Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

3rd Sunday of Advent

St Barbara’s  16.12.2018 

Dan Rathbone

Do you listen to Classic FM?

It is a good station to go to if you want some music to relax to – Smooth Classics at
Seven for example – nothing too challenging, unlike BBC Radio 3 where it can
sometimes be rather hard listening. One failing of Classic FM is that often, not all of
a symphony or a concerto will be played. They might miss out that boring middle
slow movement and cut straight to the exciting upbeat finale. Quite often, isolated
movements are presented that have been ripped mercilessly out of context. In such
a case, something rather important has been lost. We miss out on the journey that
the composer had in mind for us and the true dramatic impact of the remaining
material is diminished.

It is a bit like that for us this morning looking at the passage from Zephaniah chapter
3. If we ignore the dark and violent first two chapters and cut straight to today’s
reading, we won’t really understand its true impact. The book of Zephaniah is one of
those difficult to find short books in the Old Testament. It has only three chapters. If
you had never come across this book and you were to start reading at chapter one
and carried on into chapter 2, you would never guess what was coming in chapter
three. To make sense of this we need some context.

Zephaniah was writing the first part of his prophecy in the period where land of
Judah had been under the control of the Assyrian empire for many years. There had
been two particularly evil kings on the throne in Judah and the boy king Josiah had
yet to undertake his sweeping reforms. All aspects of life had been compromised:
the religious life of the nation had been polluted by worship of the Assyrian gods
alongside that of the one true God; the nation’s leaders and officials were out for
themselves and were exploiting the people; there were individuals accumulating
great wealth and there were those who lived smug and complacent lives without
reference to God at all.

Zephaniah was prophesying judgement against all of this. A key message in chapters
one and two is the coming of the Day of the Lord. Frankly, that was a terrifying
indication of the judgement about to fall, not only upon the surrounding nations but
also, shockingly, upon the people of Judah and Jerusalem. God’s own people were
also to be judged. We have phrases like “the day of the Lord’s sacrifice,” “a day of
wrath,” “distress and anguish,” “ruin and devastation,” “darkness and gloom,”
“clouds and thick darkness,” “trumpet blast and battle cry.” There is no comfort to
be had there. This was the judgement that was fully deserved by the whole of
humanity, even God’s own people.

A few years later the Assyrian empire would fall and be replaced by the Babylonians
who invaded, sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Many of the city’s
inhabitants were taken into captivity in Babylonia and that is possibly the context for
today’s reading from Zephaniah chapter 3. Judgement had fallen. Jerusalem was in
ruins. The temple was destroyed and the people were in exile. Into that situation we
have the words from today’s reading:
Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.

I bet it did not feel like that to the Jews in exile. They had to wait and wait and wait
many decades before the Babylonian empire fell and they were allowed to return to
Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. And then later in the chapter, twice, Zephaniah
makes a most poignant prophecy.

The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
And The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory.
What we need to remember here is that the Jews of that time had a very strong
sense of where God was, and that was in the holy of holies, that special room in the
temple in Jerusalem. Before the exile, all they had to do was to look up the hill to
the magnificent temple that dominated Jerusalem’s skyline and they could say “God
in our midst.” But what did all that count for with Jerusalem in ruins, the temple
destroyed and themselves captive in a foreign country that was antagonistic to their
beliefs? To believe that God could possibly be in their midst, in exile in Babylon,
would take a whole new mind-set.

We too need that new mind-set. We are 2½ millennia on since the time of
Zephaniah. But what really has changed? If we look at our nation and the rest of the
world, what do we see? – The worship of God compromised by the gods of money
and personal fulfilment; leaders and officials out for themselves and exploiting the
people (does that ring any bells when you think about the ongoing Brexit debacle?);
individuals accumulating great wealth at the expense of the poor and many living
smug and complacent lives without reference to God at all. We live in a world that is
technologically more advanced than the world of Zephaniah but it is the same at
heart. Humanity continues to deserve God’s judgement.

And yet we have something to be happy and sing about: In this time of Advent we
can look back and remember that God demonstrated that he is in our midst by living
among us in the form of Jesus; as Christians we believe that he is with us still by the
power of the Holy Spirit; we can rejoice that the judgements against us are cancelled
by Jesus’ life, death on the cross and resurrection; we can look forward to the time
when Jesus will come again and his Kingdom of perfect rule will be fully established.
In the meantime we have to carry on living in this damaged and precarious world
being obedient to God, believing that he is in our midst and living as if we really
believe that. In Zephaniah’s prophecy, only a remnant of the people would
experience God’s blessing. They were the humble and the lowly who sought refuge
in the name of the Lord. I think that would be a good thing for us to take to heart
today and to think about during Advent: being humble and lowly and seeking refuge
in the name of the Lord; recognising that we are dependent upon God and not self-
sufficient; knowing that our sins deserve punishment but that God has chosen to
pardon us through Jesus. That is the right foundation to build upon as we each seek
to play our individual part in bringing in God’s Kingdom.