Sermon: Third Sunday in Advent, 13December 2015

St.Aidan’s West Epping,13th December 2015

Rev. Paul Weaver

“ZEPHANIAH: JUDGEMENT AND HOPE”

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Song of Isaiah; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

 

Most of us would probably struggle to answer many questions about the Book of Zephaniah, perhaps one of the more obscure books of the Minor Prophets. Nevertheless it has its place in the scriptures, and at least today we read a part of it – in fact, the last few verses – as our Old Testament reading.

Zephaniah prophesied more than 600 years before Jesus, during the reign of King Josiah. Judah had been going morally and spiritually downhill, and Josiah led a major revival of godly worship and reformation. Josiah was faithful and obedient as few kings had been before him. He sought to truly lead his people in the ways of God.

Yet his reforms turned out to be ineffective for any length of time: too little, too late, and too superficial. Few of the people were committed from the heart. Josiah’s successors were certainly not interested in maintaining Josiah’s reforms. And within a few decades, God’s judgement fell as Babylonian armies overran Jerusalem, and large numbers of people were taken into exile.

Zephaniah was the Lord’s messenger, and this book provides for us the substance of his message.

The prophet warns of coming judgement on Jerusalem for its idolatry, its immorality, its corruption, and its oppression of the poor. There had been prophets before Zephaniah, but the attitude of those in power had been arrogant: “God’s not going to do anything. He won’t do us any good if we change our ways, and he won’t do us any harm if we don’t.” Zephaniah makes clear how wrong these corrupt leaders are.

Josiah tried to change things, and to bring people back to the true worship of the Lord. It is not clear whether Zephaniah encouraged Josiah in trying to turn the people back to God, or whether he was commenting on the superficiality of it all. But commendable as the efforts of Josiah might be, nothing of deep significance actually changed, and Zephaniah’s warnings of judgement inevitably came to pass.

For God is a God who rightly condemns evil wherever he finds it. And while the first chapter of the book exposes the evil and the hypocrisy of the people of Judah, Chapter 2 focuses on God’s judgement against the evil nations round about Israel, nations that had oppressed Israel and Judah over the centuries.

Of course, many of us are not comfortable with the idea of a God of judgement. We want to think of God as a loving God, a God of grace: not as a wrathful God, a God who condemns, least of all a God who sends people to hell.

But if God is a righteous God, he must condemn evil, he cannot ignore the terrible things that people do, he cannot brush things under the carpet as if they do not matter. We see today the criminals’ victims who are furious if the criminal does not get the sentence they seem to deserve, and I’m sure we feel sympathy for these people. Evil must be dealt with. Yes, evil must be punished.

But if God is a God who is righteous and wise, we need to trust that he will execute justice in the right way. It will not be based on bad temper and rage, though of course the scriptures do use strong images to express God’s reaction to evil. It will take in the reality of the sin, but it will also take in all the circumstances. God will get judgement right.

But he is also a forgiving God. That forgiveness is not a cheap forgiveness that trivializes human sin: it cost God the death of his beloved Son on the cross. The cross is where God’s justice and righteousness and his condemnation of sin and his love come together to deal with sin in grace and forgiveness.

God’s warnings of judgement are never an end in themselves. They are always a call to repent. Remember the story of the prophet Jonah. He was called by God to warn the people of Nineveh that God’s judgement was coming. Jonah ran away to sea, desperate to avoid obeying God’s call to preach. Why was that? Because he believed that the people of Nineveh might repent and be forgiven, and that was something he could not contemplate. He hated Nineveh, and did not want them forgiven. If that was God’s plan, Jonah wanted no part of it. When finally he got to Nineveh despite his attempts to get out of the job, the people did indeed repent and judgement was withheld. Jonah sulked, but God rejoiced.

God condemns evil, but there is always the possibility of forgiveness. That of course is what the Gospel of Christ is all about. As Zephaniah says in Chapter 2, “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 Lord’s wrath.” The day is coming: prepare for it. Even if you are a sinner, even if your righteousness is far from complete, seek the Lord, says the prophet.

The second half of the final third chapter of Zephaniah sounds very different: there is a real change in the mood. For judgement is not necessarily the end of the story. There can be forms of judgement, forms of punishment, which are ultimately redemptive. Judah would indeed experience judgement in the form of invasion and defeat by Babylon, with many inhabitants going into exile. But that would not be the end of the story: there was hope even beyond judgement. This would not be ultimate judgement. Beyond the exile, which Zephaniah knows is coming, there is hope and blessing.

The enemy’s power over Israel would come to an end, the punishment would be completed, fear would be a thing of the past, and the people would again be in a secure relationship with God. The temple festivals would once again be times of joy and thanksgiving, not opportunities to take advantage of the poor and make profits through corrupt dealings. The Lord would save his suffering chastened repentant people even out of the deepest darkness.

Of course if the people had taken Zephaniah’s message seriously at the time, all that suffering would have been unnecessary. But they did not heed the prophet’s message. One day perhaps they would learn.

As we look at the words of this morning’s joyous passage that closes the book of Zephaniah, we see that judgement has now been turned away, that God’s people are again safe from their enemies, that salvation is a reality.

One of the recurring themes of the Old Testament is the idea of the Day of the Lord. This is the day or the time when the Lord acts in a decisive way to make clear that he is indeed the Lord.

The people of Israel had always been tempted to think that the Day of the Lord would be a wonderful time for them: peace, security, prosperity, good times. But the prophets kept on warning them that the Day of the Lord would also be a day of judgement on evil and evildoers. For evil itself was an affront to the Lord who is a righteous God.

The promise of the Day of the Lord was always a call for people to repent, to turn back to God in obedience and faithfulness. When the Lord asserted his authority on the Day of the Lord, it could well mean that Israel would receive its deserved judgement. And yet, when Israel experienced that judgement, it did not mean that God was finished with them. There was still hope.

Sadly the people missed the point of Zephaniah’s message, and they experienced God’s punishment as Babylon overran Jerusalem. They missed the point six centuries later as Jesus came, God himself coming to inaugurate the Day of the Lord in its fullness. John the Baptist had come, as Zephaniah had come, to prepare the way of the Lord. He also called people to real repentance, a genuine acknowledgement of the wrongs they had done, an openness to God’s forgiveness, a real decision to live a new life with the help of God.

And that call still comes to all of us today as the Day of the Lord unfolds. The Lord is King. The Lord is at hand, as Paul reminds the Philippians, for the return of Jesus in glory could be at any time. The people of Zephaniah’s day were not ready, and were not willing to consider the importance of being ready. We are called to live as people who are indeed ready for that great day.

Through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are given assurance that through God’s forgiveness we can be ready for the climactic event of that great day, when the Lord Jesus comes in glory as King and Judge, as well as Saviour. So we hear the call of God to live as people who are ready for the great day, people who find hope in that day.

Let us then hold our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us to live lives of repentance; Christ who brings us not only eternal hope, but the assurance of forgiveness, peace with God, in fact that peace of God which indeed passes all understanding. Amen.

Paul Weaver