The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday December 16, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O Lord for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Sometimes, when I look at the list of readings for the coming week, I know what to expect before I even look up the verse. John 3:16? I have that one memorized.  1 Corinthians 13? The love chapter. One of the most popular texts to read at a wedding. Got it. And even if I don’t know the exact verse, I usually have a general sense of the book.

But Zephaniah?  I’m pretty sure I’ve read it before, having completed at least a few of the read through the Bible in a year programs I attempted as a kid, but when I saw it listed for this Sunday, I didn’t know what to expect.

I knew Zephaniah was a prophet and so I assumed tonight’s reading would be something challenging and apocalyptic. Something that would be difficult to preach without wagging my finger, but, as it turns out, we’re at the point in Advent where the readings begin to turn towards more positive themes. Jamie got the tough ones over the past few weeks when I was away. He got the readings that remind us that “I’m not OK and you’re not OK.”

Tonight is the third Sunday in Advent, sometimes called Gaudete, or pink, or joy Sunday.  Things are beginning to shift, to soften as we get closer to Christmas.

The third Sunday in Advent has a different tone, but not a different message.  We are not OK. The world is still a complete mess. But even though we have failed God, God will not fail us and today’s readings remind us of that.

Zephaniah is a short book, only 3 chapters long, tucked near the very end of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The first two chapters follow a pretty standard pattern in prophetic writing. The “day of the Lord” is coming, get ready!

In this case, the people of Judah have strayed from the path and are following false gods.   They smugly believe that “the day of the Lord” is the day that they will finally be given power and control. But they are wrong and Zephaniah is here to set the record straight.  When “the day of the Lord” comes, they too will be judged, and found wanting.

This message has been fleshed out in the earlier chapters, but tonight’s reading is from the end of the book and the prophet has shifted to the good news portion of the story. Having firmly established that judgment is deserved, Zephaniah begins to describe a joy-filled future:

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you… the Lord is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more.

The prophet gives reason upon reason to be joyful, to sing, and to shout.

Given that I usually consider Advent to be one of the quietest seasons of the Christian year, this is a pretty loud reading. It’s more “Joy to the World” than “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

But Zephaniah provides ample reasons for this loud celebration.  The Lord is here. There is no longer any need to fear judgment, or disaster, or oppressors or anything else because God has taken care of everything.

It’s a time of celebration.

It’s a time of celebration but not just for the people.  God will also celebrate. When the day of the Lord comes, God and God’s people will celebrate together. Singing and shouting as loudly as they can.

Stories of people singing loud songs of praise to God make a lot of sense to me. I have, on more than one occasion felt a sense of joy well up in me that was so strong I couldn’t help but burst into song.  As someone who has gone to church her entire life, I’ve logged a lot of hours singing songs of praise to God with other people as well.

But the reverse? The idea that God would so delight in me, in us, that God would burst into song? Well, that’s not something I’ve ever really thought about.

But that’s what Zephaniah describes.  The prophet tells us that God is here, that God is rejoicing over the people with gladness, renewing them in love, and exulting over them with loud singing.  (3.17) God sings. God shouts. God rejoices.

And the people cannot help but join in and sing along.  What other response can you have when you realize just how much God loves you?  Just how much God delights in you?

It’s a common biblical metaphor to describe the relationship between God and God’s people as a love affair, as a marriage.

Can you imagine a marriage where only one partner does all the work? Well, you probably can, but then you’re not picturing a healthy marriage.  Ideally a marriage is meant to be a partnership, a relationship based on mutuality, where each person loves and care for the other.

Zephaniah is describing a time when the relationship between God and God’s people will be restored.  A time when the love between God and God’s people will be renewed.

It is so easy to think of our relationship with God as a one-way street and focus only on our role – we are to love God and sing praises.  We so easily forget that God delights in us too. But God does. God loves us so much that God can’t help but sing about it.

Another key theme that runs throughout the Bible is that God is thrilled whenever we choose to turn towards God.  God loves and delights in us.

Zephaniah describes God bursting into joyous song. In our gospel reading, Gabriel describes Mary as “favoured.” Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus talks about angels throwing a party every time a sinner repents. (Luke 15:10)

But Zephaniah goes further still.  God will not be satisfied to celebrate with the people who turn and follow. God’s love will extend even further, to the margins of society to welcome everyone to the party.

