13 Aug Zephaniah: The Day of the Lord
Zephaniah: The Day of the Lord
August 11, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
One of the challenges of preaching a sermon series on the Minor Prophets is that prophets have always had a tough job. God doesn’t call prophets to action to spread the word about how wonderful everybody is doing. There’s nothing “warm and fuzzy” about these guys or their message; nothing that would make anybody stand up and say, “I want their job.” No, God uses prophets when the people of God have gotten off-track in some way, and they need to be called back to the ways of God.
How we handle the prophets exposes two primary types of churches. There are churches that stress God’s judgment and churches that accentuate God’s mercy.
Some of you were raised in churches heavy into judgment. No matter what the scripture passage or theme, the preacher always got around to talking about some aspect of sin. You’d better clean up your act or face God’s wrath. Repent and believe. Turn or burn. Shame and guilt were used to good advantage.
Some of you were raised in churches that talked incessantly about God’s mercy. Every sermon was some variation on the theme, “God is love.” In these churches, the liturgy of confession is often soft on words about sin and repentance, preferring words like “brokenness.” Making people feel good is a high priority.
It is a rare church that can hold judgment and mercy together in a healthy balance. What we want is a Micah 6:8 church, one that practices justice (which includes exercising judgment) and loves mercy. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr counseled Christians to avoid churches that speculate too much on either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell. I think he got that exactly right.
We seem to grasp the necessity of judgment better when we think of it in the context of parenting. Love takes many forms, and that sometimes includes the need for correction and discipline. Good parents walk a fine line between exercising appropriate discipline, i.e., judgment, and showing mercy. Loving parents do not let their children get away with rude, disrespectful, or rebellious behavior. To leave those kinds of attitudes and actions unchecked creates bratty children and self-centered, entitled adults. Love demands that, for the sake of the child and others, parents teach their children what is right and what is wrong.
Each of the Minor Prophets is concerned in some way or other with the bratty, rebellious behavior of God’s people. That’s their job as prophets—to speak the word of the Lord to the people and call them to repentance. Each one does their job in a distinct way, and the prophet we meet this morning gives us two variations. First, Zephaniah, more than any other prophet, announces a coming “Day of the Lord.” Zephaniah writes about this Day of the Lord no less than 20 times in a 53-verse span. And second, Zephaniah speaks of judgment in terms of nations, not individuals. We’re going to look at both of these prophetic themes.
First, the Day of the Lord. Zephaniah’s Day of the Lord is a bad news/good news scenario. It will be a day of judgment and it will also be a day of mercy and deliverance. The judgment is a bitter pill to swallow, and the prophet doesn’t hold back from telling it like it is. Consider what he writes in chapter 1: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the Day of the Lord will be bitter…that day will be a day of wrath, 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…”
Israel, remember, had been chosen by God for a unique mission: to share God’s justice and mercy with all peoples of the world. They were chosen not for privilege but for responsibility. And when they fail to live up to their mission, God holds them accountable. Zephaniah lays out their shortcomings in detail. God’s people have mixed the worship of Yahweh with other deities (1:5). They have rejected the faith of their ancestors (1:6). They are guilty of violence and deceit (1:9). They have become indifferent to their sins (1:12). They have abused their leadership (3:3-4). In rebelling against God and their call to serve the world, they have brought God’s judgment upon themselves.
As we have seen in the other Minor Prophets, God’s judgment is not primarily punitive. It is restorative. It is intended to bring Israel back to God, to mend her worship, to renew her call, and to restore her care of creation and all the peoples of the earth.
Israel has seen God exact judgment on their enemies for wickedness and evil, but it throws them for a loop that this coming Day of the Lord is for them. Obviously they still need to learn that God does not play favorites. God’s people are not singled out for preferential treatment. God’s judgment—which is always just—falls on everybody.
That’s the judgment part. The good news part is that mercy follows judgment. Zephaniah, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus all agree that God is for us, not against us. “The Lord your God is with you. He is mighty to save. The Lord will take great delight in you. God will quiet you with his love. God will rejoice over you with singing,” the prophet says. If your image of God has largely been shaped as an angry God who is constantly disappointed in you, Zephaniah’s news is good, indeed. He wants you to know that God is rejoicing over you with singing. Even when you blow it, God longs to restore you with love and mercy.
