, in the hearts of each and every one of us.
PBW – 11.12.2015