I read the story of John the Baptist and thought, “Surely everybody’s heard a sermon on John the Baptist umpteen times.”
What about the reading from Zephaniah.
I doubt that Zephaniah would be at the top of many lists of favourite Old Testament prophets.
Since it’s there it must have had something important to say to some group of Israelites at some time in their history.
I have to admit I did have to do some research on Zephaniah as I knew very little about him.
His time can be quite accurately pinpointed if we take seriously the historical information in the genealogy that is at the beginning of the book.
It reads: “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah, son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah” Zeph.1:1).
Not only does the verse say quite directly that Zephaniah is a descendant of two kings of Judah, Hezekiah and Josiah, but it also tells us when he was active as a prophet, during the reign of Josiah.
He became king of Judah in 640BCE and ruled till 609BCE when he was killed by the armies of the pharaoh Neco.
His death was the result of a ridiculous attempt by Josiah to stop the great Egyptian army on its way to aid the armies of the Assyrians who were not doing very well against the Babylonians.
The result of Josiah’s death was a period of mourning in Judah and the ascension to the throne of Josiah’s son Jehoiakim who, unlike his father, was little interested in a renewed Judah.
He sought only power for himself and his emerging court.
Jeremiah seemed to support Josiah who was the bringer of a time of reformation in Judah.
What has this to do with Zephaniah?
The book of Zephaniah reads much like the earlier prophets such as Jeremiah, who were around at about the same time.
The political situation meant that he was living in a confusing and fast-changing political scene.
Also, the most significant fact that guided King Josiah’s reformation was the discovery of a scroll in the temple of Jerusalem.
A scroll that has long been believed to be a part of the book we know now as Deuteronomy.
That discovery during a Temple restoration project is usually dated to 622BCE.
Once the scroll had been authenticated by the prophet Huldah, Josiah immediately put into effect the demands found in the document.
This included banning all shrines outside Jerusalem so making the temple in Jerusalem the place where everyone had to go.
I imagine that the people who put together the lectionary chose this passage for the third Sunday in Advent because of its praise-filled language.
Words that promised justice for Judah.
Also and, perhaps more importantly, a joyous homecoming to Jerusalem of all the world’s peoples.
This is reflected in Isaiah 2,
“where all the world will one day “stream to Zion”
“They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Neither will they learn war any more.”
That dream of Isaiah was so vivid that it is found also in Micah 4:3.
Though Zephaniah does not repeat that same hope for the future as Isaiah, he does wish for the future of Judah’s success, when both “lame” and “outcasts” will find new lives in Jerusalem.
Also for the time when Judah will be “renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth” (Zeph.3:20).
I do have to admit to being a little bit of a cynic when I read these passages.
They too often sound like pipe dreams.
Wishful thinking, if you like.
It’s difficult these days to imagine that anyone can bring joy and hope to this country let alone the whole world.
Do those who believe in God’s power have any hope of improving the position of the lame and the outcasts of the world?
After all, the world seems so broken.
Hardly inspiring hope but rather filled with despair and darkness.
In our own time, we often hear that the world has never been so troubled.
So full of hopelessness.
So divided between the few who control so much and the many who have so little.
Brexit leaves our own country divided between those who believe it is better to stay in Europe and those who want to be separate.
Those divisions are also seen in the threat of planetary death.
The temperature and the sea rise.
The forests disappear.
Despite the foolishness of several of our supposed leaders, climate change is real, and we are the main cause.
Winter cold snaps will neither change that truth, nor heavy falls of snow.
The weather records the data of daily and weekly changes while climate refers to averages over hundreds of years.
In the face of that coming catastrophe thoughts like those of Zephaniah 3 sound like pie-in-the-sky nonsense.
If you are all, now feeling totally depressed,
let’s try to put the lights back on.
If we have placed Zephaniah in his correct historical context his words of hope were made against a backdrop not unlike our own.
The Assyrian empire that had controlled and ravaged the Middle East for nearly four centuries was collapsing to be replaced soon by a Babylonian empire that would be even worse.
That would fall to the Persian Empire that would conquer most of the known world.
That would be stopped by the Greeks some 300 years later.
Tiny Judah was a weak pig in the middle.
Serving as little more than a watering stop for empires on their way to bigger battles.
From that pathetic platform of Judah, Zephaniah uttered a clarion call of the Lord’s hopes for the future.
A future for Judah.
That leads us to Advent/Christmas.
Once again, we hear the familiar stories of the nativity.
Once again we sing Christmas Carols.
Once again, the baby is born in Judah.
Born in a dirty cave in Bethlehem.
Why was he born?
Why do we continue to celebrate his birth?
The answer can be found in the teaching and example of Jesus himself.
Zephaniah proclaimed “you will fear disaster no more.
The Lord, your God is in your midst.
He will renew you in his love.
He will save the lame and gather the outcast.”
Exactly the message of Jesus.
In the birth and life of Jesus we recognise that God is still with us.
We recognise that our hopes and our dreams for a better world are not pipe dreams after all.
Jesus’ message was NOT about tolerating this life until we gain a place in heaven.
Sitting it out.
His message was one of radical reform.
Tackling the injustices of this world.
Once we learn not to fear them, we can look them square in the face and take them on.
This Christmas, may we heed the call of Zephaniah and live and work for the hope of the promise of Jesus.
How do we do that?
By looking beyond our tiny individual world.
Look at the bigger picture.
Write to your MP.
Literally help those in need.
Search them out.
Give to those sleeping rough.
Buy a Big Issue.
At least treat them with respect.
I really don’t know why I am listing all these things we can do
Jesus issued a challenge
“If you love me feed my sheep”
The message is simple.
Just do as Jesus did.