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Sermon Ideas For Zephaniah 3:14-20 Part 1

For a fundamental religious perspective to permeate a society, there has to be some social structure to serve as analogy for the religious perspective. For example, "grace" makes sense in a society characterized by "favors," as in any patron-client social structure. In the reading from Zephaniah we see a theological image of God rooted in the social structure of Israelite monarchy. Since this is a monarchy confined to a single ethnic group, the image of God is one of henotheism rather than monotheism. Henotheism means each ethnic group or even each sub-group has its own supreme God, while not denying the existence of other groups and their gods. In this case, the God of Israel is named YHWH. Zephaniah's task is to announce the Day of the YHWH-God (1:7-10, 14-16, 18; 2:2-3; 3:8, 11, 16, 18). The day of the YHWH-God is an event characterized by God's intervention on behalf of his own honor, a day of YHWH's "wrath." To understand what the prophet is saying, one must appreciate the Mediterranean value of honor, and the social scenarios that reveal how it is borne by persons of differing social ranks.
Honor is a claim to worth that is publicly acknowledged. Honor is distinguished by gender, as all else in the Mediterranean. Male honor looks outward from the family. Males seek to maintain inherited honor as well as to increase it by challenging. Honor is lost by a person's being shamed. Males are to seek satisfaction to regain their honor. They are to defend the honor of those under their tutelage, their wife, children, other family members. Female honor looks inward toward the family. Female honor can only be maintained, not increased, since when lost, it can never be regained. The family treasures honor as perhaps the greatest good in life, for it is honor that guarantees its joint possessors a good life.
Equals feel free to challenge one another's honor, give their word of honor, and pass on their honor to their children. Honor can be lost, persons can be shamed. A list of persons unable to maintain their honor would include: The poor, captives, the blind and maimed, the oppressed and the like (see Lk 4:18, for example). But people of higher rank cannot be challenged by people of lower social standing. Higher ranking people can be insulted, abused or ridiculed by those of lower rank. But given the disparity in ranking, it is demeaning, shameful to respond to the affronts of inferiors. Usually the clients of a high ranking person will respond instead, much like the soldier in John 18:22 who slaps Jesus for his presumably insulting answer to the high-priest, and states: "Is that how you answer the high priest?"
Zephaniah's theology is rooted in the social scenario of YHWH-God as honorable monarch. He envisions YHWH-God as the most lofty and respect-worthy king conceivable. Being so eminently superior, God's honor, his public claim to worth and recognition, simply cannot be committed or engaged by an inferior's insults and affronts (called "sins"). YHWH-God, like any other socially superior person, really cannot be challenged by his subjects or anyone else. Yet again like other socially superior persons continually affronted, God has the power to punish impudence. Being the unique and supreme monarch, God has the moral obligation to take public "satisfaction" for such effrontery if only to reveal concern for his honor, since those who should champion his exalted personage, Israel's elite, are guilty of affronting their king, YHWH-God.
Significantly, the elite behavior that affronts God in Zephaniah's perspective includes: Impudence, rebellion, lying, lack of allegiance to God along with no social concern for fellow Israelites. Thus due to the continued impudence of Israel's elites, the nations it deals with, and notably the city of Jerusalem, the prophet sees the day of the Lord as forthcoming (read Zeph 1:14-16). It is forthcoming, because it flows organically from the ongoing interaction of God and Israel, in ever augmenting effrontery.
However some within Israel are not impudent. Some do not affront God. For the most part, these are the non-elite. They have been "oppressed," "shamed," ejected from their homes and despoiled of their goods (3:19-20). For these persons, the day of the Lord is a positive, happy event, much like "a day of festival" (3:18). The passage today cites that section of Zephaniah that underscores this joy at the coming day of the Lord for the "lowly and humble." These latter are those who without pretense remained within their social standing and showed due respect to others and to YHWH-God, yet were dishonored by the impudent.
What marks the Day of the Lord for these dishonored people is the fact that their enemies are expelled, that any sentence levelled by God the monarch against their group has been removed. But more significantly, YHWH-God, the real King of Israel, dwells in their midst in Jerusalem (3:15). Of course, God's dwelling among his people refers to the Temple presence of God in the city of Jerusalem, hence amid Jerusalemites. As a powerful monarch with his faithful people, God will now rejoice, show favor and exult over these people (3:17). More specifically, his ruling style is like that of a shepherd, staving off disaster and dangers, saving the lame and gathering in the outcast of the flock, leading them all home. (3:19) As I write these lines in southern Italy, I observe a flock of sheep being led by a shepherd, with its number of lame animals hurt while foraging among rocks or nipped by stray dogs, and straggling lambs outcast due to a ewe's death or injury. Thanks to YHWH-God the king who rules his own like a shepherd, the social situation is reversed: Good fortune is returned, and shame is changed to praise and honor, the people's claim to worth acknowledged by all the peoples of the earth.
Since the promises of Zephaniah were never actually fulfilled, they moved from the category of the forthcoming to that of future, known only to God (see my comments for the first Sunday of Advent). However with the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, Christians came to see the day of the Lord as forthcoming, as organically bound up with Jesus' coming as Messiah with power. In the forthcoming presence of Jesus among them, they hope to experience God's presence among his people. But no longer simply YHWH-God of Israel, but the unique and single God of all humankind.
The profound significance of the spread of faith in Jesus as God's Messiah in the first century is intimately bound up with the realization of monotheism. Monotheism, permeated the awareness of Western Europeans through a monarchy that embraced the whole known world. This monarchy, of course, was that of the Roman Empire, a monarchy well in evidence in the gospel infancy stories. With the diffusion of Christianity into the Roman Empire, with the proclamation of Jesus as unique mediator, unique son of God, and with the proclamation of one God in the Roman imperial setting, the monotheistic Euro-Christian tradition unfolds.
By way of a sort of appendix, I would like to note why this tradition cannot be called a "Judeo-Christian tradition." I do so not to be perverse, but for the sake of historical accuracy, especially given the propaganda value this label is forced to bear in the U.S. For European monotheism cannot be called a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition if only because normative Judaism, hence the distinctively "Jewish" tradition, does not emerge until the fourth century A.D. (Jacob Neusner). In spite of what Bible translators and interpreters say, the Greek word "Ioudaios" means Judean, of or pertaining to Judea. "Jewishness" and those espousing it, "Jews," are a post fourth century phenomenon at the base of the Jewish tradition with its Talmud and rabbinical structure. Furthermore, Christian interaction with Jews in any positive, constructive sense that might have formed a Judeo-Christian tradition did not occur until after the Enlightenment. And finally, the actual reference to a common Jewish-Christian tradition emerges only in 19th-century northern Europe.
The fact is, for better or worse, that the religious tradition of the U.S. is Euro-Christian. And at its root stands the symbol of monotheism, facilitated by Roman monarchy, the social structure that served as analogy for this fundamental Christian religious perspective. Thus the God revealed with the advent of Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean of the house of Israel, is the God of all humankind, once understood in Israelite tradition with the analogy of an ethnic God, YHWH.
Bruce J. Malina
Editable Region.