Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Our third week of Advent vespers, and so our third week in this series I’ve entitled “Promissory Notes.” We’ve been returning each Wednesday night to the Hebrew bible passage from the preceding Sunday to listen more closely to the words of Israel’s prophets that are the foundational texts for how the early church made sense of who Jesus was. Two out of the three years in our lectionary’s three-year cycle the Old Testament texts come predominantly from the prophet Isaiah, familiar words about beating swords into plowshares, wolves living with lambs, and the prophesy that a young woman will bear a son and call him Immanuel – God with us. All from Isaiah.
But every third year we get treated to a sampling of Israel’s other, sometimes overlooked, prophets. We began two weeks ago with Jeremiah’s promise that in future days a branch from David’s line would be raised up to bring justice and righteousness to the people. We continued last week with Malachi’s affirmation that the Lord is certainly coming, but then that unsettling question, “but who can endure the day of his coming?” Each time we thought about the words of the prophets as “promissory notes” – bearer bonds that have come due in the hands of whoever holds them, prophecies set to unforgettable music that has carried those promises to us over the years.
Tonight we need no clever play on words or musical setting of the passage to find the connection between promise and song. The passage we read from Zephaniah begins,
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies…”
And then later continues,
“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.”
This is a text that sounds, on first hearing, to be full of joyful music – promissory notes. These are the verses that conclude the short book of Zephaniah, which is only three chapters, and given their hopeful tone we might assume that the whole book of Zephaniah contains similar words of reassurance. It does not.
Though it is quite brief, and ends with a word of hope, the majority of Zephaniah’s prophesy is a condemnation of the conduct of Israel. It begins,
I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I will sweep away all humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Lord. (Zeph. 1:2-3)
Later we get the essence of the cause for God’s wrath. Speaking as a representative of God, Zephaniah says,
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and 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. Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.” (Zeph. 1:12-13)
I’m thinking this may be part of the reason we only hear from this prophet once every three years.
But I get caught on that description of those God condemns, “those who say in their hearts, ‘the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” Zephaniah is issuing a threat to people who think God is impotent, who live their lives as though there is no law, there is no judgment, there is no consequence, there is no God. I get caught, because I feel like that sometimes.
I think we actually all feel like this sometimes. We say things like, “God helps those who help themselves,” when what we really mean is, “I’m on my own here.” We examine the world for signs of God’s power and all we see is the never-ending war, the next child shot in our streets, the growing numbers of hungry people. Who then has not said in the privacy of their hearts or in full earshot of anyone who cared to hear, “the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.”
In Israelite theology, this coming day of judgment was known as “the day of the Lord.” For the most part it was thought to be a day when God would deliver judgment on Israel’s enemies and save them from their oppressors. But Zephaniah and a few other prophets re-imagined the “day of the Lord,” and used it as a way of talking about God’s sadness and anger at our own failures to participate in God’s work. Like the negation of our ELCA tagline: God’s work, no hands.
The way I reconcile these harsh words of judgment, God’s law isn’t something we break and then get hauled into court over. It’s more like the law of gravity – when you drop something, it falls and breaks. When we let go of each other, we fall and break.
My sister, who knows a little something about the day of the Lord, says “I’m not afraid of hell. This is it, right here.” I’ve heard folks in our neighborhood, and people in our pews, say the same thing. We live every day with the consequences of letting go of each other. We are fallen, and broken. The day of the Lord has arrived.
But Zephaniah does not end his promissory note with words of desolation. Instead, he turns near the end of his prophecy to say,
For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord – the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid. (Zeph. 3:12-13)
And after revealing that there is still a faithful remnant, then the prophet breaks into the song that begins the passage we read just a moment ago, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.”
Zephaniah’s theological imagination supposes that for the sake of a remnant, the whole garment might be saved. We might remember once more how to hold on to each other, and each hand grasped would turn to reach out for another hand to hold. We might be restored. God’s might revealed in something weak, just a remnant of a nation, just a scrap of flesh.
The nights are now almost the longest that they will get this year. The temperatures keep dropping. We know that soon the tide will turn and the sun will return, but for now it seems as though we are still waiting on the day of the Lord. But maybe it has already come. Maybe the world is waiting on something that will begin when just a tiny scrap of a church holds on to each other and reaches out to hold on to the world.
Stir up your power and come, O God.