That’s why Zephaniah urges us to seek the Lord. “Seek the Lord, all you [who are] humble, who do [God’s] commands; seek righteousness, seek humility, so that you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s [judgment]” (2:3). Three times in quick succession the prophet uses an imperative form of the verb “seek”: seek the Lord, seek righteousness, seek humility. I can’t think of a more relevant word for us today. Isn’t it ironic that we are uncomfortable, if not downright offended, by the idea of God judging us, all the while we want to be free to seek whatever we want, whenever we want, however much we want regardless of the cost to self or others?
The second theme that stands out in Zephaniah is that this coming Day of the Lord is directed at nations, not individuals. This is something we particularly struggle to understand as Americans, I think, because personal identity and individualization are built into our national psyche. Being our “own person” is one of our highest values. But the truth is that we don’t just exist as individuals or even as families or as a church. Between the universal and the particular, between all humanity and you as an individual, is a whole range of realities. I’m not just a human, and I’m not just me. I’m part of a specific family, the Moore/Henthorne/ Brown/Fincher family tree. I’m an American, but I’m from the South, an Arkansan despite living the past 35 years outside that state, 20 of them in Virginia.
One of the messages that Zephaniah is imparting is that God doesn’t just deal with us as humanity, on the one hand, and as individuals, on the other. God also deals with us as nations, as corporate entities defined by language, ethnicity, culture and politics. We’ve seen some of this already because the prophets spoke to the nations: Israel and Judah, Edom and Assyria. Zephaniah adds Philistia, Moab and Ammon to that list and offers us a chance to reflect on our understanding of how God relates to the nations, including our own.
The prophets shared a world view that God not only judges God’s own covenant people, God sovereignly governs all of history and judges all nations within that history. And Zephaniah points out that God’s judgment is based on many of the same concerns of justice that the prophets have been addressing all along. First, God judges nations because of corrupt and godless people in authority. “Her officials within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave nothing till the morning. Her prophets are fickle [and] treacherous; her priests profane what is holy; they do violence to the law,” Zephaniah says (3:3-4). That doesn’t actually take much translation, does it? Unjust bureaucrats, ungodly judges who pervert justice, police officers that use excessive force, politicians who accept bribes, legislators who are more concerned with re-election than with fulfilling their oaths of office, religious leaders who remain silent in the face of evil, journalists who indulge their biases at the expense of the truth…these are not only individual failings but national ones.
Second, God judges nations that are violent, fraudulent, and oppressive. “On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud” (1:9) In other words, it’s wrong to barge into other people’s business, to recognize no limits on one’s own desires, power and authority, to take what one wants by force. Perhaps a contemporary analogy might be the way the government and large corporations that impact all of us, like banking and technology, have seized and used our personal information, often without our knowledge or consent, for their purposes, not for the good of all.
Finally, God judges nations that presume to be God. “This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, ‘I am, and there is no one else.’ What a desolation she has become, a lair for wild beasts! Everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes his fist” (2:15). Zephaniah is describing a kind of arrogance that leads a nation to think that they will last forever. Because of their unmatched wealth, because of their extraordinary military might, because of their unparalleled success in medicine, innovation, education and commerce, the Superpower of Nations believes it is indomitable. Assyria thought it. Babylon thought it. Rome thought it. And what about in more recent history? The British Empire? The Nazis? Communist Russia? Every great empire thinks it is invincible until it is not. And what makes us think America will be any different?
Which leaves us where? Seek, seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, those who do God’s just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility, so that you may be hidden on the coming Day of the Lord. “On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.”
Even in judgment, there is always hope with God, which in this case, is in the form of a faithful remnant. God will leave the humble and the lowly, and they will find refuge in the Lord. God will purify the nation’s speech, so that they will call on the name of the Lord. God will clear away our enemies and will dwell in our midst. And God will sing. God will rejoice over us with gladness, quieting us with divine love and exulting over us with loud song. Zephaniah is painting us a picture. Imagine it, he says. From the ashes of the nations’ evil and injustice, there comes the sound of singing. Loud singing. Songs of grace and mercy from Almighty God. That is our hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.