Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 16, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20 Commentary
As I read Zephaniah, the memory of a bumper sticker came back to me. It said, “Jesus is coming soon, and is he ever ticked!” (It actually used a more vulgar term that gave the sticker more punch, but you get the point.) That is exactly the mood of most of Zephaniah. Indeed, if our Lectionary reading for today didn’t focus on the very last verses of Zephaniah, this minor prophet would ruin Advent. This Minor Prophet is filled with anger, fear, and judgment. And there is no mention of a coming Messiah. Our reading from Jeremiah two weeks ago focused on the Righteous Branch and our reading from Malachi 3 last week promised a coming messenger of the covenant. Here there doesn’t seem to be even a hint of the Messiah.
But there is a strong note of joy, and that is traditionally the emphasis for this Third Sunday of Advent. Israel is called to sing and shout for joy. Indeed, even God “will rejoice over you with singing.” After two and a half chapters of unrelenting judgment, this grim little prophecy ends with a call to overflowing joy. That is such a jarring contrast that some scholars think these last verses were added later. I disagree; rather, the darkness that precedes our text is precisely what makes this ending so joyous. And that is the connection to Advent. God is going to do something so marvelous that his people will sing with joy unbounded.
What made the world so dark in Zephaniah’s day? Well, the world as they knew it was coming to an end. The northern kingdom of Israel had been wiped off the pages of history two generations before and there was danger in the air in Judah. True, King Josiah was trying to reform Judah before it was too late. But was it too late? An army of wild Scythians from southern Russia were sweeping down from the north and, while that army was stopped by Egypt, the thunderstorm of Babylon was building off in the distance.
Zephaniah announces that the storm is going to break, not in spite of God’s intervention, but because of it. God’s people had hoped that “the day of the Lord” would come soon and they would be delivered. But here in Zephaniah, God’s prophet says that the coming day of the Lord would bring judgment not only, or first, on the nations, but on Judah. “The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly (1:14).”
Yes, Yahweh will gather the “nations… to pour out my wrath on them—my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger (3:8).” And that will include Judah. For them, too, the day of the Lord “will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom….(1:15).”
But before that terrible day of the Lord comes, God invites his people to return to him. “Gather together, gather together, O shameful nation, before the appointed time arrives and that day sweeps on like chaff before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you…. Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility, perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger (2:1-3).”
Not exactly “have yourself a merry little Christmas,” is it? This is not the kind of stuff people want to hear two Sundays before Christmas. I mean, the world is dark enough. We come to church looking for a little light, for a break from the cycle of bad news. Well, that is exactly what makes Zephaniah such a great text for these dark days. In our text the cycle of bad news that has run for two and a half chapters has been broken. In a dark world, God’s people are invited, no, commanded to sing for joy.
Why? Because the God who threatened to come upon the world and his people in wrath has come in a very different way. Yes, he did come upon Judah exactly as promised here in Zephaniah. They were dragged off by Babylon and scattered among the nations. But that wasn’t the end of the story. He brought them back to their land, to God’s land. But that wasn’t the end of the story either, because it wasn’t the same as before. Life was still dark and difficult. “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17)
There must be more than this. There must be another day of the Lord. Will God never come to make things right for his people and his world? Isn’t there a happier end to the story? Well, that is exactly what Advent is about. In Advent we wait with eager expectation for the happy ending. In one sense, we already know that ending because the day of the Lord has come. In another sense, we still await the day of the Lord. That is the irony and complexity of Advent. As we celebrate the coming of Messiah, we wait for the coming of Messiah. We can celebrate the way Zephaniah calls us to celebrate, but our songs will sometimes be sung in a minor key because we still await the complete fulfillment of the Messianic promises of God.
Our text in Zephaniah will help us sing for joy, precisely because they show us the coming God even as we live in darkness. No, Messiah isn’t named, but God appears here in the various roles that Messiah will fill. In verse 15, God is the pardoning judge. “The Lord has taken away your punishment” that God had so terribly threatened in prior verses. In the remainder of that verse God has come as the divine warrior who “has turned back your enemy.” And the God who seemed absent in the midst of Israel’s dark days is back. “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you….” That image of Immanuel, of God with us is repeated in verse 17. This text ends with God as shepherd dealing with the wolves and false shepherds who oppressed his flock (verse 19). He will “rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered.” The shame of God’s defeated people will be replaced by “praise and honor in every land where they were put to shame.” In every way, God will come and “restore your fortunes… (verse 20).”
No wonder Israel is called to rejoice and be glad, to sing and shout. So are we in this Advent season, even when the world is dark. This dark little prophet helps us see the coming Messiah in brighter tones. He is the One who satisfied God’s justice, so the Judge can pardon. He is Christus Victor who has defeated the principalities and powers who ruin human life. He is Immanuel who filled the empty spot at the center of life. He is the Good Shepherd who gathers all his lost sheep into the fold. He is the creator God who will restore his whole creation, so that we can glorify God and be glorified by him.
What a great text for the dark days of Advent in a world where God seems absent and inactive. Zephaniah assures us that appearances are deceiving. “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.” Because God has come in Christ, the comforting promises of verse 17 are true for us today, even when the world is dark. “He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” No wonder Zephaniah repeats the words we hear over and over in the Christmas story. “Do not be afraid, O Zion, do not be afraid… the Lord your God is with you.”
A recent issue of Christianity Today asked the perennial question, “If God wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t God come out of hiding?” Why doesn’t God overwhelm us with a powerful appearance, so that there can be no question about his existence? It’s a good question and the discussion of it in Christianity Today is profound, exploring all the places in space and time where God hides. It ends, as you’d expect, with a reference to the cross. That is where God appeared so that we could see him and believe.
Of course, that’s not the kind of appearance most folks are seeking. They are looking not for weakness and suffering; there’s plenty of that in the world already and it usually is counted as proof against God’s existence. What we want is a demonstration of power, God coming into full view and fixing things that are wrong.
So it is ironic that when God does arrive on the scene with righteous power and removes wickedness, folks get upset at God. Indeed, many people reject the Old Testament because of books like Zephaniah, which are precisely about God showing up in power. We want God to prove that he exists and “gives a damn” about a suffering world. But we reject the very passages in the Bible that reveal the existence of an angry God who comes to fix what’s wrong. It seems as though God can’t win with some people.
But through the coming of a little baby who will die on a cross, God gives people what they are seeking. He comes out of hiding and then conquers all that is wrong by hiding on a cross.
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