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Renewed & Gathered in Love

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 12th of Twelfth Month, 2021

Speaker: Brian Young

Scripture: Zephaniah 3:14-20, NRSV, Matthew 22:34–40 (NRSV)

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.

16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

17 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

18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

20 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.

Good morning, Friends!

The Scripture that we have just heard is a love song penned by the prophet Zephaniah. It’s a love song from the God of Israel to the faithful in Jerusalem, who are personified (symbolized, brought together as one in the image of) as a woman, a young maiden, “daughter Zion.” Sing aloud, shout, rejoice, daughter Zion, for there is good news! Disaster has been averted; there are no judgments against you; God is in your midst and will protect you.

Now, Zephaniah is not one of those prophets we hear from often. He’s numbered as one of the twelve “minor” prophets, and his book is fairly brief—really only three chapters. The last time I spoke, I mentioned that the work of the prophet is to “announce and denounce,” and if you read Zephaniah, there’s quite a lot of denunciation—he has judgment aplenty, both for the people of Judah and for the surrounding nations. He wrote sometime during the reign of the Judean king Josiah, in the middle of the seventh century BCE (so he’s a little later than Amos and Micah, for example). By the Biblical narrative, Josiah was one of the few righteous rulers of the Hebrew people; he was a religious reformer who re-centered Jewish worship in Jerusalem—a good guy, per the Hebrew historians. But in the wider world, the situation for Josiah’s kingdom was perilous: Judah was a vassal of the Assyrian empire, which was crumbling, and both Egypt and Babylon were vying to come in and take things over. So as Zephaniah was writing, the people of Judah were afraid of what might come next—would there be more conquest, destruction, and possibly exile? Who would come in to be their new masters? Who would protect them?

But at the end of Zephaniah’s denunciations comes this love song, what scholars call an “oracle of salvation”; the restoration of fellowship with God and the blessed community after disaster and war. Surely, those who heard these words during the time of King Josiah would have taken heart, and hoped for the full realization of the prophet’s words. And then a few generations later, when conquest did come at the hands of the Babylonians, these words would have taken on a new depth of hope for the exiled daughter Zion.

I want to say a little about just a couple of phrases from this prophetic love song. First, I’m struck by the phrase in the middle of v17: “he will renew you in his love”—God will renew you in God’s love. The people of Judah might have felt alienated from God, and so for them being “renewed in God’s love” might have meant repentance, restoration, coming back into right relationship. That is likely true for us at times as well, when we have wandered away from our Guide.

But I think renewal in love can also refer to the way that God’s love restores us to our true selves; to what we were meant to be; to who we were meant to be. And when we are willing to let that happen—when we say “yes”—God can lead us out into new works of love, new ways of loving. John Woolman, in his Journal, writes of being led to take a journey at one point, and he says of it, “Love was the first motion...” For Woolman, a sense of God’s love stirred in him a leading of love, in this case a leading to visit a Native American tribe, and to listen and to learn from them. To paraphrase a bit, we might say, “God’s love is the first motion”; or, as it says in I John 4:19, “we love because God first loved us.”

This, of course, connects with Jesus’ words as we heard them earlier, as the Advent candles were lit: that the greatest commandment is to love God, and then to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:34–40). God’s love renews in us our love for God; and then it renews also our love for our neighbors.

The second thing from this passage that I want to focus on for a little while is the image of being gathered, which comes at the end of the passage, in v20: “At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you...”

For people living under the threat of conquest and exile, or those already exiled,gathering meant salvation, restoration, return, belonging. It meant being brought back into fellowship with those from whom they had been alienated, both their human fellows and the God of Israel. And notice the phrase that is closely associated here: God’s action of bringing the people home. For the people of Judah, “home” was of course Jerusalem, but it was more than a physical place; it was especially the place where they experienced a home in God.