Monday, March 13, 2017

Zephaniah: A Celebration

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Zephaniah 3:14-20:

In Star Wars: Rogue One, the lead female character Jyn Erso says about the rebellion, “We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope.” Of course, we have known that all along because what we know as the original Star Wars was later retitled Star Wars: A New Hope, but this was the first time that phrase had really been uttered in the movies about its necessity for the rebellion. If they didn’t have hope for the future, no one would join the rebellion, no one would dare to take on the empire, no one would risk their lives for something bigger than themselves because what would be the point? If there was no hope, why do anything? Why not just slink back into the woodwork, just keep on keeping on, seeking just to live one more day, and then the day after that. If there is no sense that things will get better, if there is no sense that things can get better, then there is no need to do anything. Thus, saying that rebellions are built on hope says that things not only can, but they must get better, that there is something better out there even if we cannot see it, even if it seems impossible, it’s still there.

Of course, long before we had the wisdom of George Lucas, we also heard the same thing from Paul who tells us “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God… For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25) That is also part of the message that we get with Zephaniah, that although he gives a prophetic claim not just of the coming destruction of Judah, but of the surrounding nations, that he closes with this truly remarkable message about God and about hope that we heard this morning.

We are told that Zephaniah’s prophetic career takes place under the reign of King Josiah of Judah, who reigned from the years 640-609 BCE. It’s important to note right away that according to the writer of Kings and Chronicles that Josiah is considered to be the last great king is Israel, and is second only to King David in importance. In his prophecy, Zephaniah has specific knowledge of Jerusalem, including mentioning specific neighborhoods, and also seems to have intimate knowledge of the political and religious dealings which leads some people to believe that he probably lived in Jerusalem and was a member of the inner court. We can also get this from the genealogy that is given in verse 1, which is fairly interesting if you know what you are looking for. The first is that it gives his genealogy back 4 generations, which is unique. Most only go one or at most two generations, and so if it goes back farther than that it is because they want to emphasize the last person mentioned, which here is Hezekiah, who is probably King Hezekiah, who, besides for Josiah, is the second best reforming king in Israelite history. He is also the king that in addition to building stronger and wider walls also created the Siloam tunnel running into Jerusalem, which brought fresh water into the city allowing them to withstand sieges by the Assyrians and later the Babylonians much longer than they otherwise would have been able to.

Now there are several possibilities why Zephaniah’s genealogy goes all the way back to Hezekiah, and these are not mutually exclusive. The first is that he, or later editors, wanted people to know that he was from royal lineage. A second reason is that he wanted to be associated with the first great reforming king, especially in his calls for reformation that probably at least contributed to the reformations undertaken by Josiah. But the third reason is, building upon these, is that he needed to be identified as an insider in Jerusalem because of one key clue we are given about him which comes from his father’s name and that is Cushi.  In Hebrew, the word Cushi is associated with Africa. In Zephaniah’s prophecy, God makes reference to Ethiopia, the word there is Cushi, and there is an Egyptian dynasty, which is destroyed by the Assyrians, known as the Cushite Dynasty. So, this leads scholars to speculate that Zephaniah is an African, perhaps Ethiopian, and thus his genealogy tells us that he is a son of Africa. This sense that he is an outsider could explain the need to link Zephaniah to the royal line of Judah by going back four generations.  How successful this is is unknown. But, with that being said, it is crucial to remember not to put our own racial attitudes and history onto this story, to attribute things to it that didn’t exist. There is a strong connection in both Judaism and in Christianity with Africa, and with Ethiopia in particular, and none of it had anything to do with racial characteristics, but this does give us information about Zephaniah that we simply don’t know about the other minor prophets.

But, it is not the color of Zephaniah’s skin that may have gotten him in trouble, or may have made him unfavorable with some people, but instead it is the content of his message. He uses typical prophetic utterances about judgment that will be made about Judah and also about the surrounding nations.  His message, however harkens back to that of Hosea who claimed that destruction would come about not because of injustice as we have heard so much from the other minor prophets, although injustice is certainly taking place and is named, but the main reason is because the people have broken the covenantal relationship with God by worshipping other gods. Even worse is that some people appear not to believe that God is powerful or doing anything in the world. Zephaniah says he is addressing those who “say in their hearts, ‘the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” 1:12. That is that God might exist, but God is certainly not doing anything and so there is no need to fear God, and so we’re told, basically, that God is going to correct their thinking on this matter and that the Day of the Lord is coming.

We’ve talked about the day of the Lord several times in this series on the minor prophets, but a reminder that originally the Israelites thought that the day of judgment had only to do with other nations. That they would be punished while Israel and Judah would be rewarded. This type of thinking can lead to lots of problems, in particular a tribalism and nationalism that says “we’re good and they’re bad” that our enemies are obviously God’s enemies, and that because God’s on our side we can do no wrong. But what the prophets say is that that’s not the way it works, that God will judge Israel and Judah just as the other nations are judged, and even worse because they know what God requires of them.  And so, like others, Zpehaniah says that Judah will be destroyed because they have been worshipping other Gods. They have not been faithful to the covenant relationship, and so the Great Day of the Lord is near, a day in which God says “I will search Jerusalem with lamps,” that is not one can hide from God’s punishment.

