If my name was recorded in the north African or Arabic way my name would be John Eric William Zephaniah. My Great Grandfather was born in the south of England at the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria and his father, William Henry Wesley, named him after that rather insignificant Old Testament prophet Zephaniah.
Because of this link I have always had a certain curiosity about this old prophet. But every time I try to read him it seems all too awful. He is ranting about the people of Judah/Israel. He is ranting about the neighbouring nations. The people of God have abandoned their first love of God. The nations around Judah have ridiculed and abused the People of God. In fact, these verses sound very much like the God that Richard Dawkins and others refuse to believe in – a grumpy old divine who is going to wreak destruction on humanity because we have all be so naughty.
As a result I would generally give up reading Zephaniah before I got to chapter 3 – and I should not have.
In our Good News Bibles, the section we read today (3:14-20) is headed – Song of Joy. It is actually two songs.
The first song is in the voice of Zephaniah and he is calling the people to rejoice because “there is now no reason to be afraid.” God has withdrawn his punishment of them, and has removed their enemies. Zephaniah says: “In his love he will give you new life.”
After all the terrible things he had railed against this seems to be an amazing change of fortune.
Many Christians have a little saying that helps them understand how and why Jesus would ultimately die. They say “Without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins.” In the context of the sacrificial system in Israel this seems a plausible rule.
Yet here, and it is by no means the only example on the Old Testament, God’s relents from all his threats of pain and destruction. Dawn Weaks, in a sermon on this text, says:
“Something changes. God relents. Zephaniah ceases words of destruction and gives birth to new hope with words of comfort. Maybe God remembers that we humans cannot restore ourselves on our own; perhaps God’s parental heart breaks at the thought of continuing to punish these precious children. Regardless, Zephaniah stops telling the people what they’ve done wrong and starts telling them what God is doing right.”
And words like that can only be addressed in song – hence the poetic form in our Bibles. But it is not enough for the voice of Zephaniah to tell us this. Half way through he says “even God will sing you a song.”
In this second song, the voice of God says “I have ended the threat of doom and taken away your disgrace. … I will rescue the lame and bring the exiles home. I will turn your shame into honour and all the world will praise them.”
God here sings a love song. And this song is for the entire world. It turns out the God longs for joy, too, and here God steps in and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves so that we can live in joy.
Here is a source of Joy for Christmas that is not based in the sentimentality of an innocent and helpless baby born in abject circumstances. This Joy is totally focussed on God’s gracious action in putting aside our failures so that we can know him fully as he wants to know us fully.
But wait! There’s more. The remaining three selections from Scripture today (Isaiah 12:2-6 , 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 and Luke 3:7-18) seem also to be a call to joy – life may seem tough with many things stacked against us, but we are called to remember always that God will bring us peace and hope and love and joy.
It is very easy for us to forget God has given us all that we need to be able to rejoice in him. But we are not overcome by fear or sadness. We should never lose heart. Clarissa Estes says:
“The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.”