Of Justice and Joy: Zephaniah 3:14-20
The season of Advent could be subtitled, “the season of the prophets.” On Advent 1 in year C, we read the selection from Jeremiah 33 predicting that a sprig will sprout from the stump of Jesse. A new king will be born from David’s line, given that Jesse was David’s father. On Advent 2, we read from either Baruch or Malachi. This third Sunday, we read the Song of Joy from the prophet Zephaniah. Then there is John the Baptist, with his “voice [as] one crying out in the wilderness,” pointing to the coming Messiah.
As we hear new warnings about the omicron variant and tension in the Ukraine, it feels as though this time of fear and anxiety may never end. Fear can be so debilitating, asa both God and the prophets know. Think of that oft-repeated admonition in scripture, “Do not fear,” spoken 55 times (NRSV), and, “Do not be afraid,” spoken 67 times. Note v. 16: “Do not fear,” spoken to Jerusalem. This passage was written during a time of oppression, death, destruction, and corruption. This is not simply talking about adding to our comfort, but calling its listeners from a very real valley of the shadow of death into life in God’s kingdom.
The book of Zephaniah, which provides the first reading this coming Sunday, was believed to have been written sometime before 640 BC, when King Josiah, who was the last great king of Israel, and the “finder” of the book of Deuteronomy, ascended to the throne. However, Zephaniah makes clear that in the years before Josiah, the people of Jerusalem are awash in corruption and oppression. The Book of Zephaniah focuses on a future day of judgment, although for us in the throes of Advent, the orientation is toward future salvation.
This section is subtitled, “A Song of Joy.” It follows a long series of warnings and threats of judgment and proclaims that now is time for a word of hope. The prophet has just expressed the expectation of God drawing all nations together and unifying them. Now, God will save a holy remnant. Echoing language in Psalm 23, the last part of v. 13, “Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.” All of this is to say promise that God is in the midst of us through the Incarnation of God’s Son, whose birth we await, that justice and peace may reign on the earth. A reminder we all need, especially now as the shadows lengthen both literally and figuratively—and a reminder that is reinforced and expanded in the First Song of Isaiah which is our canticle.
Even though most of us stand in a position of privilege and power relative not only to the people to whom Zephaniah was speaking, but relative to the vast majority of the world population, we can rejoice that God’s promise is for all of us—for all nations and all peoples. Combined with John’s proclamation that we hear in today’s Gospel, it is also a reminder to us to never stand on the side of the oppressor, even passively; do not just pray for those who are the victims of fear, terror, and depression, but to work alongside them and stand with them through our actions, not just our words or our prayers. We hear again, as we do repeatedly throughout scripture, that we never stand alone, and that at times of crisis our part is to not stand aside but stand for justice. Then truly the dawn from on high may break upon us.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.