Holy (Dis)Comfort – Listening for God’s Word in the Minor Prophets – Zephaniah
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7
July 18, 2021
Our Old Testament text, that I will be reading near the end of the sermon,
hails from the prophecy of Zephaniah.
You may have never heard a sermon on Zephaniah, probably because most of Zephaniah is not good news.
Most of Zephaniah proclaims harsh judgment.
We are tempted to turn away from such difficult texts and choose passages that are more comforting.
But we would do well to make note of the historical context of Zephaniah.
We would do well to learn our biblical history so that we dare not repeat it.
The minor prophets are included in our canon of Holy Scripture
because they challenge a Church that may be tempted toward complacency;
they challenge a culture that worships many a false god and often fails dramatically in its love for neighbor.
Zephaniah’s prophecy comes in three successive parts.
First, Zephaniah proclaims judgment upon Judah for its corruption and for its religious perversions.
Zephaniah claimed that the greatly feared “day of the Lord” was hastening fast,
“a day of distress and anguish, a day of darkness and gloom.”
God’s judgment would come and there would be consequences – real and deep – for the sins of the people.
Second, Zephaniah proclaims that God’s divine judgment would be extended to Judah’s neighbors.
Judah would not stand alone in receiving punishment,
but would be joined by the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites,
the Ethiopians, and the Assyrians – the whole region surrounding today’s Israel.
These other nations would suffer because they too had turned away from divine law
and turned against one another, and “neither their silver nor their gold would be able to save them,”
as the prophet proclaimed.
The third part of Zephaniah’s prophecy, which may have been a later addition, holds out hope.
The third section proclaims that the remnant who would wait patiently for the Lord
those who would seek to serve God’s purposes
would ultimately find comfort and consolation following the time of judgment.
A bit of background:
People in Zephaniah’s time, much like people in North America today, were prosperous and at peace.
They were not in dire need of food nor of rescue from enemies.
They had begun to worship the popular “gods” of their day, giving their time and money to pagan practices
and mixing rituals of fertility cults into practices of faith.
They were neglecting only neglecting to obey God’s Word,
many of them had all but forgotten the God that had rescued them from slavery,
the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and Joshua.
The people had begun to trust their own judgments about what was right and wrong,
and they were failing to listen for God’s will as they made decisions large and small.
The prophet warned that a day of judgment would come;
Judah and her surrounding nations would endure consequences for living wayward lives.
This preaching of Zephaniah occurred during the reign of King Josiah of Judah.
Josiah’s great-grandfather, Hezekiah, had been a faithful king.
Hezekiah had done what was good in the sight of the Lord,
but everything Hezekiah had done was undone by the two kings that followed him.
The two kings prior to Josiah had abandoned the ways of the law.
Josiah’s father and grandfather before him shed innocent blood;
they encouraged the worship of other gods;
they even built altars to fertility gods within the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.
During the reign of Josiah’s father and grandfather,
knowledge of the Torah faded from the consciousness of the people.
The common people were not being taught God’s Word.
The children were not being raised in faith.
Their places of worship were being used for other purposes.
Even in a time of relative prosperity, the people were becoming lost and confused,
and the prophet, and soon thereafter the king, knew in their hearts that something was just not right.
Elementary kids will be interested to know that when Josiah was only 8 years old, in the year 640 BCE,
the people rose up and made Josiah their king.
Our youth group might be interested to learn that at age 16,
perhaps in response to the preaching of Zephaniah,
King Josiah earnestly began to seek the face of God,
Our young adults might be interested to know that at age 20,
Josiah began significant reforms on behalf of his wayward nation.
He made reforms in the government and in the worship of the people.
At age 26, Josiah ordered the great Temple in Jerusalem restored,
again, perhaps in response to Zephaniah’s prophecies.
While they were renovating the massive temple, the high priest found the book of the law,
one of the old scrolls of Deuteronomy.
The high priest gave it to the king’s secretary. The king’s secretary read it,
and soon thereafter, the king’s secretary read it aloud to the king.
He may have read something like these words from Deuteronomy 6:13-15:
“The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone shall you swear.
Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you,
because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God.
The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you
from the face of the earth.”
As the story goes, when young King Josiah heard such words, he tore his clothes.
He became greatly distressed as he grieved over the state of his nation.
He knew that his nation had gone astray and he became convinced that the prophecies would come to pass,
that disaster was going to come upon his nation and its inhabitants,
because they had abandoned God and worshiped false idols.
So Josiah humbled himself before God. Josiah became an ideal king in many respects.
He became one of the most faithful leaders in the entire biblical narrative,
akin to a Moses or Joshua or David.
Josiah is the only king of whom it was said that he did not turn aside from the Lord to the left or to the right;
he was a man utterly devoted to God.
Perhaps if he and his people turned again to God, he thought,
the time of judgment would not come or at least be delayed.
Josiah went up to the temple with all the elders and commanded all the people, all the inhabitants of the land,
both great and small, to gather around, and within their hearing, he read the words of the scroll.
He read them God’s law, the Torah, that had been rediscovered during the renovation.
When the people heard the Law, they were shocked; they didn’t know the scriptures.
They may have been well-versed in modern habits and practices
and in all sorts of new technologies, but they did not know God’s Word.
