Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent Three: The Song That Goes On and On and (Zephaniah 3:14-20)

Zephaniah.  It is not one of the more popular baby names nowadays.   It makes me think of those relatives in family pictures from many years ago.  A man named Zephaniah conjures this image of  a great-great-great grandfather staring at you in an old 19th century family photo, a man who looks like he bit nails for fun (and by nails, we mean “ten penny”).  He’s surrounded by the requisite 19th century family of near a dozen children and a wife who looks even tougher than him, able to send the kids off to the one-room school house and then plow the back forty before heading to the kitchen to peel a gunny sack of potatoes to get supper going.  (For the record, I have no relatives named Zephaniah, though I do have an aunt Zelda.)

            The prophet Zephaniah serves as one of the “minor” prophets, the prophets whose writings are shorter in length compared to the “major” prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, but by no means are the minor prophets to be considered “lesser” than the others.   They may have written less, but these “minor” prophets still carry the edgy vocation of prophet, bring a word that challenges and a life that moves against the grain of the world.  Just as last week’s readings from Malachi, the readings from Zephaniah appear in the midst of our anticipation of Christmas, the grumpy street preacher out in the cold on the corner as people bustle by, in search of presents, his message sounding an odd note.

            Zephaniah spends much of its time railing against the excesses of the nation.  The king Josiah reigned, yet Zephaniah’s prophetic work happened in the years before Josiah enacted religious reforms as one of Israel’s last “good” kings.  At this point, no one, from crown on down, had faced up to its breach of covenant loyalty with God.  Zephaniah’s critique of the politics, society, and religion of the day would have been vindicated only after the fact.

            The book of Zephaniah is structured around nine long teachings, or oracles.   Eight of the nine oracles are laden with talk of divine judgment for the people’s neglect of covenant commitments to God and the excesses of the day.  The book offers a fairly firm word that such behavior has not gone unnoticed by the Divine, and quite frankly, there will be a reckoning that no one will be escape, from the guy on the street all the way up to the royal court.

            The ninth oracle is astonishing in its content.  During the last section the prophet’s tone changes.  He speaks of God saving those who listen to the prophet and take it to heart.  I find it quite remarkable to find this section at the end of the prophetic roar, this tender appeal to join voices together and sing of the great hope that God has in store for the faithful.  Suddenly fierce Zephaniah softens, just like a “tough as nails” old man melting into tears as he is given that first grandchild to hold.

The dominant image of the prophetic utterances moves from the earth under divine judgment to a gathering of the faithful, singing of their faith at the top of their voices.   The people are called to sing of a faith that shall endure the world’s hardships and foresee the future as God brings about a reign of justice and peace, not just for some or a chosen few, but for all peoples of the world.

At first glance, you might be skeptical:  what good does this call to song really do?  The world is no less fractured as it was in the day of Zephaniah’s prophetic work.  One of the college students taking the comparative religions course I helped instruct awhile back noted the disparity.  At the final class session this past week, the question was asked:  After learning of various religious traditions this semester (beliefs, rituals, theological reflection on contemporary issues), what questions do you still have?  The student earnestly shared, “Each week, people go to religious places of worship, yet the headlines really never change.”  He noted wars, disasters, economic and social disparities still abound.  I appreciate the student’s observations.  It can seem a bit impossible.  The bright visions of a better world seem a bit detached from reality.  What good can a bunch of people at worship really do in this messed up world?

The song of Zephaniah is yet another reflection of how the season of Advent helps us live in the “now” and the “now yet”.   The Advent texts tell of people living faithfully in times of great challenge, not as those who believe in some sort of wishy-washy “pie in the sky” but rather as those who know you have got to keep your eye on the prize.  To sing Zephaniah’s song, you do not find the imagery of a life lived in pursuit of the afterlife.  Instead, this song imagines a different take on the world, where the nations shall be gathered together, where all persons will be given dignity, where the lost shall be found.

