Sunday, December 13, 2009


Zephaniah 3:14-20 (Contemporary English Version)

14Everyone in Jerusalem and Judah,
celebrate and shout
with all your heart!
15Zion, your punishment is over.
The LORD has forced your enemies
to turn and retreat.
Your LORD is King of Israel
and stands at your side;
you don't have to worry
about any more troubles.

16Jerusalem, the time is coming,
when it will be said to you:
"Don't be discouraged
or grow weak from fear!

17The LORD your God
wins victory after victory
and is always with you.
He celebrates and sings
because of you,
and he will refresh your life
with his love."

18The LORD has promised:
Your sorrow has ended,
and you can celebrate.
19I will punish those
who mistreat you.

I will bring together the lame
and the outcasts,
then they will be praised,
instead of despised,
in every country on earth.

20I will lead you home,
and with your own eyes
you will see me bless you
with all you once owned.
Then you will be famous
everywhere on this earth.

I, the LORD, have spoken!

Zephaniah was a prophet in Jerusalem some 30-50 years before Judah’s defeat and exile to Babylon. Unlike some of the prophets, not much is known about him. He may have been a student of Isaiah of Jerusalem because he uses similar language. There is very good reason to believe that he was of Ethiopian descent. His name means “the Lord protects.”

In this very short book he prophesies destruction for all the people of the land. And not just the people. In the opening verses he says everything will be swept away – people and animals and birds and fish! For Zephaniah sees evil in the land. He sees corruption among the priesthood. He sees the wealthy oppressing the poor. He sees people turning away from God and sacrificing to foreign gods, setting up idols on the high places. He sees, in fact, all of the same things the other prophets have warned of. He warns all the people, but especially the leaders, that God will not tolerate this behavior. He says – God says “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord.” And in fact King Josiah does hear him and does make changes – but it will be too little, too late. Josiah’s reign will not be long enough to bring about a change of heart for the leaders. The road to destruction for Judah is a steep downward slope and Josiah’s reforms will be disregarded by his successors. Judah will be defeated, Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed. Those people who survive the coming battle will be enslaved and sent into exile and will suffer bitterly the loss of their home.

But at the end of his prophecies he tells of a time when God will change the people of all the nations so that their words and worship will be pure. When all sins will be forgiven, and when all will leave behind their fears and pride. Zephaniah isn’t talking about some wonderful afterlife – he is talking about God’s kingdom on earth. The Jews of that time didn’t have an understanding of life after death, of heaven and hell, the way we do today.

I heard something disturbing recently – the idea that this world and what happens in it is not as important as our life with Jesus in heaven after we die. I know that this theology has been used to “help” the oppressed deal with the reality of their oppression. “You are suffering here, but your real life will begin in heaven with Jesus.” Indeed, this kind of preaching has been used to justify all kinds of evil in the world. We don’t have to change the world – we don’t have to help the suffering or lift oppression from our brothers and sisters, because everything will be made alright when they die and they are with Jesus.

That’s not what the Bible tells us. The prophets –all of them – tell the people ‘repent! For if you don’t you will suffer consequences and you will not like it.” John the Baptist said the same thing. And Jesus gave us directions on how to change, how to put away greed and fear and hatred, and how to love one another as God would have us do so that we can indeed enjoy life on earth as it is in heaven.

Zephaniah calls Judah to religious renewal in the here and now. Renewal that brings about God’s vision of a world without violence, injustice and oppression, where even God will sing in response to human singing, “He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival”. At the end of his rather horrific prophecies, he calls on Judah to rejoice because there will a come a day when the world will be as God intended for it to be. Rejoice and sing, for one day all that is wrong will be made right. He calls upon Judah to rejoice in the midst of their grief – in the depths of their suffering – for God will forgive all their sins. He will not abandon them or leave them to suffer for too long. So he calls upon them to rejoice now for what will come about in the future. He calls upon them to rejoice in the midst of their fear and grief.

Rejoicing in the midst of grief. It is what we do, isn’t it? Yesterday we celebrated the life of one dear to all of us here. We lifted up all the blessings that we have received because June lived among us and we were joyful, even as we grieve her loss. We shared a meal and fellowship and laughter even as we wiped away the tears that those lovely old hymns brought to our eyes.

During Advent we live with grief. We live in the days just before the birth of the Christ child. Days of oppression and darkness. Days of sin and grief. We look at the world around us and wonder how everything got so dark, and so frightening. There are wars all over the world. My new next door neighbor just got back from Cosivo, which we don’t even hear about anymore because Iraq and Afghanistan are making the headlines. I worry that my nephew’s National Guard unit will be called up. Civil wars, genocide and famine are killing thousands daily around the world. In this country, the numbers of homeless are rising, thousands of children go to bed hungry, people are dying unnecessarily because they can’t afford to see a doctor or to get a prescription. My sister-in-law is beginning to realize what people without health insurance deal with. She questioned the pharmacist about the cost of one of my brother’s cancer medications. Most of their prescriptions are $10 or $20 so she thought $40 was a bit much. She learned that without insurance that little bottle would cost $600. Every day we hear that more teachers are being laid off, schools are being closed, funds are being cut and tuitions raised for education – for our future. Everywhere we turn we see evidence of God’s children who some might consider “unimportant”, the least of Jesus’ brothers ad sisters being ignored, cast out, and oppressed. We see greed, the desire for power and manipulation rewarded. And we wonder why we should be rejoicing.

And yet we are. We are looking ahead to the birth of the child. We are impatient for him to come. We want to sing the joyful songs. We want to see his power and his glory reflected and magnified around us. We want to lift up our voices and our hearts and hear God respond, exulting over us with loud singing as on the day of a festival! We know that the message of peace and love and joy and hope that comes in this season has to be repeated over and over, so that we can remember why we feel such joy at his coming. People are really good at forgetting these things, you know. Israel and Judah kept forgetting to do what God commanded – to care for the poor, the elderly, the widows, the orphans and the strangers – the helpless and hopeless. The prophets would remind them, and sometimes a good king like Josiah or Hezekiah would institute reforms. But once that king was gone everything went back the way it had been. The powerful and wealthy, the nobles and the priesthood turned their backs on God, looking only to themselves for guidance. And look what happened to them. Defeat and exile, poverty and oppression.

And so the prophets reminded them even in the middle of horrific oracles, that God would never abandon them. That no matter what they could and should rejoice that their pain would be healed, their fears relieved, their shame turned to praise. Not in some cosmic paradise, but in this world. For God would change their hearts so their sins would no longer be attractive to them, and they would do with gladness all the things that they were commanded to do.

That change of heart for us comes in the form of a child. A tiny, fragile vessel who holds all the hope of the world. Who brings with him the message of God’s eternal love for us, no matter how far we may wander. Who brings the Good News of God’s forgiveness, and warm welcome when we are ready to turn our lives over to him. Who brings to each one of us that change that will allow us to change the world. Who will be our Lord, our King, ruler of our hearts and our lives and make God’s kingdom into reality.. Christians All, Your Lord is Coming! Rejoice!