For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20
We don’t get a whole lot of Zephaniah in our lectionary, so we can make the most of him today. But to read the final few verses alone can be highly misleading, as they form a post-exilic PS which is in stark contrast to the main thrust of the book. Probably written in the late 7th century BC, under the reign of King Josiah, the book consists of one oracle after another, all of them dire warnings of doom and judgement. It’s worth spending the few minutes it would take to read through the whole book, in order to note the stark contrast with the last paragraph. Simply to read the postscript is severely to miss the point.
It’s interesting to be reading this book at a time of a lockdown due to the Cronavirus pandemic. Again and again I hear promises, including from Her Majesty the Queen, that things will soon be back to normal, that ‘we will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we will meet again’. That of course is our hope, but along with the hope for the future goes the sense of tragedy for those who have been the victims of this microscopic virus, and the many ways in which life will actually never be the same again for so many people. I’m not wanting to comment on whether or not the virus is God’s judgement on a sinful world, but the point is that like Zephaniah we can look to a wonderful new world, but it is a world we will enter bearing the scars of disaster.
Whether the final few verses are a prophetic and hopeful look to the future, or a later addition after the event, the people did emerge from the exile in Babylon sadder but wiser. The language of rejoicing is punctuated throughout with reminders of just who will be rejoicing, and we need to listen to that and note it well. It is ‘Daughter Zion’, or ‘Daughter Jerusalem’ over whom God is so excited, a shorthand way of denoting his own people, those in relationship with him, and not the nations listed in chapter 2 as being ripe for destruction. It is a nation who had been punished, who had been attacked by enemies, who had lived in fear (v.15). It is people whose hands had hung limp, who had mourned under burdens, who had been oppressed and lamed. But it is not the proud and arrogant, who had not been humbled before God’s punishment and anger. Those who are to be gathered in God’s loving arms are those who have known pain and suffering and responded by turning to him in humility.
I heard recently that many of those gifted prophetically in our nation see this year, with its pandemic, as a time of great harvest for the Kingdom of God. Certainly it seems anecdotally that the numbers of people connecting with online worship far exceed our normal Sunday attendance, but whether the churches will be able to reap this harvest remains to be seen. But I pray that whatever its origins, this pandemic will serve to remind people of our fragility, our arrogance, our unquestioning worship of the great god ‘Science’, and our vulnerability before an enemy too small to see. I pray that out of our suffering we can rise again and come to know ourselves as God’s dear sons and daughters, over whom he rejoices so extravagantly. The prayer ‘Lord, restore our fortunes’ (v.20) is very different from ‘Lord, take this away and put everything back to normal’.