In Fractured Times, Don't Take Your Eyes Off the Prize


The prophet indicts any society that tried its best to be the city set on a hill yet never gave full account for its misdeeds and myopias, Hugenot writes.

Zephaniah is not one of the more popular baby names nowadays, yet it is an important name to remember in this season of Advent.

The biblical prophet Zephaniah spent much of his time railing against the excesses of the nation.

His teachings are structured around nine long teachings, or oracles, eight of which are laden with talk of divine judgment for the people's neglect of covenant commitments to God and the excesses of the day.

The book emphasizes that this behavior has not gone unnoticed by God and that there would be a reckoning that no one will escape.

The ninth oracle is astonishing in its content, as the prophet's tone changes and he speaks of God saving those who listen to the prophet and take it to heart.

The dominant image of the prophetic utterances moves from the earth under divine judgment to a gathering of the faithful, singing of their faith at the top of their voices.

Zephaniah ends by calling a repentant people to sing of a faith that shall endure the world's hardships and to foresee the future as God brings about a reign of justice and peace for all peoples of the world (Zephaniah 3:14-20).

The skeptical among us might ask: What good does this call to song really do? The world is no less fractured today than it was in the day of Zephaniah's prophetic work.

The bright visions of a better world seem a bit detached from reality. What good can a bunch of people at worship really do in this messed-up world?

The song of Zephaniah is yet another reflection of how the season of Advent helps us live in the "now" and the "not yet."

The Advent texts tell of people living faithfully in times of great challenge, not as those who believe in some sort of wishy-washy "pie in the sky" but rather as those who know you have got to keep your eye on the prize.

Zephaniah's song doesn't contain imagery of a life lived in pursuit of the afterlife. Instead, it imagines a world where the nations shall be gathered together, where all persons will be given dignity, where the lost shall be found.

Such a song, invoked amid the praise of God, maps out a different way of looking at the world.

We hear the disparities of a people who claim to be the chosen, the exceptional, yet they kept some folks invisible or at the margins.

The prophet indicts any society that tried its best to be the city set on a hill yet never gave full account for its misdeeds and myopias.

Yet, the prophet concludes with a promise that God shall bring about a different end - one of love, justice and peace.

Zephaniah's song reveals where God will bring all creation in the end, and singing this song inspires you to be part of the effort to bring the world more into line closer to what God intends.

In 2009, at a Baptist World Alliance gathering, Baptists from around the world gathered for the 400th anniversary celebration of the first "Baptist" congregation forming in Amsterdam in 1609.

The service ended with the gathered people singing "We Are Marching in the Light of God," also known as "Siyahamba," reflecting the song's origins in South Africa's apartheid era.

The song is not just "idle words" set to a catchy tune; it mirrors the faith of a people who look to God for their strength and encouragement.

For people living under an oppressive government, dealing with hunger, poverty and other forms of blatant disregard for people based on the color of their skin, this song pointed to a path through this world, providing a vision for the lives of people working to change a society.

Singing "Siyahamba" brought the people to worship and prepared them to return home to places where difficulties abound.

I stood alongside persons who would return to countries where poverty abounds and clean water is in short supply, where human trafficking (the 21st century version of slavery) is a critical problem, where the world's resources are scarce because the West, particularly the U.S., overconsumes.

Advent reminds us of our need to continue learning to sing a new song that harkens back to the prophets of God, who saw the dysfunctional present yet could foresee the bright future God alone holds for the world.

Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. He blogs at Preaching and Pondering, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission.

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Tags: Advent, Baptist World Alliance, Christmas, Jerrod Hugenot, Justice, Worship


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