You know it must be Advent if on the in later December we’re reading from another minor Hebrew prophet, in this case Zephaniah. It would be a stretch to say that many people know the book of Zephaniah well [Jewish or Christian alike].
Though, come on–I mean, he was the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, born in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah—and no, I didn’t make up those names, and yes, it sounds like something from Lord of the Rings, and sure, some of us who went to Divinity school memorized that.
But all kidding aside, as with other Hebrew prophets of ages long past, I do think good ol’ Zephy has something to say to us today.
A little context please? Okay, yes.
The cliff notes version of what scholars say about this prophetic book: when was it written? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 698 BCE-586 BCE, depending on who you talk to. Where was it written? Jerusalem. What was going on? Well, lots. First off, the Israelites were being bad, apparently; they weren’t obeying Yahweh’s commands as they were supposed to. Maybe they were just settling back in after a few generations of exile? Whatever the case, Zephaniah’s author called attention to the Israelite’s behavior as making Yahweh mad. So the book’s tone is ticked off, and it’s spelled out with these sections: the coming judgement of Judah, the great day of the Lord, judgement on enemies, wickedness of Jerusalem, and the punishment of nations. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
The perfect prophecy to read on JOY Sunday…not.
But Zephaniah ends differently. The book closes out with God/Yahweh being much nicer, less angry, and dare I say—loving and gentle? Yahweh is present, protective of Israel, and happy to welcome people back. Apparently, Yahweh has a lovely singing voice too and will be showing off the holy pipes.
More important than the Holy Karaoke, people will be healed, the homeless will find places to live. People who were hated will now be accepted. Everyone comes home. It’s a celebration of great joy! Now that’s more like it, Zephy…
And that’s what brings me to why I think this minor prophet still has something prophetic to say to us today so many years later.
See, we’re living in a Zephaniah world.
Some of us have been exiled and know what it feels like to be marginalized or excluded. Some of us have lived though times of great suffering, loneliness, and despair. Some of us are going through that right now. Still others find very few reasons to live any longer. And many today are just tired—tired of a depressing and heavy news cycle that continues to make us aware of the great pain, suffering, and injustice in the world. A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala dies simply because she can’t get enough water to drink while detained by U.S. immigration enforcement. Large groups of humans sprawled out on top of steam vents all across Philadelphia, just to stay warm. Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and others specifically targeted by violent people. Individuals still left out, refused jobs, discriminated against in hospitals and other public spaces, simply because of who they love or how they identify or express gender. The Christian religion on the whole, has become known more as a perpetrator of hateful rhetoric and alliance with political leaders and lobbying monies and ignorance of child abuse and discrimination than it is known for love, peacemaking, and service to others.
Yes, we live in Zephaniah’s world.
Yahweh might as well be the same kinda angry at Western Christianity and at society in general. We’re not really fulfilling our part of the bargain—to heal the sick, give homes to the homeless, gather in the outcasts, and love each other.
Sure, we can put up pretty lights and sing carols and talk about joy, but I would argue we can’t. Not until we admit where we are, in Zephaniah’s world, in this world. Not until we recognize the deep suffering going on. Not until we are incensed by the injustice in our world. Not until we talk about our own feelings of despair, heaviness, and apathy. We have to go there, if we truly want to get to the joy part.
Rumi, the brilliant Islamic poet, wrote of sorrow being the prerequisite for joy. Sorrow makes space for joy to enter in. Old roots are pulled up within us and new growth takes place. Only then will joy flow through us like a river.
We’ve been talking the last two weeks about the promise of inclusion, about what it looks like/feels like to be excluded and then finally accepted and invited in. And that this promise of inclusion is a powerful promise to believe in, because if we do, we will seek inclusion for those we see on the margins.
See, it’s a decision to believe in the promise of inclusion. And it’s a decision to think about joy as rising out of sorrow and suffering.
And I think what bends us towards those decisions is an understanding that love itself is not an emotion, but an active choice as well.
In the world of Zephaniah, Yahweh made a love-deal with the Israelites. But the moment they started mistreating each other and oppressing people and manipulating, there was no more Mr. Nice Yahweh. Because love for Yahweh and for the Israelites has to be an active choice, not just a feeling.
And this is why love has tremendous power to create a better world—in ourselves, and on this planet. There is great power in sitting with someone in their grief, with loving patience and a loving ear with loving acceptance. There is power in standing side by side with someone who feels pushed down, choosing to love by standing with them. There is power in treating newcomers with loving hospitality, power in lovingly learning about someone’s culture or religion; power in mentoring children and youth with loving patience; power in lovingly lifting up or even carrying those who are experiencing extreme mental or physical challenges; there is power in choosing to lovingly care for the earth, the animals, trees, and ecosystems. Love as an action is powerful.
And this is what brings true joy into our lives.