Now as I said, what King Josiah becomes known for his is great reformation in seeking to purify Judaism to bring it back to its biblical basis. He is probably assisted in this, or perhaps even pushed into this, by these oracles from Zephaniah about the coming destruction. And so, as they are doing some repair work on the Temple they discover a book, which is believed to be the book of Deuteronomy and Josiah institutes what are known as the Deuteronomical reforms. This is one of the most important events in Jewish history. Since a majority of scholars believe that Judaism as we know it, as a true monotheistic religion and with a set of mandates of what all Jews do, truly began in the exile, which happens 17 years after Josiah’s death, it might be these reforms that caused Judaism to continue to exist rather than disappearing like the ten northern tribes, so what Zephaniah is saying here and what Josiah does cannot be underestimated. But Josiah is killed in battle, the following kings go back to their evil ways and Judah destroyed by what Zephaniah, and other prophets call, a warrior God who puts the people “to shame because of all the deed by which they have rebelled against” God. (Zeph 3:11)

In his book, Joshua, Joseph Girzone tells the story of an unknown carpenter who comes to a town and is a Christ like figure. Two churches in town commission Joshua to carve them Jesus figures for the entrance to their churches. I don’t remember specifically what the churches are, but let’s say they’re Baptist and Methodist. The Methodist church asks for their statue to be of Jesus as a loving shepherd, perhaps sitting and holding sheep and beckoning people to come near, because the image of God they hold onto is one of love and comfort. The Baptist church, on the other hand, asks for an image of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers, because the image of God they hold onto is of an avenging and angry God.  Joshua accepts both commissions but then delivers the opposite carving to each church. When the churches object to the carvings they receive, and complain that it is not what they requested, Joshua tells them that these are the carvings they need because they have to have both sides of those images of God in order for the other side to make any sense. They can’t have the anger of God without the love of God and they can’t have the love of God without the anger of God. Because anger is not the opposite of love, the opposite of love is apathy. An angry God says that God cares, that God is involved. To have a God that is concerned with justice, is concerned with us and with others is to have a God that is compelled to get angry about what is happening because God so loves the world.

The prophets give to us God’s dreams and visions of the way the world should be.  They communicate to us the anger and disappointment that God has not for who we are, but what we do in not following God’s will for the world. God does not get angry just to be angry, God gets angry at how we treat one another and even how we treat ourselves. The prophets give us God’s wake-up calls about a different way of living and being.  They give us accounts of God’s love and compassion, that no matter how often we go astray or fail, that God is still there, and they tell us of God’s hope for us and for the future, that we are never alone and that sometime everything will be brought right, even if it doesn’t seem to be the case in the moment.

That’s where the message of hope that Zephaniah brings is so important. We don’t need hope when things are going well, we need it when things are troubling. Zephaniah’s message of hope is not separate from his proclamation of judgment, it’s inherently linked to it. You cannot have pardon without judgment. It is the message of hope that reveals, ultimately, the nature of God, because God withdraws the judgment in the end, there is ultimately forgiveness, there is joy, there is not just hope proclaimed but hope fulfilled, and the people celebrate and God is in their midst. God is in the party that we hear about in today’s passage. It is God’s voice who is singing loudly over the people, it is God who saves the lame and the outcast, who gathers together those who are told they don’t belong, who gathers together the humble and the faithful, and who saves us and renews us in love.

This passage is normally read twice in the lectionary. The first is during Advent, a season based after lent as a time of preparation, a time of prayer and fasting, for the celebration of Christmas. The other time it is read is during the Easter Vigil, which takes place the Saturday before Easter, the last moments of Lent, a time or preparation, of prayer and fasting, in preparation for the celebration of Easter. It is the sense that even in darkness and death, that hope is there, that hope is necessary and that it is what we cling to not just to get through these moments, but to give us a reason to get through them. The playwright Tracey Letts wrote “Thank God we can’t know the future, or we’d never get out of bed.” I think I can identify with the sentiment, but I also think it’s wrong, that we do know the future and it is one of hope and it is one of joy. But what’s true of hope and joy is that they are not dependent upon what’s happening to us right now, we can have both feelings in times of happiness and in times of despair because they are not dependent upon us. The theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference between joy and happiness. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is "the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing -- sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death -- can take that love away." Thus joy can be present even in the midst of sadness. Hope can be present even in the midst of sadness, because God is present in the midst of these things.

If resistance is dependent upon hope, so is faith dependent upon hope, and yet God’s presence and promises are even deeper than that, because while faith, hope and love may abide, as Paul says, there are times even when faith and hope may go away, but what never goes away is love, because God is love, and God is always there, and God rejoices over us with gladness and renews us in God’s love. Each of us, are given the love of God, every minute of every day, even when we are going astray, God’s love is there, God’s hope is there.  And in that we should celebrate, in that we should sing aloud and rejoice and exult with all our heart, in that we should learn not to fear for the Lord our God is in our midst. I pray that we will know it is so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment