December 16, 2012
“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9)
Zephaniah’s prophetic work came at a time of bankrupt religious and political leadership in Israel’s history: idolatry is rampant, national identity is waning, social and economic violence are commonplace, and priests are profaning the sacred. God is not in any way pleased with the trajectory Israel has chosen for itself. I was surprised by what I found (after finally finding Zephaniah in my Bible): a “minor” prophet with a major voice. After promising to “utterly sweep everything from the face of the earth” (1:1); destroy the Ethiopians (2:12); and after calling the prophets of Jerusalem “faithless” (3:4), Zephaniah tells Israel to sing. And not just sing. Zephaniah admonishes the people of God to rejoice and exult with all their hearts, because the “LORD has taken away the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies” (3:15a). Zephaniah describes the source of Israel’s rejoicing: “The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more” (3:15b).
Zephaniah challenges his people to imagine a new future for themselves. He challenges them to imagine a future with God on the throne. He challenges them to imagine a future where fear is unnatural, idolatry is irrelevant, and God’s merciful justice is the new status quo. For Zephaniah, God’s judgment is not an end in itself. For Zephaniah, God’s judgment is a means to an end. It is God’s vehicle for renewing and sustaining God’s chosen people. And in a beautifully circular moment, the same God who admonishes Israel to sing now sings over Israel (3:17). God joins Israel in rejoicing in a world set to rights. Since meaningful music cannot be contained, it spreads to the lame and outcast, turning their “shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (3:19). The God of the prophet Zephaniah is good and merciful and just and wants to share that with Israel in deep and transformative ways. If only they had realized that from the beginning. If only we knew that now.
What does the God’s singing voice sound like? What does God’s song sound like? What would it look like if we joined in the song with God?
One of the most frustrating aspects of Advent is the waiting. Elizabeth waits her whole life to bear a son. Zechariah waits months before being able to speak again. Mary waits atop a donkey on her and Joseph’s trek to Bethlehem. There seems to be a lot of waiting in Bible. And the hard work of waiting may not even rest in the waiting itself. I think it rests in navigating and discerning what to do in the midst of waiting. For a reason unbeknownst to me, I believe this song is an ideal meditation at this particular point in Advent. After three weeks of waiting, we still have one week to go. This song is a sharp reminder of our hope and assurance in God. This song helps provoke an imagination of life wholly centered on and in the living God. Because of our wider culture’s imposition of a long Christmas (November 1-December 25), it can hard to resist the temptation of consumerism. Isaiah’s imagination places God in the center of life, as his sole source of rescue and safety (12:2). Isaiah calls us to trust in God instead of trusting in capitalism or a robust economy or the newest gadgets and toys.
I know that when I am waiting for an important package to arrive in the mail, I will begin waiting for it with great anticipation. But as time goes on, I will often forget about its imminent arrival and become distracted by other things. The prophet Isaiah was well aware of the human inclination toward forgetfulness, and tells his people to “see that they remember that [God’s] Name is exalted” (12:4b). One task of the church is reminding the world of all the great things God has done. God is our rescuer. God is our stronghold. God is our sure defense. The good news of Isaiah is that the God of Israel is not ours for the keeping. The deeds of the LORD are to be made known “among the peoples” (i.e., everybody). Isaiah encourages us to be generous in our retelling of God’s gracious goodness toward us. This goodness is worthy of our pronouncement. So, cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel!
Isaiah encourages his hearers to make God’s “deeds known among the peoples.” In what ways can you make the deeds of God known among the peoples? What deeds of God are worth retelling?
You only have to go as far as your nearest Transportation Security Administration checkpoint to gauge American society’s collective anxiety. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States spent $711,000,000 on military protection and maintenance this year (http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2012/04). In the months and subsequent years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, our country launched conflicts in two different countries and liberally imprisoned American citizens who didn’t look “American” enough, all for the sake of peace. But this is not peace at all. It is a “peace” rooted in worry. It is a “peace” rooted in anxiety. For St. Paul, peace is not a fleeting feeling, but a solid reality anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This peace, according to the aging apostle, surpasses all understanding. The peace of Christ is not strengthened by nuclear arms or pre-emptive military strikes, but through prayer, supplication and thanksgiving. This is countercultural, right?
While our country continues pumping funds into defense budgets and border patrols, Jesus calls his disciples to practice the way of peace by conforming to the most vulnerable of postures: kneeling. Knees aren’t made for walking or running. Knees are hinge points of flexibility. And maybe the lasting peace and security hinge on our ability to kneel, requesting God’s help, celebrating God’s presence, and contemplating God’s self-disclosure: Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus do not have time to waste on worry or anxiety. The time is urgent. The Lord is near. The world is in desperate need of gentle people who are centered, non-anxious and joyful. Jesus, through St. Paul, invites us to join him on the road toward a peaceful future. It won’t hurt to invite others on the journey with us.
What makes you anxious? Have you offered that anxiety over to God? Take five minutes to sit in silence and offer God everything: your worries, your joys, your failures and your gratitude. Invite God to be your companion on the road toward peace.
St. John the Baptist never pulled any punches. (If your diet consisted of locusts and wild honey and your wardrobe was camel hide, you wouldn’t either.) He was a bold public witness of God’s ongoing drama of cosmic rescue. He was busy calling Israel back to its primal vocation: as participants in God’s generosity. He calls on the crowd to share a coat with a person who needs one and food with the hungry. He encourages soldiers and tax collectors to practice honesty in their oft-corrupt professional dealings. Yes, the desert-roaming prophet can come off as a little pushy, but sometimes pushiness is necessary. Like a fire marshal attempting to rescue every person she possibly can, the saintly baptizer is attempting to rescue Israel from itself. Dishonesty and selfishness tear communities down. Honesty and generosity strengthen communities.
St. John the Baptist is a model Advent practitioner; even though his public preaching is drawing throngs of people, he points beyond himself to the coming Messiah. At its core, Christian vocation is just that: an emptying of self for the sake of the One “who is more powerful than I.” Like St. John the Baptist, we are not worthy to untie the throng of Jesus’ sandals. But our unworthiness needn’t distract us from the work Jesus has given us to do. In this Advent season, Jesus calls his church to prepare the world for his coming. Through public proclamation and private conversation, the church is always on the fringes of society calling people toward Love. We are mistaken if we believe this Love can be easily dismissed or effortlessly ignored. No, this Love has demands: that we treat our neighbors justly and turn away from practices that undermine the mercy of God.
Jesus is coming to “clear his threshing-floor and to gather his wheat into his granary” and to burn chaff with “unquenchable fire.” What parts of your life could use some burning? How can you join St. John the Baptist in preparing the world for the coming of Jesus on Christmas?