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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Church goers today don’t like their preachers to be overly critical or judgmental. They prefer instead a message that all is well, and that God has no problems with human behavior, attitudes or actions. I am reminded of a priest and a pastor who were standing near a sharp curve on a busy road holding signs. “The end is near!” read the priest’s sign, while the pastor’s warned, “Turn around before it’s too late!” As he passed by, a man in a sports car yelled “Religious idiots!” and shook his head. Then he blasted his horn, and stomped on the gas. Moments later the clerics heard the sound of screeching tires, followed by a big splash. The priest turned to the pastor and said, “Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe we should change our signs to ‘Bridge Out’.”
No, parishioners today don’t like their pastor telling them what to do, and frankly, pastors don’t like parishioners telling them what to do either. There was the pastor who had a falling out with his church council over various church policies and procedures, including how the finances were to be handled. After bitter arguments and many nights of lost sleep, the pastor decided to leave the congregation to take a job as a prison chaplain. He preached his last sermon at that church on John 14:1: “I go to prepare a place for you.”
Then there was the pastor who was greeting people at the door after Easter services. He was delighted to shake hands with a member known as “Seldom-Seen” Steve, and even more delighted when Seldom Seen complimented him on his sermon and said the service was “amazing.” Faced with such evidence of faithfulness, the pastor asked why Seldom Seen didn’t come to church more often. “I’m just following the Lord’s example,” he answered, “If Christ can rise up early only one Sunday a year, that’s good enough for me, too!” Yes, church goers today prefer their preachers to be less critical and judgmental and more accepting and tolerant. That’s why it is so difficult to preach on the pithy, thorny passages of the Old Testament prophets.
The prophets of old were first and foremost called to speak God’s word to his people. They were not fortune tellers with some kind of mystical insight into the future. Their words were the words of the Creator God to human beings. God’s word sometimes referred to the future, and sometimes referred to the past. Occasionally, their words were that of assurance and consolation, but most often their words were that of rebuke and judgment which is why the prophets were seldom popular. The message of the prophets could often be condensed into two lines. 1) God will bring judgment upon his people, so beware, and 2) and then there will be new life on the other side. Nowhere is that message more true than with the words of the prophet Zephaniah.
According to Zephaniah 1:1, “The word of the Lord came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi . . in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.” Josiah had begun to reign in Judah about 80 years after the northern kingdom of Israel had been swept away by the Assyrian invaders. During those 80 years the southern kingdom of Judah still had not learned the lesson of the northern kingdom. Instead, the kingdom sank deeper and deeper into sin and rebellion against the laws and expectations of God.
During the reign of King Josiah, Hilkiah the priest found in the temple a hidden copy of the book of the law that had been ignored for decades. It is believed by historians to be the Book of Deuteronomy. When Hilkiah read it to the king, Josiah was heart-broken. He humbled himself before the Lord and wept. Over the next 13 years, Josiah led an amazing reformation in Judah based on renewing the covenant between God and his people. He took all the vessels of Baal and Astarte out of the temple and burned them in the fields of Kidron. He deposed the idolatrous priests. He removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. And he reinstituted the Festival of Passover that had been ignored since the days of the Judges.
So when we read the three little chapters of the Book of Zephaniah, we can picture it as part of that call for reformation in the Kingdom of Judah that Josiah was pursuing. No doubt the prophet and the king teamed up to try to draw the people back to God. And the prophet’s words were forceful.
In the first chapter, we read, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will overthrow the wicked; I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth, I will stretch out my hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests.”
The second chapter was not much gentler; “Come together and hold assembly, O shameless nation, before you are driven away like the drifting chaff, before there comes upon you the fierce anger of the Lord, before there comes upon you the day of the wrath of the Lord. Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the wrath of the Lord. “ The Day of the Lord, which Zephaniah, speaks of more than any other prophet, promises that it “will be a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
The majority of the Book of Zephaniah is filled with words of judgement. And then suddenly and surprisingly come the last 6 verses, those we have heard today. Even though God has poured out his wrath on Jerusalem, he wanted to give them hope that one day he would restore them back to their home and forgive them. “Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem!”
In those few verses, we are met by a different God, a God who is far more willing to forgive than to judge and condemn. Indeed, we read. “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.” That is the promise of the prophet Zephaniah.
Now you may be wondering, so why do we have to be reminded by the prophets that we have failed and fallen short of the glory of God? Why do we need to have God’s warning of judgement? Surprisingly, it is because of God’s covenant relationship with you. He has created you a little lower than the angels, and through the waters of baptism called you his own. God expects something great from you and your life, and he wants you to know when you are failing him.
There are some Christians today, however, who feel they could overlook the Old Testament prophets and not lose anything of the essence of their faith. How can this be? The words of the prophets make up 75% of the Holy Scriptures that Jesus’ would have known and quoted. He himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
There are others who argue that the Old Testament was not written to us, so as Christians, we do not need to pay attention to it. That may be true. The Old Testament may not have been written to us, but it was certainly written for us. Within the words of the Old Testament, love was what the Lord called Israel to do; all the other commandments simply clarified how to do it. This was part of Jesus’s point when he stressed that all the Old Testament hangs on the call to love God and neighbor:. God is firm. There are habits, and patterns and attitudes that are life-giving- and there are others that do not honor the God of all creation. You and I have a part to play in God’s majestic plan. We need to try, and when we fail, we can be sure of God’s steadfast love and mercy.
In his retirement, the 3rd President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Because Jefferson trusted that students would take their studies seriously, the code of discipline was lax. Unfortunately, his trust proved misplaced when the misbehavior of students led to a riot in which professors who tried to restore order were attacked. Jefferson called a meeting and said, “This is one of the most painful events of my life.” Suddenly he was overcome by emotion, and burst into tears. The rioters were asked to come forward and give their names. Nearly everyone did. Later, one of them said, “It was not Mr. Jefferson’s words, but his tears.” Just like the student was moved by Jefferson’s broken-ness, so is God by ours.
Church goers today may not like their preachers to be overly critical or judgmental. They may prefer a message instead that states all is well, and that God has no problems with human behavior, attitudes or actions. But my friends, the prophets of old tell us, and the scriptures still remind us, that God has a hope and expectation for your life. That is both your honor and your privilege. Yes, God longs to rejoice over you with gladness, exult over you with loud singing” if you will only try to live our your part of the covenant. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.