This week’s readings are here.
I’m not a big fan of the recent tendency to focus our attention in Advent on one particular theme, so that the Third Sunday of Advent becomes “Joy.” While three of the readings could be construed as joyful or as exhorting joy, I don’t see much joy in the gospel or in the preaching message of John the Baptizer. In fact, if you go back and read the contexts for both the reading from Zephaniah and the canticle from Isaiah 12, you will note that the larger textual context is full of doom and gloom, prophecies of destruction, fears of being invaded and destroyed by larger powers.
Listen to some of Zephaniah’s words:
I will utterly sweep away everything
from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea.
This week’s reading comes from the very end of the text and is remarkably different in message and tone. Now Israel has been restored; the people are urged to sing, shout, and rejoice. Yahweh, too, sings:
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing (Zeph 3:17)
In fact, there’s something of a puzzle here. What reads in the NRSV as “he will renew you in his love,” appears in the Hebrew as “he is silent in his love.” Imagine God struck silent by joy!
The Isaiah song, (Is 9:2-6), is another song of joy, presumably from a similar dire situation as that of Zephaniah, although perhaps a century earlier. Christians have interpreted these words as a prophecy of Jesus Christ but they are backward-looking as well. The imagery of the first few lines recalls Israel’s flight from Egypt and sojourn in the wilderness. The image of God as Savior, stronghold, and defense are all military images, calling to mind that early song of the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Moses, sung after the Israelites passed through the Red Sea:
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation; (Ex. 15:2)
The next image also returns to the wilderness and the miraculous streams and fountains that came when the people were thirsty. Like the songs I talked about last week, these songs of Advent look backward in history as well as forward. They are songs of remembrance as well as anticipation.
The difficulty we have in feeling or expressing joy often comes from the difficulties in our lives; our personal struggles and pain. Joy is also difficult when we know of others’ suffering or when we think of all the problems facing our nation, community, and world. Both Isaiah and Zephaniah lived in periods of deep national crisis. In both men’s lives, Judah and Jerusalem faced existential threat. Within a decade or two after Zephaniah’s death, Jerusalem itself lay in ruins, its political and religious leadership carried off in exile in Babylon. But in Babylon, hope persevered and the exiles created a religious community and religious texts that survive to the present.
Perhaps these joyous songs of Advent will help us remember God’s mighty acts in history and give us hope that God continues to act in the world around us, bringing deliverance and salvation to a desperate world.