Gaudete, Zephaniah and Joy

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Advent in Year C of the lectionary cycle. It is also known as Guadete Sunday. While the theme of Advent is a focus on the coming of Jesus in three ways: his first, his present, and his final Advent, the readings for Gaudete Sunday deal with rejoicing in the Lord – Christian joy – as well as the mission of John the Baptist and his connection with Advent. The theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference between joy and happiness. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.”

The first reading this coming Sunday is from the Prophet Zephaniah. The opening verse surely fits the theme of joy for this Sunday: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zep 3:14)

Zephaniah’s prophecy of judgment on Judah and Jerusalem emphasizes, perhaps more than any other prophecy, the devastation and death that divine judgment will bring. Described as the day of the Lord, the day of judgment is pictured as a time of darkness, of anguish and distress, of destruction and plunder of cities, and of threat to all life, human and animal alike.

We often forget that the season of Advent speaks to the betwixt and between the Birth of Jesus and his Second Coming. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that our first reading is from the firebrand, no-holds-barred prophet Zephaniah. He makes no bones about it. Judgment is coming upon Jerusalem. The Lord will be cleaning house: “And you shall no longer exalt yourself on my holy mountain. But I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly.” (Zeph 3:11-12)  All seems a little unfair, don’t you think? For Jerusalem to be sure, but us too. Not exactly joyful here just a few days after Gaudete Sunday.

Zephaniah prophesied during the early reign of King Josiah – a godly man upon who pleased the Lord. Unfortunately for Josiah, he followed in the most ungodly reign of his grandfather Manasseh who ignored God, practiced idolatry, hid the Bible, and made no effort to lead the covenant people to God.

Zephaniah was there when the priests of the Temple found something that apparently had been stored away, hidden perhaps, but in any case, unused and neglected: the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. In other words, the story of God as told in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – was unknown to the people.

Josiah gathered all the people of Jerusalem into one place and read to them out loud the whole Torah. And then made sure it was read and re-read. He cleansed the Temple, restored worship and prayer, and committed himself to God. He called the people back to Covenant with God.

Granted you’re probably not on par with Manasseh, but how about King Josiah?  It is not like we have any idols in our lives; things that so obsess us we spend all our energy on that pursuit with little left over for prayer.  It is not as though the Bible is hidden away in our houses, unused and neglected. Right?

Even if we are not Manasseh, Advent or no, the prophets are ever there to remind us to be Josiah – and then we can shout for joy!

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