A reading and reflection for Tuesday, December 11, 2012.
The tenth day of Advent.
Click "Read More."
Zephaniah 3:14-20 NRSV
We named our son Calvin. Partly in reference to the sixteenth-century theologian, John Calvin, but mostly because we like the strong consonantal sound of the name. What we especially appreciated about the connection to John Calvin was that Calvin insisted on God's sovereign Providence in all things. God not only was the creator of all things, but God also sustains all things. Our frequent inability to perceive God's providence does not change its reality. Whoever the parents of Zephaniah the prophet were, they must have had a similar understanding. They named their son, "Tzephan-Yah" ("The Lord has hidden away"). What a powerful statement of trust.
Our text from Zephaniah's third chapter is a bit misleading for it is filled with hope and one might think that Zephaniah's message was just positive thinking for the future. Like many of the prophets, Zephaniah's message was a mixture of both judgment and hope for the future. The phrase "Day of Yahweh (the LORD)" and its derivations is repeated over and over throughout this book. Some of the images of this day of judgment are quite severe:
"I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently." (1:12)
"I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind" (1:17)
"Their blood shall be poured out like dust" (1:17)
"The LORD will be terrible against them; he will shrivel all the gods of the earth" (2:11)
"My decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger; for in the fire of my passion all the earth shall be consumed." (3:8)
One of the persistent problems in American subcultural Christianity is that we are insufficiently mindful of texts like this. There is an irreducible quality of purity and righteousness to this God we worship and when we lose sight of that, we begin thinking God is something more like us than not. The harsh language of the prophets might in fact be a bit exaggerative and overstated, but nevertheless when God comes again in Jesus Christ, evil will be purged completely.
The consumption of the earth by God's fiery passion is not a scare tactic to get you to come to church, or to pray more. It's a coming reality. The prophets aren't trying to say, like so many old wives' tales do, "If you keep doing that, something bad, namely God's judgement, will happen." Rather they are saying, "God is coming to judge the earth, prepare yourselves accordingly."
So after three chapters of this sort of end-of-days, final judgement, harsh language, you can imagine the relief the hearer would feel upon listening to these words from the end of Zephaniah 3. "Sing aloud! The Lord has taken away the judgements against you..." (3:14). There is a tender quality assigned to the fierce God of wrath of the chapters previous: "The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness...he will exult over you with loud singing." (3:17). "At that time I will bring you home..." (3:18).
And I think this chapter (in light of the remainder of the book), teaches us the proper way of conceiving of God. God is firstly the righteous and pure Lord Almighty who ought to come and deal with the sins of this world in his holy anger, yet this Lord wills, chooses, elects to be gracious and tender in his dealings with his people. Mercy can only be such in the presence of justice. The impending judgement is what fills the word "mercy" with its meaning and force.
During this Advent season we are chastened by our sin, and we stand in God's judgement hall, waiting for God's verdict. During Advent, we wait. We wait and we confess, in the words of the old hymn:
Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
And yet in that old Christmas story about the birth of a baby in a small town in Judea, we hear the beginnings of our redemption, of God's preferred manner of dealing with our sin: redemption and revelation. We, in our guilt, whose heads are bowed low in penitence, hear the good news that to us a child is born, a son is given, and he will be called "Immanuel", which means God-is-with-us. And we will lift our heads again, stunned that God's judgement upon our sin was to come among us and redeem us.
And so we can sing the penultimate verse of the same old hymn:
Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest, And set my spirit free.
1. When was the last time you've thought of God's judgement? Which comes to mind first when you think of God: his justice or his mercy?
2. In what specific area of your life do you require mercy?
3. Do you ever feel compelled to "Sing aloud" to the Lord in response to what God has done for you? Why or why not?
Click here for a PDF version of the whole book of Zephaniah. Print it out. Now, go through it and circle any reference to "day of the Lord". In the margins, make a note about what is being described and what you think about it. Now, take a heavy black marker and put a horizontal line across the page when you perceive the prophet's language shifting from judgement to hope. What do you think about this prophet's words? Write your thoughts in the margins of the text.