14 So sing, Daughter Zion!
Raise your voices, Israel!
be happy! celebrate!
15God has reversed judgments against you
and sent your enemies off chasing their tails.
From now on, God is Israel’s king,
in charge at the center.
There's nothing to fear from evil
16Jerusalem will be told:
"Don’t be afraid.
17Your God is present among you,
a strong Warrior there to save you.
Happy to have you back, God will calm you with love
and delight you with songs.
18 "The accumulated sorrows of your exile
I, your God, will get rid of them for you.
You've carried those burdens long enough.
19At the same time, I'll get rid of all those
who've made your life miserable.
I'll heal the maimed;
I'll bring home the homeless.
In the very countries where they were hated
they will be venerated.
20On Judgment Day
I'll bring you back home—a great family gathering!
You'll be famous and honored
all over the world.
You'll see it with your own eyes—
all those painful partings turned into reunions!"
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson
The third Sunday of Advent historically takes a break from the somber, penitential tone of the first two Sundays. Although Advent now mostly emphasizes waiting, hope, and expectation, the season that initiates a new church year still retains some sense of judgment and repentance. Aside from the gospel reading from Luke with John the Baptist's call to repentance and his rude comments to onlookers, today's scriptures all focus on the joy that gives the day its traditional gaudete or "rejoice" designation that comes from the opening of the prayer of the day or collect.
Scholars don't know a lot about Zephaniah or even if someone by that name actually wrote these writings that bear his name. From the Book of the Twelve that's sometimes referred to as "Minor Prophets," much of Zephaniah conveys a feeling of judgment and near-despair. Because of that, parts of the whole may have originated in the southern kingdom Judah before the exile of many leaders to Babylon, or it could have been composed retrospectively during the exile itself. As another option, Zephaniah could have been assembled from assorted documents after the exile as Jerusalem was being rebuilt and restored, during the time existing scrolls were being edited, codified, and canonized into a coherent body of texts that led to Jews becoming a People of the Book. Yet another possibility? The burst of optimism and joy in the first reading for today makes a case for this poetry coming from the actual exilic period as it parallels the hope for a future we find in Isaiah 40-55, who's sometimes called Second Isaiah or the exilic Isaiah.
COVID-19 – COVID-21
Claiming a scripture as God's Word to you because it sounds good and you want it to apply to your situation can be "downright irresponsible," but providentially the lectionary recently has featured quite a few passages that give us hope for a restored future despite the pandemic and its many related restrictions continuing. I live in the city of Los Angeles that recently mandated showing your vaccination card if you wanted to eat inside a restaurant. How inconvenient—or is that "how bureaucratic?" Because of a high rate of unvaccinated immigrants in my particular area, some fast food places have reverted to takeout only. Yet I know how far we've come because I even included my first time lunching inside a restaurant during early July in my monthly summary pictorial blog—it was a true milestone, yet I realize some people have been understandably cautious and haven't returned to indoors dining (except at home, of course).
The church has made today's reading a Messianic prediction of God's loving, healing embodied presence in the midst of God's people that we know in Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, the Little Town of House of Bread. When you love someone, you want to be with them, and being with those you love makes you happy: it really is that simple. Glancing backwards over the various iterations of denominational lectionaries and later common ones shared across traditions, the image of a creator, redeemer, sustainer God's joy in being with the people and journeying alongside them becomes irresistible.
Immigrants and exiles would glory in God's promise of homecoming in verse 20, but those of us who haven't been physically displaced by the pandemic still have been exiled and displaced from our usual normal and even our expectations for a future. This has gone on so long and to such an extent it's hard to trust in the future scripture tells us God is preparing for us.
Zephaniah's Day of the Lord that Pastor Gene Peterson renders "Judgment Day" (in continuity with some others) becomes a time of human joy, of ingathering and homecoming so intense that people actually are able to forget the bad stuff. Christmas is two weeks away! Rejoice!