Most scholars believe Zephaniah prophesied about 600 years before Jesus was born, while King Josiah was trying to reform Judaism. But many of those same scholars, led by the late Carroll Stuhlmueller, suspect Zephaniah’s prophetic contemporary, Jeremiah, stopped prophesying during that same period because he didn’t want to ally himself with Josiah’s "top-down" reform.

Unlike Zephaniah, Jeremiah was convinced that reform works only when it comes "bottom-up." If ordinary people don’t want to return to the roots of their faith, no leader-instigated changes will last.

Jeremiah was right. When Josiah died at the battle of Megiddo, his reform died with him, and Jeremiah returned to preaching true reform.

Yet Zephaniah’s vision of what happens when people actually carry out Yahweh’s commands is still valid, no matter where the reform begins (Zeph 3: 14-18). "The King of Israel, Yahweh, is in your midst," he proclaims." Yahweh, your God is in our midst, a mighty savior; He will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in His love."

God’s kingdom

From Matthew’s Gospel, we know that John the Baptizer proclaimed a similar message: "The Kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (The "kingdom of heaven" in this context can only refer to God present and working in our everyday lives.) In Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 3: 10-18), we hear that John’s path to recognizing God’s presence started from as "bottom" as anyone can go!

"The crowds asked John, ‘What ought we to do?’ In reply, he said, ‘Let the person with two coats give to someone who has none. The person who has food should do the same.’"

Then the prophet zeroes in on specific occupations, telling tax collectors, "Exact nothing over and above your fixed amount!" and warning soldiers, "Do not bully anyone. Denounce no one falsely. Be content with your pay."

The last half of the Gospel is an early Christian reflection on the relation between John and Jesus, in which the latter understandably comes across as more important. We usually concentrate on these comparison verses, and ignore John’s commands about sharing and respecting others. Yet the secret to discovering God-among-us revolves around surfacing God in those people with whom we daily interact.

If the human Jesus is more important than John, it’s only because He insisted even more than John on recognizing God’s presence in our day-by-day giving of ourselves to others.

Effort of people

Too bad the second reading contains only four verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil 4: 4-7). Taken out of its original context, the passage could convey the idea that Jesus’ followers go around with smiles on their faces, rejoicing in the Lord and doing nothing but "presenting [their] needs to God in every form of prayer and petitions full of gratitude."

Paul is too good a disciple of Jesus to give people the impression that they can so effortlessly achieve "God’s own peace." The entire letter emphasizes the relationships which Jesus’ followers are expected to develop.

For instance, Paul begs "Euodia and Syntyche to come to a mutual understanding in the Lord." And he tells the community, "Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you."

There are no shortcuts to surfacing God’s kingdom among us. Top-down reforms, no matter how well-intentioned or publicized, rarely make that kingdom visible. Biblical prophets, in-cluding John, Jesus and Paul, always worked "in the trenches," convinced that a handful of people giving themselves generously to one another can help us find God working in our lives better than all the decrees of all the Church councils put together.

(12/11/03)