Opening The Old Testament
Hope When Hope Is Scarce: Reflections on Zephaniah 3:14-20
And though he returns to the sins of Jerusalem particularly in 3:1-7, he widens his international scope again in 3:8-13 and promises that God's anger will be followed by God's restoration. God's "suppliants, the scattered ones" (3:10), who will finally bring the correct offering to YHWH (3:10), will no longer be "put to shame" (3:11), and finally will "pasture and lie down and no one shall make them afraid" (3:13).
The anger of God will be followed by the peace and rest of God, a common promise of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Precisely when this peace and rest will come is never certain, but their coming is certain. But just as certain is the anger of YHWH against a people who too readily forget YHWH and who turn willy-nilly to any god who happens to be at hand.
Like Jesus, We Still Live in the World of Zephaniah
Now, just why is it important to have spent fully half of this brief reflection on the earlier parts of the obscure prophet Zephaniah, before turning to the portion assigned for the third Sunday in a blessed Advent? It is as important to grasp the larger context of the words of Zeph 3:14-20 as it is to grasp the larger context of the event of the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. Too many "Hallelujah choruses" doth make Jane and Bill dull people!
Unless we remember the occasion of the birth of Jesus, its setting in the rapacious empire of Rome, its immediate occurrence during the monstrous reign of the half-Jew, Herod, and his fear of rivals, and its reality of poverty and homelessness, we run the yearly risk of making the birth little more than an occasion for presents and parties with the promise only of diets still to come. Jesus was born into a world very like the world of Zephaniah, a world of idolatry and rapaciousness and false religious practice.
So when the prophet bursts into glorious song in 3:14, bidding all to "sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and shout with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem," it is very easy to forget quickly all those angry words of YHWH that have come before the happy song, those words of demand and expectation of right worship and right practice called for from YHWH. With 3:15 we all hope for the day when "YHWH has turned the judgments away, has taken the enemies off," the day when the real "king of Israel, YHWH, is in your midst," when you "shall no longer fear disaster."
And the song concludes with these grand words: "At that time I will bring you back, when I gather you. I will make you a name, praised among all the nations of the earth, as I restore your fortunes right before your eyes, says YHWH" (3:20). When we pray the Lord's Prayer each week, that is what we ask for. "Thy kingdom come," we say, and what we mean is that we want YHWH to rule in our lives and on the earth. But, and here is a very large caveat indeed, we do not live in a world ruled by YHWH. And this Advent we still do not live in a world ruled by YHWH. We yearn for that world, we pray for that world, we are promised that world, but that world is only promised; it is still a nonexistent world.
Advent promises the birth to end all births, but the promise of 2,000 years remains only a promise. We all still live in the world of Zephaniah 1-3:7, a world of greed and war and lack of true religious faith and practice.
But still, we have the promise, we cling to the promise. And we pray, "O Lord, make the promise come true and bring your holy reign to us today." Old Zephaniah was both realist and dreamer. May we become like him this Advent.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.