Saturday, December 09, 2006

Preaching the Third Sunday of Advent (post 1)

Deep thanks to everyone who found my posts on Advent 2C helpful (click here)! Now on to the third Sunday of Advent, Year C:

The appointed text for Advent 3, Year C is Zephaniah 3:14-20, a wondrous hymn of redemption and joy. This beautiful prophecy sounds some very different notes from those of the Sunday before. The third Sunday of Advent traditionally emphasizes the sort of Joy and Rejoicing that this text of Zephaniah inspires.


In coming posts, I shall explore some of the fascinating details of this reading. For now, simply note the overall scene. The prophet is speaking as King Josiah's famous reforms of Judah are just getting underway. People's hearts are still far from God and the great enemy Assyria has devastated the country. Zephaniah's command to "Shout for Joy" (3:14) does not fit the context.

It does not fit our context either! The here and now is burdened with war and discouragement. Peace and restoration probably seem farther from us than they did to the prophet's first audience. As Steve Pankey writes in the "Lectionary Go" blog, it is often the prophet's task to declare an unimaginable hope in a time of unraveling.

Karl Barth has described biblical joy as a defiant "nonetheless." W. Dyrness recalls this theme lived out in Zaire, where he saw 900 joyful believers singing in the refugee camp of Goma. It is indeed possible, and it is certainly faithful, to sing hymns of praise and hope amid deteriorating political and economic conditions.

The book of Zephaniah should certainly be better known than it currently is. For some good background on Zephaniah's times, click here (but don't believe him that our text is a late gloss!). Stay tuned, more on Zephaniah 3 is forthcoming...

8 Comments:

Blogger Jim said...

This is a great series, Stephen. Thanks!

Sat Dec 09, 11:34:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Jim, I appreciate your support! --S.

Sat Dec 09, 05:14:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Thomas said...

There is a lot of truth in the claim that biblical joy is a defiant "nonetheless" but I am not persuaded that this is what is going on in Zephaniah. Cf. Isa 48:20 (Leave Babylon, flee from the Chaldeans!) - even on the (mistaken, in my view) assumption that this was written by the prophet Isaiah himself, it is clearly not an instruction for eighth century inhabitants of Jerusalem. Similarly, dating the last part of Zephaniah to the time of Josiah is insufficient warrant for interpreting the imperative in 3:14 as an instruction for pre-judgement Jerusalem. Interestingly, Dyrness even observes that the basis for the joy is that God has taken away the judgement ("past tense"), without explaining how this would work pre-judgement. This specific call to joy in my view sits uneasily with the main instruction for Josiah's time (2:1-3), especially given the "perhaps". What do you think?

Thu Dec 14, 07:40:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Hi Thomas. Thanks so much for these comments! I perceive that you are a historical critic! Let me offer a few thoughts on these things. Setting aside the historical-critical question for now, I think most readers can at least agree on the passage's "canonical form" (Brevard Childs was one of my mentors). Canonical shaping places our text "in the days of Josiah" (Zeph 1:1). Within that literary and theological context, the message of Zeph 3 would have to be as follows: imagine a day when enemy Assyria has fallen (3:13); imagine a day when God has embraced the humble and lowly among God's people (3:12); imagine a day when God's people finally fulfill their vocation on earth (3:20). Start acting and living into that day. Most specifically, Zeph 3 would call the ("canonically") implied-audience to support Josiah's reform, get with God's program, and rejoice in imagining this program and its eventual fruits already underway. Something like that would be my reading (see the continuing posts above). God has indeed "taken away the judgment" in the sense that the text's promised hope is as good as done from the perspective of the ("canonical figure of the") prophet. ---SLC

Thu Dec 14, 10:30:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Thomas said...

SLC --- I had problems commenting with earlier posts not getting through, a beta.blogger glitch, I think.

My comparison with Isaiah 48 was meant to underline that I am reluctant to see the call to joy as an injunction for pre-judgement Jerusalem for rhetorical reasons, not redaction-critical ones. To imagine a future generation fleeing Babylon is not the same as actually doing it and the latter was not an option for eighth-century Judeans. I find it hard to imagine an audience accepting both 2.1-3 ("perhaps") and 3.14 as direct exhortations for them.

What do you make of the canonical placement of Zephaniah after Nahum and Habakkuk which have brought readers through the end of the Assyrian empire to the experience of Babylonian abuse of the power entrusted to them by God? Does the implied canonical reader live after the destruction of Jerusalem?

Sat Dec 16, 11:54:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thomas, thank you. You've clarified your point and sent me back to the text. I appreciate that! (By the way, given your interests in prophecy, Ezekiel, and U2 we simply must befriend each other. We seem to have a lot in common.) Well, now I do accept the technical point that you are making. Zeph 3:14 is an eschatological call to rejoice, meant to take effect after Judah's repentance and transformation is accomplished. I think that technically Isa 48:20 should be called eschatological as well, since even Babylonian exiles would not be able to heed its command until later, when Cyrus eventually comes and liberates them. It is not really a live option for the exiles yet either. I continue to maintain still that, canonically speaking, both Zeph 3:14 and Isa 48:20 are addressed to a pre-exilic audience. Such an audience, even though not yet experiencing eschatological time, could still start to re-orient their perspectives and start to live into an eschatological form of life. The message of joy is relevant to them. I hold to that reading, though I now think I bought in too much to Sweeney's thought in his Hermenia volume that their disaster and judgment was merely what Assyria wrought in the period before Josiah. If you read the book as a whole, God is talking about world-scale judgment. Also, yes, I agree with you that it is hard to imagine the same implied pre-exilic audience accepting both Zeph 2:1-3 and Zeph 3:14 at one and the same time, but, whether I like it or not, this is precisely what the canonical shaping of Zephaniah is attempting and asking me to accept. The tension is eased somewhat if I suppose that the messages of the two verses were uttered on different occasions, perhaps separated by many days or months. Also, prophecy of judgment can come across as totally irreversible when first uttered, only to be reversed in fact, or at least postponed, by God after repentance and transformation occur in response to it (cf. Jer 26:18-19; Jonah 3:4). Best, --Stephen C.

Sat Dec 16, 05:38:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Thomas said...

...and we are both preparing men and women for Anglican ministry - we do indeed have a lot in common. Nice to virtually meet you ;-)

I'll think about this further - many thanks for your posts and God's blessing for tomorrow!

Sat Dec 16, 06:21:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Nancy Graham said...

Preaching this text and have found your insights so helpful! Thank you.

Sat Dec 15, 06:37:00 AM GMT-5  

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