Of Joy and Justice
The season of Advent could also be subtitled “the season of the prophets.” On Advent 1 in year C, we get a selection from Jeremiah 33, predicting a sprig will sprout from the stump of Jesse—in other words, a new king will be born from David’s line, since Jesse was David’s father. In Advent 2, we have a reading from Baruch or Malachi. And this week we have the Song of Joy from Zephaniah. And, of course, in the gospel today, we get words spoken by John, the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” who was to point to the coming Messiah. As we hear new warnings about the omicron variant and tension in the Ukraine, it sometimes seems that the time of fear and anxiety will never end. We often forget how debilitating fear is, yet God knows, and the prophets knew. One of the most repeated admonitions in scripture is “Do not fear,” spoken 55 times in the NRSV, and “do not be afraid,” spoken 67 times. “Do not fear” is spoken to Jerusalem here, at v. 16. It is important to remember that this passage was written at 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 contains our first reading this coming Sunday, was supposedly 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 our purposes in Advent, the orientation is toward future salvation. This section, which contains most of the final verses in the Book of Zephaniah, is subtitled “A Song of Joy.” Our reading comes after a long series of warnings and threats of judgment upon Jerusalem. Now is time for a word of hope. In the verses right before our reading, the prophet anticipates God drawing all nations together and unifying them. God will then save a holy remnant of Israel. Echoing language in Psalm 23, the last part of v. 13 right before our pericope states, “Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.” This reading ties in to the Advent reminder 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 will 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.