For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20
We are well used to the idea that biblical books can have bits added to them later. The last part of Mark 16 and John 21 look very much as though they are additions, PSs or afterthoughts. Indeed what we call the book of Isaiah is almost universally accepted to consist of three parts, written respectively before the Babylonian exile, towards its end, and after Israel had resettled in Judea. Todays book, Zephaniah, is similar, with the first two chapters pronouncing judgement not just on Israel but on the surrounding nations, but the final chapter changing mood and promising restoration. But is there something deeper going on here? Is the book actually about ‘The Day of the Lord’?
This idea first comes to light in the book of Amos, an 8th century prophet who predicted the fall of Israel to the Assyrians. The Day of the Lord is the time when God will come in judgement to punish evil and to wipe out all that pollutes the nation, when the humble will be exalted and the mighty cast down from their thrones. In the OT prophetic literature it is almost universally seen, in Amos’ words, as a day of darkness, not of light. Israel, who had expected vindication and a display of God’s favour, are going to be judged as severely as anyone else.
But there is some evidence that the idea of the Day of the Lord predates Amos and his contemporaries, and was formerly a joyful celebration of the coming of Yahweh in victory to his people, and of his love for them. If that is true, in the first biblical reference to it, in Amos 5:18-20, the idea is being radically turned on its head. To be sure God is coming, but not to show his love for the nation: rather he comes with punishment for its corruption, its false worship and its lack of concern for the poor. The Day of the Lord will not be a joyful celebration: it will be a day of profound weeping.
Zephaniah, who was prophesying around 635BC, continues in Amos’ style in his first two chapters, but then suddenly, in our passage, flips the idea of the Day of the Lord not on its head, but the right way up again, as he reminds the people of its original meaning, a day of great celebration as God comes to them, not to judge but to bless. So the nation should be singing, not wailing; God is with them, not against them; rejoicing over them in song, not rebuking their sinfulness. So perhaps this chapter is not a PS, but a restoration of balance in the nation’s understanding of The Day of the Lord. And yet judgement is not absent: as I have said many times before God is not tolerant. The rather sinister wounding ‘I will deal with’ those who oppressed the nation reminds us that God can never condone sin or turn a blind eye to it. But the nation is called back to its primary understanding of The Day of the Lord, as a display of God’s favour.
This little book, which features only rarely in our lectionaries, seems to me to sum up some of the tensions inherent in the season of Advent. The two themes of the incarnation at Christmas and the return of Christ as judge sometimes lie uneasily together, and we are called in this season to live with that tension. It isn’t that the nice Day of the Lord has replaced the nasty one. Both are true. It just depends on where you are standing. For some, the season is sinister and threatening: the traditional four themes of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell are things we’d rather not think about, or preach about. But for others the yearly expectation of Jesus’ birth really is something about which to be joyful. The negotiation of this tension, it seems to me, lies in our confidence as children of God. As those who are in Christ, who have given our lives to him and known the work of his Spirit, we have nothing to fear: our judgement day happened when we knelt at his cross and asked for his forgiveness. But for others, judgement will be a real event, when they will discover, maybe for the first time, that the God of righteousness simply cannot abide anything sinful or unclean. It is ‘the daughter of Zion’, those in relationship with God, who need not fear or let their hands hang down in shame, and who will be the subject of God’s delight. The rest, he will ‘deal with’. Advent invites us to ask where we stand. The answer to that question decides for us what the Day of the Lord will look like.