Because all reformers call people to return to the roots of their faith, it shouldn't surprise us to hear that Zephaniah's prophetic message is based on one core belief: "Yahweh, your God, is in your midst" (Zeph 3: 14-18).

Prophets don't often proclaim oracles of joy. When they do, they almost always give specific reasons for their emotional outbursts. In this situation, Yahweh's caring presence is reason enough for Zephaniah to rejoice.

Prophesying in the last third of the 7th century, BCE, he's appalled by his fellow Jews' reliance on pagan fertility cults, bizarre rituals developed to control the gods whose favor the people court. Those who practice such rites hope and presume their gods live in a distant realm, far removed from the earth and the creatures who populate it. Their religion encourages them to first get their uninvolved gods' attention, then do or say something which forces these uncaring divine beings to act in their favor.

Magic

Scripture scholars call such practices "religious magic," best expressed in the belief, "If I do or say such and such, then you, the gods, must do what I want you to do." Fertility religions provide people with the tools to force indifferent gods to bend their wills to their peoples' wishes.

Even modern religions contain magical elements. My mother once showed me a holy card containing a novena to St. Joseph, which a well-meaning friend had sent her. The prayer on the card could be recited once a day for nine days, once an hours for nine hours, or, in extreme circumstance, one a minute for nine minutes. The novena was backed by a guarantee. "You had better be certain you really want what you're praying for," the card's last line warned, "because you're going to get it whether you actually want it or not!"

All biblical authors fight against such magical beliefs. The God in whom they believe can't be controlled by ritual formulas or actions. Their God isn't distant. They relate to a God who permeates the stuff which makes up our everyday lives. God's nearness doesn't terrorize them; it's the force which gives them life.

Yet only those willing to experience a real change in their value systems -- those willing to undergo true conversion -- even notice God's presence.

God is here

Our sacred authors believe since we follow a God who is continually interacting with this world, then we also must turn away from our natural selfishness and interact with this world. Those who keep God at a distance for security's sake, will also keep others at a distance for the same reason.

"Brothers and sisters," Paul reminds the Philippians, "rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety" (Phil 4: 4-7).

Note that the apostle includes a command about kindness in his proclamation of the Lord's nearness. He believes God's presence in our world not only gives us a reason to rejoice, it also gives us a reason to relate kindly to that world and its inhabitants.

Even before Jesus begins His public ministry, Luke's John the Baptizer makes Jesus' imminent arrival a reason for changing his listeners' behavior patterns (Lk 3: 10-18). "Whoever has two cloaks," he commands, "whoever has food...should share....Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone."

According to our biblical writers, we best show we've stopped trying to control the God who is near us when we stop trying to control the people who are near us. A faith which revolves around relating with God, proves itself in our relations with others.

Prophets like Zephaniah, John, Paul and Jesus always invite us to explore that special dimension of faith. If it's at the root of their faith, why isn't it at the root of ours?

(12-14-00)