Preaching Zephaniah 3:14-20
The scene painted by Zephaniah is one of a restored people of God, with Judah personified by the city of Jerusalem "the daughter of Zion," her enemies repelled, her reproach removed, her offenses pardoned, her safety restored, and Yahweh her king in residence within her walls. For the Christian church, of course, the prophetic hope of a restored kingdom and messianic fulfillment looks forward beyond the post- exilic return and restoration of Israel to the coming of Christ and, ultimately, to the coming of the kingdom of God.
For the Jewish community in exile, the day of restoration and reunification will be one of great joy. Zephaniah evokes that joy in anticipation of the great day. In the reading given the text by the church, joy attends the coming of Christ and the manifestation of the kingdom of God. The Zephaniah passage is, as the RSV captions it, "a song of joy." All four texts for this Sunday have joy as their theme, and the candle lit on the third Sunday of Advent is called the joy candle.
While it may be perfectly obvious that joy attends the fulfillment of the prophetic hope of a restored Zion at peace, safe, and secure, there is a deeper insight for the preacher's unpacking. All humankind longs for joy and experiences from time to time that joy which is beyond mere pleasure or even happiness. But the ground of joy may remain a mystery even when it has been experienced.
The hidden source of joy can be seen in our text. Upon more careful examination it is evident that each particular in Zephaniah's depiction of the joy of Jerusalem has to do with union or reunion with that to which one belongs and from which one has been separated. The exiles were separated from their homeland. Jerusalem was separated from her true nature by her offenses. The people were alienated from God by sin. The passage is replete with instances of being united with that to which the people as individuals and as a whole truly and deeply belonged: God is in the midst of the city; the people will be brought home; the outcasts are gathered in; Jerusalem and her true destiny are reunited. It is in the union with that to which they deeply and truly belong that the people find joy.1
Likewise, in Jesus' famous parable, the prodigal son returns to his father amidst great rejoicing. In fact, in all three of Luke's serial parables--the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost boy--the watchword is rejoice. And Jesus speaks of the great joy in heaven when one sinner repents; i.e., is reunited with his best self and with his Lord.
Tillich said he almost turned away from Christianity, because it was presented so often as joyless. Frederich Buechner tells of following a series of encounters with joy: Joy in life, joy in the material world, the necessity of shared joy, and the element of joy in the gospel which led him into faith and his vocation in the church as minister and writer.2
Wherever our essential estrangement from God, self, others, and life is overcome and reunion occurs, however partially or temporarily, there is joy. An artist or writer finds his own voice, his own unique or essential style. A divided person comes to own some part of himself which he has repressed or denied. A refugee or hostage is restored to his family. In all of these instances there is an outburst of joy, as there was when the iron curtain began to come down, the two states of divided Germany united, or when Anwar Sadat journeyed to Jerusalem to embrace his former enemies. In Paul's imagery, Christ in the Cross overcomes the barriers that separate Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free. Sin alienates the person from God, from self, from the neighbor, and from life itself. This estrangement in all four basic relationships is exhibited in the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. Redemption is reconciliation and reunion, and, hence, the basis of the joy which Scripture uniformly associates with the appearance of the Kingdom, with the message and mission of the Messiah.
Wherever we touch the eternal in life, there is joy. Shepherds hear angels' song, and the message is "good tidings of great joy." Perhaps we have so little joy, because we stay on the surface of things and run away from reality. A father told his son who was going away to college, "Don't just go through college. Let college go through you!" Joy is not found by avoiding hard questions, taking no risks, and trying to live an ouch-free life. The fact is that struggle, risk, and pain are intrinsic to authentic life in the real world. It is when one gives herself fully to life, braves the hazards and pains of the engagement, allows life to "go through her," that she may experience the rapture of being alive. As an elderly deacon who kept bees said to his young minister, "There is a saying among bee keepers, `if you can't endure the stings, you are unworthy of the honey.'"
This text explored, articulated, and applied should make clear the distinction between the joy that belongs to the kingdom of God wherever it breaks into time and history and a mere clerical cheerfulness or civic club enthusiasm. The joy of which Zephaniah sang, and the angels after him, is neither synonymous with pleasure and happiness, nor is it the antithesis thereof. It is something far more basic.
James H. Slatton
1. "The Meaning of Joy," Paul Tillich, The New Being (New York: Chas. Scribners, 1950), pp. 24lff. 2. Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982) pp. 85, 96-97, 109.