Thursday, December 14, 2006

Preaching the Third Sunday of Advent (Part 3)

We have been working on interpreting this coming Sunday's reading (Advent 3, Year C): Zephaniah 3:14-20. For the immediately preceding post in the series, click here. As you prepare this text, please add your own questions and ideas in the comments section below.

To have God in our midst (3:15, 17) is radical, destabilizing, and fully exhilarating. Zephaniah, we have seen, points to the consuming, bellowing joy of the experience, likening it to the re-union of two impassioned lovers (3:17).

To have God in our midst is fully transformative. Normally, the marriage of lovers changes each for the better. Zephaniah hoped that King Josiah and his reforms would jump-start the life-changing, renewing love between God and God's people that the covenantal bond always intended.

A century earlier, Hosea had spoken of God's betrothal gifts to Israel as "righteousness," "justice," "lovingkindness," and "mercy" (Hosea 2:19-20). Now, Zephaniah envisions God's people, reunited in covenant with God, doing no wrong, telling no lies, lacking deceit (Zeph 3:13). Advent is betrothal season, a season for receiving such betrothal gifts, thus preparing for re-union with God.

Does Zephaniah present us with a flawed utopia, where humans languish with no more challenge or need for growth? A rediculous thought! Thanks to God's betrothal gifts of virtue, God's people can finally become the kind of souls qualified to enjoy God's presence. Within God's loving embrace, we can finally ever more grow in intimacy with the Lord and in knowledge of the Lord.

The theology behind Josiah's reforms insisted that Israel's transformation was not for its own benefit alone. God's people are given a vocation to be a holy presence in the world for the benefit of the world. When Zephaniah speaks of our "renown and praise among all the peoples of the earth" his words reverberate with such texts as Exodus 19:6 and Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; Jer 2:3. In Deuteronomy 26:18-19, Moses promises Israel that God "shall set you high above all nations which he has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people."

To be a "consecrated people" is to take up a vocation on behalf of the world. It is to minister the presence of the holy God (Zeph 3:15, 17) in the midst of the nations. Earth's nations may find God's presence a bellowing joy or a dreadful inconvenience. What they must not do, through our slough, is fail to come to terms with it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does (the canonically presented) Zephaniah really believe that Josiah's reforms might turn things round? 2.1-3 seems to me to hold out a more limited hope: the poor, if they seek justice and humility, might find refuge in God when judgement falls upon Jerusalem. And so the joy in our text (3.14-20) is not the joy of judgement averted but of judgement survived.

I am sure you've noticed the many occurences of bqrv in this chapter, all climaxing in the claim that God is "in your midst". Immanuel.

Sat Dec 16, 12:28:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eze 43.7 arguably also implies that God's kingship as a present reality among us is (re-)established the other side of judgement. God's royal presence cannot abide where God is not worshipped as king.

At the same time, you rightly hint at the fact that "Immanuel" can be bad news. The absence of God's glory does not entail lack of divine involvement.

I am intrigued to see that throughout the Bible God's presence as judge is rarely spelled out as the presence of the king. We might have thought that God's judgement is an exercise of his kingship and yet Zephaniah speaks of God's royal presence only after the judgement - and the situation in the book of Ezekiel (and maybe Isaiah, except for chapter 6) is not dissimilar. The "day of the Lord" may turn out to be darkness rather than light but "your king comes" always seems to be good news...

Maybe this is is because if you rightly call the LORD your king, you submit to him in humility and seek his kingdom in which case "Immanuel" is good news.

Sat Dec 16, 01:26:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thomas, I like what you emphasize about קרב! By my count, קרב occurs seven times in Zephaniah. That's amazing, and it certainly fits with the "Immanuel" theme of Advent! On whether or not the joy of 3:14 could be judgment averted, rather than judgment survived, see my earlier reactions to your earlier comments. That judgment can perhaps be averted is suggested elsewhere in Bible at places such as Jeremiah 26:18-19 and Jonah 3:4 Of course, in the end judgment does come on pre-exilic Judah, so my point may be moot. Thanks also for your reflections on the meaning of God's kingship. Definitely "food for thought" ---S.

Sat Dec 16, 06:18:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Paul said...

I'm wondering what impact the celebration of the Great Passover in Josiah's reform has on understanding our text. The Word and Spirit brought holy conviction to Josiah who then cleansed the Temple and reconstituted the sacramental life of God's people: peace offerings, sacrificial system etc. All of this must have brought great joy to the heart of God who longs for his people's return. Jesus comes that our joy may be full and complete.

Fri Dec 11, 11:15:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Matt L said...

I am not sure I understand the points about קרב.
Is this not the hebrew word for fight or duel?
How does this fit with the idea of Immanuel.
Am I misreading the word reference?
Maybe a Strong's reference would be better.

Sat Dec 12, 02:05:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Matt L said...

I'm certainly not a Hebrew Scholar so please forgive my ignorance and denseness.
Just trying to understand the blog chain.
I am grateful for the insights nonetheless.

Sat Dec 12, 02:22:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Hi Matt,
Hebr. qereb means "inward part," "midst," and is Strong's No. 07130. Does that help?

Sat Dec 12, 02:30:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Matt L said...

Yes, thanks Stephen.
I had kind of come around to that, finally.
I am sad that I do not understand the ancient languages more fully, so I am both intriqued and frustrated by discussions in which the ancient words are explored.
Thanks again.

Sat Dec 12, 02:36:00 PM GMT-5  

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