Advent 3 – Sunday, December 16, 2018

December 16, 2018  

Zephaniah 3:14-20

I planned our worship service around our first reading, excited about the fact that the lectionary has added two and a half verses to the reading. With the old lectionary (which is the schedule of readings we use) the first reading was Zephaniah 3:14-18a. Now we have Zephaniah 3:14-20!  It’s an opportunity for occupational excitement!!!

Look at verses 18b-20.

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.
And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
And I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you;
For I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth,
When I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

This is great news!
Let’s step back and look at its meaning.

The book of Zephaniah is a collection of oracles and sermons written by the 7th century BC prophet Zephaniah ben Cushi (koosh-I) (The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 7, p. 659), otherwise known as Zephaniah, son of Cushi. What’s interesting about Zephaniah’s name is that “ben Cushi” is an “ethnonym,” which is “the proper name by which a people or ethnic group is called or known” (Dictionary.com, as quoted at “Zephaniah The Prophet: Son of A Cushite Man” at blackhistory.com October 2016).
The son of Cushi would be either the son of a Cushite or a Cushite himself, which means either he was born in what we now know as the Sudan, or in Ethiopia—or his father was. (Ibid. Black History)

I’m sharing all of this because we forget—the regions of our faith include more than just a narrow portion of the Middle East. When we think of biblical times we tend to focus in on the eastern and the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. But both Old and New Testament times are far more inclusive of the entire Mediterranean coast, including the both the northern coast of Africa, and inland territories. (If you look at the map on the cover of your bulletin you can see the size of the Mediterranean Sea on the territory our scriptures originate from.)

Now—add to the fact that Zephaniah was either a Cushite or the son of a Cushite— add the meaning of his first name, Zephaniah:
Zephaniah means “Yahweh protects” according to one source (TNIB, vol 7, p. 659); or it has the dual meaning of “Yahweh has sheltered” or “Yahweh has treasured” according to another source (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 950).

All of this sets Zephaniah aside as a prophet who brings a unique voice to our faith tradition.
Which makes the final words of his book—the final words of our first reading—all the more interesting.

The prophet Zephaniah, at the time of his preaching, was most likely a resident of Jerusalem. He saw the lawlessness of the people living in Jerusalem, and those living in other parts of Judah. He saw the lawlessness of those living in the region, including territories we now know as Syria and northern Africa. Zephaniah preached God’s judgment upon those people unless they would “do no wrong and utter no lies” (Zephaniah 3:13). Which is what Zephaniah believed a remnant of Israel would choose to do.

Because that remnant chose to humble themselves, Zephaniah believed God would “take away the judgments against them” (3:15) restoring their good fortune. And, Zephaniah believed, God would “save the lame and gather the outcast” (3:19), bringing them home (3:20).

This is good news, not only for the people Zephaniah preached to in the 7th century BC, but to children of the Judeo-Christian tradition living ever since.
Zephaniah is telling us God not only will be but also that God IS merciful.
God desires nothing more than to bring us home.

As Lutherans we believe there is nothing we can do to take away God’s judgment.

We have been judged guilty. We also believe God is merciful, saving us from our sin, washing us in the waters of our baptism, promising us graceful love everlasting. We believe God has already saved the lame and gathered the outcast. We are the lame. We are the outcast. We are saved.

Let’s not get comfortable, though. We must not neglect the “lame” and the “outcast” in our midst.
We must not neglect those who suffer, not because God has judged them, but because we humans have acted in ways that cause suffering. We must not neglect those who suffer because of the systems we humans have created that have caused or added to their suffering. We must not neglect those who struggle because of the decisions we humans have made. We must not neglect those who live in the margins—in many ways our society is simply too narrow and our margins too wide.

Our response needs to be for us to be modern day Zephaniah’s, modern day prophets.

This is our time to preach and live a message of love and grace.
This is our time to open our arms to every person needing to know God’s love.
This is our time to tell everyone about the love Jesus has brought and brings to the world!
This is our time! As our hymn of the day says, this is our song.
Amen.