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Readings: 2nd Sunday before Advent

07 November 2014

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Zephaniah 1.7,12-end; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30

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 imagery.

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 24.19-20).

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 judgement.

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. Listen!

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 1.12ff).

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 away.

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.

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