Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Art: Swanson, John August. The Procession, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56558 [retrieved January 25, 2022]. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com - copyright 2007 by John August Swanson.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
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.
Do Not Fear, O Zion: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Many of you know that I often organize my preaching around a three-year series of Bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. Today’s reading is a part of that series. Interestingly, it usually comes up as an option during Advent on the Sunday of Joy, the third Sunday, called Gaudete, when we usually sing a song of joy as we await the birth of Messiah. Usually, it’s Mary’s Song: “My Soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Every three years or so, this call to song, which was our call to worship, is part of the rotation: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” In the season when you are waiting for Emmanuel, God-with-us, it is good to sing with joy while you wait. It is good to sing the songs that remind you of what God has promised: joy, victory, restoration, justice, ingathering, home-making.
You might have noticed that today is not the third Sunday in Advent. That was back on December 12th. This year, I’m trying out a new series of Biblical reading, this one by a scholar named Wil Gafney. She has suggested reading this song of joy during Epiphany, the season after Advent and after Christ... the season in which we celebrate Emmanuel, God-With-Us, God who became flesh and moved like us, among us... God whom we encounter in the world. What difference does it make to read this call to joy after we know that God is With Us in a new and unexpected way? What difference does it make to read this song when we aren’t in a time of preparation but in a time of celebration and affirmation that God does indeed do what God has promised? How do we this call to song not as an assurance while we wait but as a confirmation of what we have come to know, that God is with us... that we can see God in this world? I wonder if it means we should consider that which is named in the reading.... the joy, victory, restoration, justice, ingathering, home-making... as more than just a promise of something God will provide. Instead, when we experience joy, victory, restoration, justice, ingathering, home-making, they are not simply a fulfillment of promise but are God actually with us in that moment. Joy, victory, restoration, justice, ingathering, home-making all a bit of Emmanuel.
I realize the point I’m trying to make may sound a bit like splitting hairs. How different really are a promise and a presence? If we experience joy and know that God has promised joy, wouldn’t it make sense to simply affirm that God has fulfilled God’s promise? God said that God would do a thing and a thing happened, so this is a fulfillment of a promise. Why would we need a different interpretation than that? Frankly, you might not. That being said, I think it is possible to hear this scripture as more than an assurance that God will do something. Instead, it is an assurance that God can be something... or be somewhere, that is, right here, in the midst of the joy, when we feel victory, arising in our restoration, alive through justice, gathering with us in the spaces that feel like, and we make, home.
Last week, I talked about theophany, which means God made manifest. To be manifest is to become clear, to be able to be perceived and recognized. In short, to be understood to be real. In the book of Zephaniah, not only are we being invited to understand that God will fulfil the promises God made in covenant by restoring Jerusalem following her destruction in war, we are also being invited to consider, when we read this text, during this season of affirmation that God is with us, that the joy that is felt in that restoration is actually the presence of God with the people who have been restored. You heard our readers say these ancient words today: “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more.” Dr. Gafney translates that same verse, the second half of verse 15, this way: “The Sovereign of Israel, Creator of Heavens and Earth, is in your midst, daughter; no longer shall you fear evil.” Joy is possible because God is with you. Victory is here because God walks among you. Restoration comes at the hands of the one who walks among you. This God, who is right here, will bring justice and gather those who have been scattered far from home.
Dr. Gafney asserts that what is foundational to both God’s actions and God’s presence is love. The renewal of the city destroyed is a sign of love. The salvation of those wounded by poverty, war, and illness is a sign of love. The drawing in of those who have been cast out... this is love. Being present in the place that had been destroyed... this is God living in God’s deep love for creation and for humanity and for this city, Jerusalem, that had once housed the throne of God, the ark of the covenant. God is manifest in acts of joy, justice, restoration, and love.
Joy often feels like it’s in short supply these days. With the wars and rumors of wars, with the pandemic and responses to the pandemic leaving nearly all of our safety nets stretched and breaking, this feels, to me anyway, a bit more like the time before the restoration and renewal, than the time when it is actually happening. And, if you read back through the rest of Zephaniah, it also comes from an era in which things are breaking apart rather than gathering-in. But it is not the destruction that manifests God, that is, lets the people of Jerusalem see clearly who and what God is. The destruction is real, and deadly, to be sure. But, is not where or how you most clearly recognize God. God is most clear in the restoration, something I imagine you might be able to affirm out of your own experience. How easy it for you to know that God is present in times of joy and restoration and justice? How hard is it to hear God in the midst of desolation?
I hope you don’t hear me saying that God is not there in the midst of that which feels like the end of the world. Because I don’t think Zephaniah believed that and I don’t believe that either. I am sure that God is present in the endings and the beginnings. That is part of the promise of Jesus Christ, one who saw a bloody end to life but also became known more fully as he manifested a new kind of life eternal. What I am saying that that God’s presence is most clear not in our destruction but in our restoration. And, when we participate in restoration and gathering in, God is manifest alongside us. In our songs of joy and fights for justice, God will become more clear. When those who have been broken by the cruelties of war and the ravages of illness are saved, we will know that God is present. The destruction we create will never bring forth the God we long for. Destruction makes God harder to see. Zephaniah tells us that renewal and restoration make God mores clear. May we be the tools through with God can appear.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, Epiphany 3, in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Also, Wil Gafney: https://www.wilgafney.com/2018/12/16/rejoice-and-repent/
And, this one by Wil Gafney: https://www.wilgafney.com/2022/01/22/epiphany-3-2/
Definition of Manifest: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/manifest
Gregory Mobley, "Zephaniah," The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.