Advent as a Gathering In: Reflections on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Lectionary Reflections
Zephaniah 3:14-20
December 13, 2015
Third Sunday of Advent

In my first two reflections on Advent 2015, I have focused on the concept of righteousness, that marvelous Hebrew idea that when God truly comes into our midst, the central claim of Christmas, righteousness will come along with that divine appearing. I have tried to say that the waiting of Advent is not for romantic notions of sweet babies or shining tinsel or heavenly stars; we wait with genuine hope for God's righteousness to show up and we are called to strive for our own actions of righteousness in a world so often devoid of such action.

Again, I am writing in the midst of another political season where no fewer than fourteen Republicans (at last count) and three Democrats are vying for their party's nomination next summer at their respective conventions. And a very noisy backdrop to the daily pronouncements of these seventeen candidates continues to pour from the world's newsrooms. The terrorist massacre in Paris, the shooting down of a Russian fighter plane by the Turks, and the ongoing assaults against ISIS (or ISIL or Daesh) by French and American warplanes form a painful context for our American election. Those on the Republican side try daily to outdo one another in bellicose comments against one or the other of these events and their implications. "Bomb them all" screams one, while another says, "We will accept no more refugees from the Syrian war, lest one of them be a disguised terrorist!" As the fears mount, reason, hope, and joy are the first victims.

We really do need Advent/Christmas this year! We need its joy and its hope, to be sure, but even more we need its righteousness that drives out fear. In short, we need old Zephaniah. Now that sounds decidedly odd! We have gotten along just fine without this obscure and little-known prophet the other fifty-one weeks of the year, why do we need him now? Just listen to this: "I will deal with 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 that time I will gather you" (Zeph. 3:19-20). And how about this: "The ruler of Israel, YHWH, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more" (Zeph. 3:15).

Our current political and social climates are both driven by fear. We are afraid of the terrorists who are doing their very best to instill that fear in us by random acts of violence, perpetrated against innocent people. And as a result, hundreds have died. And each one of these hundreds is an incalculable loss to humanity; no one would dare deny that truth. Yet, these deaths are the direct result of vastly complex forces that have conspired to create the climates of our own time. You and I, we Americans and we in the industrial west, have played our own parts in the creation of this world. Too often, we have sided with dictators to prop up our own economic advantages, while rejecting the cry of those who are poor (see Cuba, Guatemala, Iran, Congo — the list is shamefully long), and now we are reaping the whirlwind of our mistaken and short-sided choices. We have helped to manufacture this state of terror, and now we fear what we have created.

Zephaniah writes his words sometime during the difficult early years of the prophecy of Jeremiah, perhaps late in the 7th century B.C.E. What sort of time was that? Barely two generations before Zephaniah, the Assyrians had swept the northern kingdom of Israel off the pages of history and had then threatened to obliterate Judah in turn. Only a peculiar set of circumstances had allowed Jerusalem to escape the fate of Israel in 701 B.C.E. as the vast army of Sennacherib had unaccountably ended the siege of the city and had gone home to Nineveh. The Assyrian threat, however, remained all too real. Soon, the new threat of the Babylonian empire grew, and after destroying the seemingly invincible Assyrians, this new enemy headed west toward Egypt, and had, inevitably, Judah in the crosshairs, too. In short, Zephaniah lived in a day of constant terrorism, and fear must have ruled the land.

Yet, he ended his words to Israel with a pure song of joy. Why? Was he simply naïve, blinded to the real threats from the east by a Pollyanna-like conviction that God would save the day, because God loved Israel too much to let them be swallowed up? If you imagine that, you have not read his words with care. And if we allow our fears of terrorism to rule our lives, we reveal in that action that we have no trust in the God of righteousness, the God who does indeed love us, the God who reveals Godself in the midst of terror by acting with deeds of righteousness.

Rather than keep all refugees out, as so many of our politicians are urging now, God is in the business of "gathering the outcasts." I find it astonishing and sad that France, the day after 130 of its people were killed by terrorists, one of whom may have come from Syria, announced that they intended to admit 50,000 more refugees from the Syrian conflict. It is astonishing, because such generosity of spirit is awe-inspiring, and it is sad because we Americans have hardened our hearts against those who are fleeing for their lives, though we have not suffered such an outrage since 9/11. A further irony in the situation is that France is an officially secular nation and has been so for over two hundred years. The U.S. has many of its politicians claiming Christianity as the basis for the nation's laws and practices; yet, we wish to build walls against those whom Zephaniah says God will bring to us, the "lame and outcast." Zephaniah further urges us "do not let your hands grow weak" (Zeph. 3:16). Unfortunately, some of our leaders would force our hands not to grow weak, but to clench our fists and shake them at those "struggling to breathe free," as our famous statue has it, rather then opening those hands up in strength to receive them with care and love.