So Josiah proceeded to clean house.
He took out from the Temple all the vessels of Baal and had them burned.
He deposed all the idolatrous priests.
He brought out the fertility cult’s Asherah pole from within the temple and had it burned.
He broke down the houses of the male prostitutes that were within the Holy Temple.
He burned the statues of horses and chariots that stood at the entrance of the temple,
statues that had been dedicated to the worship of the sun.
Josiah tore down altars and shrines that had been erected at the high places,
sacred places like Bethel and even those in the northern region of Samaria. (see II Kings 22)
Josiah even slaughtered the priests of the “high places” and had their bones burned upon the altars.
attempting to abolish the worship of foreign gods.
And as a climax to all these efforts, Josiah re-instituted the celebration of the Passover,
which had not been celebrated for hundreds of years, not since the time of the judges.
Josiah knew that the problem of sin and its consequences would be real and deep.
He knew that his generation would suffer the consequences made by those who had gone before them,
the consequences of the unfaithful leadership of his father and grandfather before him.
In 609 BCE, when Josiah was 41 years old, he was killed in battle against Pharoah Neco of Egypt.
The great hero of faithfulness did not live to stand victorious over all his enemies.
And his two sons that reigned in succession after him, Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim,
did not follow in his ways, but instead did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,
just as their ancestors before them.
And just twenty years after Josiah’s death, in 587 BCE,
Jerusalem was utterly destroyed as the prophets had warned.
Judah was defeated and all the leaders of the people were carried off into exile into Babylon.
Josiah’s great reforms were too little too late.
We do not hear much about Josiah, because his story had a depressing ending.
By the time he came to reign and institute his reforms, the nation was too far gone.
Josiah’s story is a cautionary tale, a bit like the story of Haiti, when years of corruption and abuse,
both from within the country and from outside the country, result in chaos and loss.
The leadership has been unfaithful, oppressors have circled like vultures, and the common people suffer.
All nations will pivot between times of great faithfulness and times of chaos and division.
We are well aware that current generations face the consequences of decisions – both good and ill –
made by those who have gone before us.
This generation must deal with the substantial inequities that have arisen.
This generation must deal with deep divisions that go far beyond political disagreements.
This generation must deal with challenges of a warming climate,
at least a part of which is based on our own greed or neglect.
This generation must deal with societal ills of loneliness and desperation,
of real and deep anxieties, and an epidemic of suicide.
We know in our hearts that something is wrong with our nation,
but we seem to know not what to do about it.
Churches are struggling to know what to do,
how to hold people together who don’t want to have anything to do with one another,
how to reach those who are desperate and alone,
or who are coming out of the pandemic with broken relationships.
Churches are wondering how to communicate with or invite those who have no desire to learn the Bible
or to grow in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Last week, Alex did a marvelous job wrestling with the question of when scripture is scary.
One of the many things that I appreciated about her sermon was that she encouraged us to keep wrestling,
to keep asking hard questions, keep wondering about God‘s inscrutable will for us and for all people.
Holy Scripture is sometimes scary because human life is sometimes scary.
We are vulnerable creatures upon this earth. We are susceptible not only to powerful forces of nature,
but also susceptible to our own sin and the sins of those around us.
We will face challenges in this life. We will face hardships.
We will make mistakes. We will find ourselves and others deserving of God’s judgment.
Zephaniah reminds us that God cares. God cares about what happens on this little planet of earth.
God cares what happens in your life and mine.
And God cares so much that God will allow the consequences of sin to come, though not fully.
God’s last word will not be judgment but hope;
God’s last word will be comfort and consolation and salvation.
As Zephaniah promised, the oppressors of our world will be dealt with.
Sin will be rooted out, punished, and its consequences will purify the people.
Eventually, the punishments will be taken away, and God’s presence will be known in our midst.
The lame, the scattered, and the oppressed will be gathered in from the lands and rescued.
And those who have been put to shame will find themselves honored. (Zephaniah 3)
No matter how far we have strayed from God’s Word,
no matter how much we may have forgotten or ignored the worship of God,
no matter how broken and confused are our relationships,
God desires to bring us home.
God desires to renew us and restore us to lives of faithfulness and peace and hope.
The challenging prophecy of Zephaniah does not end with judgment, but ends with restoration:
Hear the Word of God from Zephaniah 3:14-20.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
In the New Testament, we discover another testament to hope in the midst of hardship.
Paul wrote a letter to the church in Philippi while he was confined in a prison in Rome.
He knew that his death was near, but he was not afraid. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”(1:21)
He wrote to a congregation facing hardship and an uncertain future.
He wrote to encourage them to live in the joy of Christ no matter what circumstances they may be facing.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication
with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything
worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Friends, this summer of 2021, as we emerge from this pandemic and face all kinds of uncertainties
in our individual lives and in the life of our nation, may the peace of Christ,
the peace which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds.
Whatever challenging circumstances you may be facing in your family, or your work, or your health,
remember that the One who came to fulfill the Law and the prophets came not to condemn,
but to bring hope and joy into the world, to bring you hope and joy.
Friends, let us rejoice in the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus.
To God be the glory. Amen.
Rev. J. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church