In language similar to other prophets like Micah, Zephaniah shows God, the good, good shepherd welcoming outcasts and “the lame” – those who have been marginalized because of a physical disability.  Those who have felt invisible will be made visible – they will be “renown in all the earth,” and they will be “praised among all the people of the earth.” (3:19-20) All will be welcomed, all will be seen, all will be loved and belong.

But Zephaniah is a prophet, painting a picture of the future.  The celebration will come, but not yet.

Fast forward to our gospel reading, and we see another step in God’s plan to redeem humanity: God sends the angel Gabriel to Mary with a message that will interrupt and forever change the plans she has for her life.

Gabriel begins as he always begins, as God always begins -since this is really God’s message, not Gabriel’s – with the affirmation that all that God has created is good.“Greetings, favoured one!” Gabriel proclaims to Mary. “The Lord is with you!” Before she hears anything else, God wants Mary to hear this: She is favoured and God is with her.

Mary may wonder, “Who am I?” but God’s answer is clear, “You are my favoured one, beloved and beautiful to me.”

It is unlikely that Mary would have ever had an opportunity to develop a distinctive identity apart from the one given to her by God. She is too young to have had time to achieve much on which to base her identity. She is too poor to purchase her place in society.

Add to this the fact that she is female, which means that even if she did have accomplishments or social stature to her credit, they likely would have gone unrecognized because of her gender.

All of this makes Mary a most unlikely candidate for helping God save the world, which may just be why God chooses her. Nothing about Mary suggests that she can be who she is apart from God’s favour.

So Gabriel begins by affirming God’s love for Mary and continues, as angels speaking to human beings tend to do, by telling her there is no need to fear:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus… [and then] Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (30-35)

One thing that amazes me about biblical stories like this is that, even after hearing them year in and year out for my entire life, it seems that every year I learn some new detail that opens up the story for me in a new way.  Last year you may have heard me go on, and on, about the shepherds. You can ask me about that later if you didn’t. I’m still pretty excited about it.

This year, I learned about an unusual piece of medieval theology from a fantastic book called, “A Word to Live By” by Lauren Winner.

Presumably uncomfortable with the physical details of this miraculous conception story, the medieval church imagined that Jesus was conceived through Mary’s ear.  Don’t think too deeply or too literally about that, it’s just plain weird, but that’s what they taught.

Now that would perhaps have stayed as an odd piece of church trivia to bring out at parties, if it weren’t for the way Lauren continues to unpack this idea:

“To conceive means to ‘become pregnant with a child’ and it also means ‘to form an intention in the mind or heart.’ (‘Why hast though conceived this thing in thine heart?’ Peter asks the duplicitous Ananais in Acts 5:4, KJV)” Mary conceived a child through her ear, said the medievals; when I – Lauren – listen to the Scriptures in church, I might find the sounded word plants an intention in my heart. I am, in a very small way, imitating Mary, trying to find an openness to whatever God wants to root and gestate in me.” (45)

Mary is someone who listens carefully and thinks deeply about what she has heard. The word “ponder,” which means to weigh or consider the value of, is used to describe her actions more than once in scripture.  Earlier in our gospel reading it says she “pondered” Gabriel’s words of greeting. (29) Later in the story, after a visit from the shepherds in Bethlehem, we are told that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (2:19)

She’s a thinker.  She knows the importance of taking time to quietly reflect on her experiences, to ponder them.  To weigh and consider their value before deciding what to do.

Gabriel tells Mary of God’s plan and as she listens, something is planted in her heart.

The text doesn’t say how long it took Mary to respond to Gabriel’s message – seconds, minutes, hours, days. It just tells us that when she did respond she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

This to me, is the quiet work of Advent.  What happens when I slow down long enough to listen to what God is trying to say to me? What happens when I am quiet long enough to absorb and reflect on what I have heard? To weigh its value. What will grow in this waiting that could never take root if I continue to rush?

What new and precious hope will be born?

In Zephaniah, the prophet paints a joy filled picture of what will happen if the people heed the warnings and turn to God.  But the book ends before we find out what happens. Do they listen and allow what they have heard to take root in their lives? We’re not told.

In Mary’s case we do know.  She will take in Gabriel’s news, ponder it in her heart, and later burst into a song so beautiful that many of us still sing it today.

But that’s a story for another time.