Preaching Zephaniah 3:14-20
This good news demands qualifying. As bright and hopeful as this rejoicing is, it is fully appreciated only as a contradiction of everything which has preceded it in the book of Zephaniah. If "contradiction" is too strong, certainly an exception is being made for the sake of the "remnant" (3:12). The conclusion of the book must be preached in light of the opening: "I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD." (1:2) In fact, the whole of the book moves as Luke 3:1-3 does, from the universal to the singular, the global to the local. The process is like peeling an onion and ending up with "that negligible sprout of a heart."1 God is working on Zion like a centrifuge, purifying a remnant, casting off wickedness with centrifugal force, leaving the humble in the center, a scant, distillate of the former nation, to rejoice. Brevard Childs says of the oracles against the nations (2:4-15), "the level of eschatological intensity…has been raised appreciably and they have been drawn within the orbit of the one great divine event."2God's judgment uproots and spins out the taunting, boasting, scoffing, oppressor nations. (2:8-10) But of Zion, Rex Mason writes: "As the `remnant' they will, like the `meek' of the beatitudes, `inherit the earth.'"3 Or what's left of it.
Still, there is reason for rejoicing: disaster is removed, God is in their midst, the lame and outcast are vindicated. God's amazing providence has saved them, even through the devastation of God's own judgment. Israel emerges from the darkness stunned, senseless, dumbstruck, blinking. They have to be told to rejoice! A balanced thematic sermon could not focus on this rejoicing without locating God's miraculous providence at the center.
Such phrases as "do not let your hands grow weak" (v. 16), and the literal rendering of the root haresh, meaning "he will be still" (v. 17), bring to mind the legend of St. Kevin and the blackbird. As the Irish saint was at prayer, a blackbird landed and deposited her eggs in his open hand, whereupon he did nothing but hold them day and night, in the rain, wind, and occasional sun, until they were safely hatched and launched. Seamus Heaney has made of the legend a fine poem in his book, The Spirit Level. The curious thing is that Kevin himself resembles both the provident God and the remnant in our text. For the legend to work, his prayer would have to be kataphatic (hands open, palms upward) rather than apophatic (hands folded or closed). We often think of his posture as common to the charismatic or Pentecostal tradition. But he would also have to be perfectly still, swaying no more than a tree or a mustard bush (cf. Mk 4:32) in the breeze, rooted, centered, like those at the heart, or better yet, in the eye of God's storm. This simultaneous stillness and openness not only characterizes God's rejoicing and the joy commended to the surviving remnant, it also underscores the solemnity of the occasion. The songs Israel (v. 14) will sing will not be loud and boisterous party songs, but awe-inspired, like Miriam's song on the far shores of the Red Sea, songs appropriate to the fallout of a global cataclysm. And what would be more appropriate on such an occasion than John Cage's 4'33" (of silence)? The meek know it by heart!
How then to go about preaching on this text from Zephaniah? Mason is correct in saying that "this little book witnesses to the kingship of God as powerfully as any other in the Old Testament,"4 and given that this Sunday represents its only appearance in the lectionary (excepting the Easter vigil), you'd better make it count.
I would recommend a brief summary of the whole of Zephaniah, since the power of the passage in question is largely in its context. I would call attention to the highly apocalyptic character of all that precedes it, and introduce 3:14-20 only as a surprising and hopeful aftermath to a promise of global destruction.
Where you go next is a problem of the prophet's refusal to restrict his verbs to one particular tense. For this reason, I would lean in the direction of offering an allegorical or a spiritual reading, rather than a literal or historical-critical one. The former are better able to move with the shifting tenses within the text than the latter, which tend to be embarrassed and paralyzed by them.
If the allegory of St. Kevin does not work for you, lead your congregation in an examination of the themes of desolation and consolation in Zephaniah, through the lenses of Ignatius Loyola and his Spiritual Exercises. These themes are prominent in both the book of the prophet and the Ignatian "Rules for the Discernment of Spirits." Both urge the soul decidedly toward the humble center, which, in the text, is to become the rejoicing remnant. Ultimately, that is where you want your listeners to be.
Timothy M. Slemmons
1. Katha Pollitt, "Onion," The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, Bly, Hillman, Meade, eds. (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), p. 265.
2. Brevard Childs, An Introduction to the old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), p. 459. Italics mine.
3. Rex Mason, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Joel (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), p. 57.
4. Ibid., pp. 57-58.