Such a song, invoked in the midst of the praise of God, maps out a different way of looking at the world.  We hear the disparities of a people who claim to be the chosen, the exceptional, yet they kept some folks invisible or at the margins.  Zephaniah is the counter witness to the official script of the day:  the nation was getting a little stronger under Josiah, regaining some international alliances, making a few strides toward new economic stability, yet some folks were kept second class citizens.  The vision of the prophets (major or minor) imagines a people not separated by status or privilege.  (A people holy and devout do not leave anyone out.)

Reading the full text of Zephaniah, you experience the full and necessary indictment of a society that tried its best to be the city set on a hill yet never gave full account for its misdeeds and myopias.  Yet, and I love that word “yet”, as it seems to be the necessary word for describing the prophets:  The people have sinned mightily against God, yet God shall bring about a different End, one of love, justice, and peace.  Accordingly, Zephaniah moves from indignant to tender in his prophecies.  The last section claims you can indeed sing a different tune and become the beloved community of God.  This song of Zephaniah presents where God will bring all things in the end, and singing this song inspires you to be part of the effort to bring the world more into line closer to what God intends.

In 2009, Baptists from around the world gathered for the 400th anniversary celebration of the first “Baptist” congregation forming in Amsterdam in 1609.  The service ended with the gathered people singing “We Are Marching in the Light of God”.   The song is also known as “Siyahamba”, reflecting the song’s origins in South Africa.  Originally, the song arose among Christians living in the long entrenched apartheid era.  The tune is quite easy to pick up, the words easy to remember:

We are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God.

Getting a few hundred Baptists singing it at the end of a celebratory worship service, well, that church was rocking.  Better said, when the rest of the world joins in the song, even us relatively staid U.S. Baptists, who have mixed feelings about even clapping in church, find ourselves dancing.

The song “Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God” is not just “idle words” set to a catchy tune. The song mirrors the faith of a people who look to God for their strength and encouragement.  For people living under an oppressive government, dealing with hunger, poverty, and other forms of blatant disregard for people based on the color of their skin, this song pointed to a path through this world. Michael Hawn, a leading proponent of sacred global music, notes the power of this hymn, “Singing "Siyahamba" says that liturgy is not hermetically sealed from daily life, but is a place to mend the wounds of oppression, and to receive a blessing to return to the streets in hope for freedom.” (C. Michael Hawn, )  Not only for Sunday, this song provided a vision for the lives of people working to change a society.

The band came to a stop, as the BWA president came to the pulpit to give the benediction.  The crowd at the Baptist World Alliance meetings could not stop singing.  The president smiled and just waved his hand, conducting the crowd as we sang the song one more time.

I think back to that summer day in Amsterdam as I read Zephaniah.  The BWA singing together reminded me of the prophet’s vision of the nations of the world being gathered together, with no partiality given, gathered to sing of God’s just future coming about.  Siyahamba brought the people to worship and prepared them to return home to places where difficulties abound.  I stood alongside persons who would return to countries where poverty abounds and clean water is in short supply, where human trafficking (the 21st century version of slavery) is a critical problem, where the world’s resources are scarce because the West, particularly this country, over consumes.  These folks sang “We Are Marching in the Light of God” with the same conviction as those who composed it while living in difficult times.  Admittedly, I have sang “We Are Marching in the Light of God” at a few church services and ecumenical gatherings over the years, but this is the first time I felt the words and the tune work down into my soul.

What did that song say to me?  How does a Baptist serving in a country of veritable privilege, feel able to join in that song?   In response to the student’s pondering whether or not worshipping people can make a difference in the world, I would share with them about First Baptist, Cuba, and your commitment to become the best answer to that question.  Your church is investing its energies in discipleship far beyond just what happens on a Sunday morning. 
May we continue learning to sing a new song that harkens back to the prophets of God, who saw the dysfunctional present yet could foresee the bright future God alone holds for the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment