Zephaniah 1.7,12-end; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew
Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy
the works of the devil and to make us the children of God and heirs
of eternal life: grant that we, having this hope, may purify
ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power
and great glory we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious
kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the
Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
ZEPHANIAH, like Micah and Amos in the past two weeks,
destabilises things, hacking away at over-confidence and misplaced
religiosity. Living under different kings, all three prophets
reframed the picture, sometimes radically, sometimes using poetic
Zephaniah's visions of impending disaster are not unlike
Jeremiah's picture of a desperate woman in labour abandoned to an
enemy (Jeremiah 4.31). Nothing can save them, and, shockingly, it
will be God's wrath that does the damage (Zephaniah 1.18), because
a holy God will turn against his sinful people (Joshua
Zephaniah, a contemporary of the young Jeremiah, denounced the
cultic and ethical sins deriving from Manasseh's reign (687-642),
when, as a loyal vassal of the Assyrians, the king allowed pagan
cults, divination, and magic to flourish, even within the temple
(Zephaniah 1.4-9), and human sacrifice to be practised.
Zephaniah may have been a foreigner - his father's name suggests
Ethiopian (Cushite) origins - and yet his earlier genealogy
suggests connections to the royal household of Judah, thus
associating him with this abomination. Like him, we are both the
heirs of our past, and yet freed and called to carve out our own
path in life.
Around 610 BC, the previously dominant power, Assyria, its
temporary alliance with the Egyptians having failed, fell to
Babylonians. Judah became, by default, a free country, and its new
young, king, Josiah, annexed lands north of Jerusalem, and
instituted sweeping reforms. He restored the temple and its
worship, purging foreign cults. A law book (probably Deuteronomy,
with its appeal for a return to the covenant and Mosaic tradition)
was found and read (2 Kings 22.8-13).
But then the Babylonians began to threaten Judah. Zephaniah and
other prophets announced the impending Day of the Lord, and called
Judah to repentance, so that God could save a faithful remnant from
Zephaniah began with divine judgement against both infidel Judah
and other nations. All creation, including the natural world (1.3),
was implicated. In that light, Judah was called to be silent, or,
as we might tell someone: "Shut up and listen for once." Centuries
later, Benedict began hisRulewith the injunction "Listen!"
and later added: "Speaking and teaching are the master's task: the
disciples is to be silent and listen" (Rule, 7). As we
approach Advent, that can be a command to us. God is coming to us.
The problem in Zephaniah's day was apostasy, coupled with
violence and fraud. The nation had long been warned against this
because their God was holy: "If you forsake the Lord, then he will
turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good"
(Joshua 24.19-20). Now God was on the warpath, searching out the
people who were complacent, complicit in evil, and relying
carelessly on a sense of God's benign purposes (Zephaniah
Last week, we heard Amos on the subject of the day of the Lord.
Now it is Zephaniah's turn. Far from being a joyful event, the
prophets emphasised its element of judgement. It is in that light
that we hear the other readings. Paul exhorts us to vigilance.
Active preparation for the coming of our Lord is required.
Jesus told another story, this time of a rich man who, unlike
last week's delayed bridegroom, surprised his servants with the
earliness of his return. In the parable, extraordinary sums of
money were entrusted to the servants, each according to his
previously proven ability. One talent would sustain a person for 15
years at subsistence level. To preserve what was entrusted to him,
the servant had to take risks, since maintaining the status quo was
not adequate. Just as God has taken a risk with his creation -
ultimately, by sending his Son to live in it as a human - so risky,
faithful holiness is required - a combination from which many shy
There is urgency in all the readings about how we live as the
people of God. We are two Sundays away from Advent Sunday: our God
is coming with the joy of salvation, but also the judgement of his
holiness. Are we ready to risk everything to prepare his way? The
collect makes for demanding prayer.