Has this happened to you? Last week, I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for others to arrive when, through the bustle of clinking plates and spirited conversations at adjoining tables, the lyrics of the loudspeaker’s song slipped through the clatter. Leaning in to hear the lyrics I asked, “Did I just hear that? Is that a Christmas song?” Now living in Nashville, I have learned the hard way not to identify the specific offensive lyrics. You never know who played guitar, got a mixing credit, or set up lights for the band. Pointing out a specific song only drives up sales or clicks. For half a second, I imagined jumping up on the table and going into a John the Baptist street preaching rant: “NO! NO! NO! Listen, people, this song is all wrong! You will not find joy in your world or peace on Earth or goodwill with humanity with this sort of drivel! This is not a Christmas song!” But playing with that image of me hollering atop a table, I laughed and remembered that Jesus flipped over tables in the church, not in a honky tonk. I imagine few, if any, holier than thou rants have ever lifted up the lowly, filled the empty, or gave any longing soul hope. Jesus, a friend to party people, likely takes such songs in stride. I do not know what Jesus would do, but plenty of other Christmas songs, movies, ad campaigns, and even beloved holiday traditions lure us into all kinds of empty consumeristic, hedonistic, and escapist idolatries. Are we singing of God’s new Day? ?
Other than the first introductory verse, the entire book of Zephaniah is a spoken word production, poem, or song. The first verse tells us about Zephaniah’s African roots and royal ancestry. “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi (in Hebrew, Cushi means African) grandson of Hezekiah (who perhaps was Israel’s king). Zephaniah knows all insider spots for power lunches with the princes and life-changing coffees with foreign billionaires: the Fish Gate, the Second Quarter, and the Mortar.
The poetry, songwriting, and art of Zephaniah fills the book with word play, puns, assonance, metaphors, clever imagery, alliteration, and rhyme. We need to read Zephaniah as poetry, not predictive history. Zephaniah’s art should not be read literally, “Your princes are roaring lions. Your judges are wolves of the evening; leaving nothing for the morning,” is more like the Lion King more than someone’s prophecy chart. However, art is not less powerful than history. Jesus moves us to action with stories and deeds. We understand theology better by hearing how the prodigal child came home addicted, broke, and broken, and God like a loving mother runs with tears to embrace them and like a jubilant father throws an over-the-top party sparing no expense!
It is hard to translate poetry, to get a poem’s feel, nuance, word play, imagery, people, places, and contexts just right. The commentators believe Zephaniah was a prince and a temple choir insider who knew his way around Israel’s National Cathedral. Zephaniah’s artistic renderings drop unexpected word bombs into familiar liturgies with poetic and perhaps offensive effect, maybe more Jeremiah Wright than Billy Graham. So, to the familiar call to prayer, “Gather together and assemble yourselves,” Zephaniah adds, “unembarrassable nation!” Not “Gather together ye holy ones, but gather together and assemble yourselves, nation without remorse.” Zephaniah’s most shocking twist on the liturgy comes in chapter one turning a comforting liturgy on its ear: “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice…,” but instead of making atonement for the people’s sins at the altar, Zephaniah turns a blasphemous line, “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand; On that day, the Lord will prepare the sacrifice. God will punish the princes and officials who fill the nation with violence and fraud. The merchants will perish. The moneychangers will be cut off. Those who rest complacently saying in their hearts God does not care about justice for the poor, their wealth will be plundered and their new subdivisions never built.” (adapted) Happy Sunday! Zephaniah makes the kind of uncomfortable art that gets your records banned, gets you fired as the national poet laureate and gets you run out of the National Cathedral and yet, the church decided Zephaniah’s blasphemous twisting of a beloved sacred liturgy belonged in our Holy Bible.
Zephaniah’s Advent song, much like Malachi’s abrasive fuller’s soap, is not a feel-good anthem but a challenging piece of art that makes us step back and go silent. Zephaniah links God to national politics and us to the harder work of justice. God’s kin-dom throws down the princes and lifts up the lowly making Earth look more like heaven. Zephaniah tells us to get to work around the Fish Gate, the Second Quarter, and the Mortar. We might get to work around the homeless camp in Brookmeade Park, the George Floyd memorial at 38th and Chicago, or in any states’ or nations’ Legislative Plaza. Zephaniah’s second track names 9 nations, with haunting lyrics like “the screech-owl will hoot in the capital, hoot, hoot, hoot, hoot, and the porcupine preside like the president.” Can we hear God in songs that challenge the church to address climate change, the pay-gap, or systemic injustice. Or do we only consider spiritual the comforting and familiar melodies we enjoy? Zephaniah invites us to sing of God’s new day of justice, equality and love.
Zephaniah’s iconoclastic Advent song blasts violence, fraud, false idols, income inequality and religious indifference that allows us to practice faith without justice. Zephaniah lampoons feel-good songs and comforting worship rituals that comfort but do not challenge us. Zephaniah skewers patriotism that never examines the nation’s actual deeds. After a series of in-your-face tracks, Zephaniah closes the album inviting us to sing of God’s new day: a day of inclusion, justice, equity and love. Zephaniah’s final track imagines a different world. Let us imagine such an Advent.
On that day, when God appears,
you won’t feel shame.
On that day God will say,
“I remove your sins.”
On that day, no one will endure haughty looks,
the humble and powerless will be worthy and welcomed.
On that day, injustice will end,
lying will end
God will guide our speech.
On that day, no one will make you afraid.
Wait for it.
Work for it.
Rejoice, daughter! Shout aloud, oh people!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, daughter Nashville.
The Lord has removed your judgement;
God turns our enemies away.
The Lord has arrived in our midst;
Let us fear no evil,
for with love the Lord brings calm.
The Lord rejoices over the people with singing
without worrying over liturgical rules,
lifting burdens and ending reproach.
The Lord delivers the lame.
The Lord gathers the outcasts.
The Lord changes our shame into praise.
The Lord brings us, all of us, back!
The Lord gathers all of us in.
The Lord brings us all together
and restores all of us.
All of us.
May we sing of God’s new day
May we work for God’s new day. Amen.