Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Again, grace and peace on this Third Advent Sunday.
I know a busy time and becoming busier in all our lives. As always in the holiday season, and this year in so many ways—as we come to the end of the old and the beginning of the new: the year of the Great Recession, as that has impacted so many lives; with two major wars; with polarized political discourse over all kinds of issues—health care, economic policy, international tensions. And of course we bring to the table the concerns of our personal lives. Work, family, health, finances, relationships.
It will certainly be true for all of us, as we sing by candle light not even two weeks from now the words of Philips Brooks’s hymn—O little town of Bethlehem. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” What we all will bring with us that night, what we carry with us wherever we go. Our hopes and fears of all the years, as we turn onto the road toward David’s City today, on our journey to the Stable, to the Child in his Manger Bed.
Grace and peace. In the seventh century before Christ this stunning work associated with the Prophet Zephaniah, and a time of turmoil in the life of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the great royal city of Jerusalem. A time of danger from within, social dislocation, economic distress, weak government, injustice, and a profound corruption of religious life in relationship to the God of Israel. A time of danger from without. Powerful enemies on many sides, rising foreign powers, wars and rumors of war. And from so many, I’m sure, the thought that God has abandoned us to our enemies, foreign and domestic. That we are cut off forever from the sources of our true life. That nothing lies ahead but disaster and more disaster.
And in this moment, then, Zephaniah, with this wonderful text of promise. Return to me, Israel, and there will be healing and restoration and renewal of life. Sing to me in worship, turn your minds and your hearts toward my love and my righteousness, make yourselves new in obedience to my word. And
I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast. And I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you: for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.
I’ve mentioned each of these Advent Sundays so far the four great themes of the weeks of this season: Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Intended to express what I guess we would call ultimate concerns. At the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. In the approach to Christmas, to the mind-bending contemplation on the word, “You shall call his name Immanuel,” God with us. God with us. He’s got the whole world in his hands. You and me brother, you and me sister. In whom we live and move and have our being. God with us.
And perhaps old Zephaniah could look with the insight of a prophetic eye into the heart of the people all those years ago, and could anticipate that things would get worse and much worse before they would get better. Unfaithfulness at home, danger in the wide world. To foresee the collapse of his beloved city, the destruction of the Temple, the people killed or dispersed or led off in chains. Yet even with that vision, he knew to speak words of gentleness and tender love. Good news. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem.” Nearly 700 years before the first Christmas Eve, and already we begin to hear the skies open and the songs of angels, while shepherds watch their flocks by night.
That there might be healing and forgiveness, renewal, and hope. God’s blessing upon God’s faithful people. And at any moment, at every moment, it can be Christmas.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.