Fo Lo, the days are hastening on! Advent 3 presents us with 3 solid texts. More booming threats from John the Baptist as the Gospel – but it’s Advent 3 already! Philippians 4 is profound and lovely – but not very Christmasy or Adventish now, is it? Finally, Zephaniah 3:14-20 is powerful, and is our church’s overarching text for this entire Advent season. I’ll point you once more to my general blog with lots of illustrative, seasonal stuff on preaching Advent, “God Became Small,” and then ahead to my similar blog on Preaching Christmas Eve/Christmas.
Zephaniah 3:14-20. This obscure prophet, during the tumultuous days of the great reforming King Josiah, killed far too young at age 39 (and how many greats died at 39? Martin Luther King, Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm X, Chopin, Pascal), stands up and declares a season of immense hope and joy is coming. Political uncertainty, guilt about but attachment to the false idols that had crept in, confusion, and terror at the impending assaults of the Assyrians and then the Babylonians left the people numb, flailing.
In Why This Jubilee? I wrote a little reflection on “I’ll be home for Christmas,” noting how many of our carols mention “home.” We have a hankering for home. In our uprooted, mobile society, many don’t know where home even is, or parents have died and the old homeplace isn’t home any more. God placed this yearning in us so we might seek after God, realizing at some point that even the best home, the homiest home anywhere here isn’t quite home enough for our rich, God-instilled cravings. We wait, we long, we yearn for God to bring us home. That’s the message of Advent, right?
There’s also a weird quirk in verse 17 that I believe I’ll play with – as God let the quirk in for some reason, right? The Hebrew is corrupt, admitting of various renderings and nuances. RSV says “He will renew you in his love.” The Hebrew might just as likely mean “He will betroth you in his love,” a thought-provoking image, but it may also mean “He will be silent in his love.” Boom. God’s love is in the silence, it feels like silence – but isn’t most real love just that way, just sitting, being still?
And one more option! The Hebrew could just mean “He will plow you in his love.” Yes, the verb meant what it seems to imply – but I might poke around what a plow does, how it cuts and turns but prepares us for new growth. Which is the whole point of Advent, right? Rev. Sarah Howell-Miller (yes, my daughter) wrote a fabulous song called “The Plow” (watch/listen here!). The lyrics gets at the heart of Advent, although it’s not an Advent song proper:
Pain cuts like a plow into the ground / the ground of your being, the earth of your heart / Watch the soil turn, churning and hurting / Preparing for new life to start.
Why dig so deep? Why make me bleed? / I’ve grown attached to this grass and these weeds / One day, I’m told, a garden will grow / But all that I’m doing is kicking up stones.
So, furrow the ground, and furrow your brow / Nobody promised that you’d never fall / Wipe off the sweat, take a deep breath now / And leave yourself spaces for awe.
Once you complete the tilling and weeding / The barrenness might break your heart / But listen in close, still there’s a pulse / The heartbeat of myst’ry that cannot be known / This desolate dirt, the lungs of the earth / Are sighing in labor and groaning for birth.
“Let not your hands grow weak” in verse 16 is similarly tantalizing. Aging parishoners will look down at their laps in immediate recognition. I remember dreading the greeting line at the end of worship at my first two parishes. The men were mostly laborers, with huge, muscular hands, which would inevitably crush my small, weak hands – sometimes making me wonder if they were making a point.
What are weak hands? Zephaniah is urging the people on in their work, of course – but I wonder if we mis-define hands and their functions. In my first book, Yours are the Hands of Christ, I asked What did Jesus do with his hands? as a clue for what we might do with ours. I told the story of my Aunt Zonia, who had some disability in her hands. They were gnarled, and she couldn’t really hold anything. But I adored her hands. She held mine when I battled a fever while staying with her. She would point to the groceries in the car and ask me to carry them, making me feel useful and needed. She folded those hands in prayer, and managed to flip through her Bible to find stuff. Weak hands? Strongest I’ve ever known.
Why not let our hands grow weak, but continue to pray, hold onto one another, and do whatever we’re able to do in hope? Zephaniah says “He will rejoice over you in gladness” and “He will exult over you with loud singing.” Our singing echoes not just the angels, and Christian congregations and choirs through the ages. God sings. In my sermon, I’m just going to ponder this, marvel over it, invite my people into a quiet space to relish the thought.
My comments on this last go round still stand. It’s the ultimate in why we read Scripture slowly – and to ponder that Paul dictated it slowly with Roman guards overhearing! Check out my 3 year old blog on how Rejoice! and Have no anxiety! and giving thanks and making requests to God all interlock and issue in something fruitful.
Luke 3:7-18. Again, I have little to add from last go round, when I tied this text’s “ax at the root of the tree” to Shel Silverstein’s wonderful children’s story, The Giving Tree. As for me, I’ll be giving this Sunday over to Mary, as we light her pink candle and ponder her discomfort, hope, isolation, love and determination. Such beauty. The closest one to Jesus. The first disciple who let him take on reality in her life.
Check out my new book, geared as a Lenten study for your Church peeps, but constructive at any season, reflecting on various pregnant lines in familiar hymns, with lots of stuff from my preaching: Unrevealed Until Its Season.