Zephaniah. Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

This is my sermon for next Sunday. I’m posting it now in case other preachers can make use of it. It’s about the Old Testament passage in the Common Worship lectionary, from the prophet Zephaniah.

Zephaniah fits Advent 3 because like John the Baptist (and unlike Zechariah, with whom he should not be confused) he preached doom and gloom. Nevertheless the lectionary gives us an uncharacteristic passage, an optimistic hymn of hope that things will get better.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!...
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

Indeed it is so different from the rest of the book that it wasn’t written by Zephaniah at all. It was written almost a hundred years later. The clue is in that statement: ‘At that time I will bring you home’. In Zephaniah’s day they were yet to be taken away from their home.

Far more characteristic of Zephaniah is the bad news. The most famous quotation from Zechariah is the Dies Irae, sung in requiem masses:

That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements (1:15f).

Who was Zephaniah, and why did this optimistic hymn get added to his gloomy prophecies? Zephaniah prophesied just over 600 years before the time of Jesus. At the time the regional superpower was an empire called Assyria. It covered an area of land roughly equivalent to Syria and Iraq today. The emperor was a man called Assurbanipal. Like the other Assyrian emperors he believed in many different gods, but the god of Assyria was the god of the whole world, so therefore the emperor of Assyria ought to be the emperor of the whole world. With that justification they set out to conquer new territories. Foreigners had no excuse for resistance. They were resisting God. The Assyrians were experts in torture. Of all the empires in that part of the world, the Assyrians were the most brutal.

The Bible sees it from the other side. At the time, Jerusalem was obliged to pay large taxes to Assyria. If the Assyrians had sent an army to destroy Jerusalem, as they destroyed other cities, precious few people would have survived. The people of Jerusalem, like countless others, lived in terror of what the Assyrians would do next. Most cities have left no records. Jerusalem did, because the prophecies of Zephaniah and a few others have survived.

Zephaniah believed God was a god of justice. One day God would judge the nations. In much the same spirit John the Baptist prophesied that God would judge the nations. In John’s day the Romans were the superpower, and much like before, the people lived in terror of what the Romans would do next.

I’m going to make two points about this history. The first is particularly appropriate now that British bombs are being dropped on Assurbanipal’s old empire. Assurbanipal thought – or at least he said in his imperial propaganda – that he was doing the right thing. He said all those foreign nations ought to be governed by him because he was the supreme god’s representative on earth.

My point is that when there are unequal power relations, it is very easy for the powerful to mistreat the powerless and convince themselves that they have good reason. Whether it’s one country invading another, or prison officers with prisoners, or parents with children, or moneylenders with debtors, or the strongest children in the school playground, when we are in a position of power it is very easy to be cruel while persuading ourselves that we are doing the right thing. This is a universal human failing. It is a reason for trying to make sure nobody has too much power. It is also a reason why we need to ask ourselves who, if anyone, we are oppressing.

My second point is about time. We all live a limited amount of time here on earth. We don’t know what will happen to our children and grandchildren after we have died, but we do expect life to carry on. For Zephaniah and his compatriots in Jerusalem, the situation was absolutely dire. Dies Irae. They couldn’t see any hope for improvement. Since then, there have been many similar situations where people have been driven to miserable conditions and have seen no hope of improvement in the future.

Our hopes and fears are limited by our timescales. Eventually Zephaniah died, the Assyrian Empire collapsed, the Babylonians took over, then the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians. When that too collapsed, another thousand years passed before rise of the Islamic empire that ISIS wants to recreate.

Zephaniah knew Assurbanipal as the most powerful man in the world. Today, who has even heard of him? Hardly anybody. Those ancient empires now lie forgotten, hidden under the sand. Every so often archaeologists discover a bit and put in a museum.

Empires come and go. The Persians were comparatively successful. They governed for 200 years. They allowed Jerusalem to be a self-governing city. When this happened, Jews were thrilled. Release from oppression. The end of the terror. Justice. They composed hymns of praise, thanking God for their deliverance. One of those hymns was the one we listened to this morning. I’d like us to look at the first 4 lines and the last 6 lines:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;

shout, O Israel!

Rejoice and exult with all your heart,

O daughter Jerusalem!

At that time I will bring you home,

at the time when I gather you;

for I will make you renowned and praised

among all the peoples of the earth,

when I restore your fortunes

before your eyes, says the Lord.

By the time this was composed Zephaniah was long dead. But he had fans. One of his fans decided that this hymn should be written down at the end of Zephaniah’s prophecies.

Why? For a very good reason. Because however miserable the dies irae, however oppressive the conquerors, however vicious the slaughter, however destructive the demolitions and the fires, however cruel the tortures and rapes, one day they will come to an end. There are times of doom and gloom. Destruction and suffering happen. But they do not have the last word. One day there will be a new beginning. There is always hope.

There is always hope because God is a god of justice.