John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
Zephaniah 3, 14-20
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements 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.
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.
Imagine you are a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, how would you hear this passage from Zephaniah?
But if you were an Israeli, or a Jew of the diaspora, then how would you hear this passage from Zephaniah?
And what is hearing? Perhaps we only hear what we want to hear, or what we are conditioned to hear. The conditioning might be racial, political, theological, economic or gender-based. And so the Palestinian, whether Christian or Muslim, might hear the triumphalism of the oppressor, reasserting the claim of a God given right over a piece of land that for centuries has not been theirs. A Zionist might hear confirmation of the rightness of a cause that allows the brutal end to justify the means. But a liberal Jew might shudder at the thought of the atrocities co-religionists – or would that be co-tribalists? – have perpetrated in pursuit of a particular dream, a particular interpretation, a way of thinking that our nation rather foolishly fostered during the first world war, and which untold horrors in the 1930s and 40s fashioned into an almost irresistible force.
And what do we, a Christian congregation in England at the beginning of the 21st century, hear? Can we hear as Palestinian or Jew? Can we imagine ourselves listening as they might listen? Better still, can we imagine being the first listeners? Can we understand what God might have been saying through Zephaniah in the first place? And can we hear what that word means in our own lives and context? Or, indeed, see if there is anything to hear?
It’s 610BC, give or take a couple of decades. The great religious reforms of King Josiah in Jerusalem haven’t yet happened. Or else they’ve already withered and the corrupt religious practices, many of them owing little or nothing to the worship of Yahweh, have returned. There’s great political turmoil in the middle east. Assyria, for so long the dominant power, is in terminal decline; Babylon is on the rise. The tiny kingdom of Judah is a pawn caught up in the storms, and many are questioning whether Yahweh has any control over or interest in the events of history. And Zephaniah is on the stomp.
‘I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs
those who say in their hearts,
“The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do harm”’.
This is more typical of the tone of Zephaniah than the previous passage. And if you don’t believe me, what about this:
‘The great day of the Lord is near
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there.
The day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.’
Obviously Zephaniah would have been at home in the company of John the Baptist.
And can we hear such words and not hear them against the background of our world
- against the background of continuing conflict in Iraq – the cradle of civilisation, from whence came Abraham, Assyria and Babylon
- against the background of bombs in Istanbul
- against the background of Al Qaeda and its poisonous mutation of Islam; of the so called war on terrorism; and of the shameless name calling against an imagined axis of evil
- against the background of globalisation and the instinctive countervailing reaction that takes the shape of a new nationalism?
One of the great insights of the prophets from Amos and Hosea onwards is that God’s purpose is made known in political crises at particular moments of history, but is not identical with them. So we cannot simply read off from that text to our situation any more than pre-exilic citizens of the kingdom of Judah could read Yahweh directly into or out of the actual events of their day. But in the light of this understanding, how do we read our world through this text?
Context one: yes, we hear this in a world as much in turmoil as Zephaniah’s. But no one can hijack it for their own quick political fix.
Context two: we hear it not just in the particularities of the current world situation, but in a eucharist just eleven days before we celebrate Christmas. Of course this morning’s bit may have been a later addition to take the sting out of the doom and gloom both of Zephaniah’s other sayings, and out of the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent horrors of exile in Babylon which happened so very shortly afterwards. Whatever, the question is: can we hear Zephaniah saying to us what he said 26 centuries ago? God is in all this – ‘the king, the Lord, is in your midst’.
This, surely, is cause for rejoicing. But not for us the hopes of a particular restoration, nor for us a word of comfort to counteract the gloom and doom of the Day of the Lord or the spiritual and physical privations of exile. But still we hear ‘the King, the Lord, is in your midst’.
God has not abandoned the world. God has not withdrawn, driven to distraction by the bitter feuding and faithlessness of humanity. ‘The Lord is near’. We believe that God is in our midst. God is in our midst as Christ, helpless and vulnerable, not the potentate or man of violence. God is in our midst as Christ the gatherer – like the mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings – not as destroyer or avenger. God is in our midst as we gather for communion with God and with one another. And as we near Christmas we must remember the real meaning of the name Emmanuel – God is with us.
How have you heard Zephaniah today? What have you heard? How it is going to affect your being and your doing as a follower of Christ?