|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on November 15, 2011 at 12:35 AM|
Zephaniah 1: 7,12-18
Bring the kids to church, that’s a good place for them. That’s what we usually think. And yet, the words we hear today are pretty scary. The prophet Zephaniah has come to pronounce God’s judgment to his people. And he’s not mincing words. He’s painting a picture that we’d rather not look at and that we probably wouldn’t want kids to be watching on TV. He’s talking about a day when there will be violence and pain. All because of God’s anger.
Hear the prophet- “On judgment Day, I’ll search through every closet and alley. I’ll find and punish those who are sitting it out, amusing themselves and taking it easy, who think, ‘God doesn’t do anything, good or bad. God isn’t involved, so neither are we. But just wait. They’ll lose everything they have, money and house and land. On Judgment Day my anger will be paid out: I’ll make things so bad they won’t know what hit them.”
These words are in our Bibles! In the Lutheran tradition, we don’t usually talk about the end times or judgment all that much. We tend to focus on the good stuff- God’s love and on God’s promise of new life through Jesus. And we focus on that so much that sometimes we don’t quite know what to do with predictions of doom and judgment. We wonder how our God can be a God of judgment and a God of forgiveness at the same time.
So it’s tempting to write these end time words as old words- words spoken in another time to another people that don’t have much to do with us anymore. But every year, the Church chooses to have us hear these lessons again so that we can not ignore them, so we cannot forget them. Because the truth is, the God who sent Zephaniah to speak these words is the same God who sent Jesus to speak words of hope to us. So, as much as we may not want them to be, these words of destruction are a part of our story, too.
They are words spoken by the prophet Zephaniah to a people who were getting too comfortable. They had a pretty good life and didn’t think all that much would change. They thought that life would pretty much go on like it always had. They were busy going to work and taking care of their homes and they were feeling pretty much in control. They knew that they were the ones running their own lives and no one else.
And they got comfortable like that- living as if God wasn’t really at work in the world. They assumed that God wouldn’t go any good or any evil and that meant that were in charge. Now, it’s not that they weren’t religious. They still prayed when they were in terrified and worshipped because it had become part of their habit. But when it really got down to it, they lived their lives assuming that God was mostly just a figurehead. You know, a nice tradition, but not something they need to take all that seriously.
It’s a world that looks pretty familiar. Zephaniah was speaking to a world that looks a lot like ours. A place where many people don’t believe that God is still at work in the world. Where people may pay God some lip service, but live as if they are the ones who are really in control. And more often than we would like to admit, it’s not just those other people out there who act like that. Too often we don’t act any different. Too often we are people who believe that God is too loving to ever be angry. Too often we are people that act like God is our buddy rather than the one who can turn our world upside down. And that is why these words are still a part of our story. Because we still need Zephaniah to speak the words of God to remind us that living like that is dangerous.
We know full well how we act when we think the person in charge can’t do anything to us, when we feel like we can’t get in much trouble no matter what we do. We take advantage of it. Students don’t act as good or work as hard with the substitute teacher because they know she doesn’t have the same power to affect their grade. Workers tend to work a little less when the boss isn’t around because they know they can’t get in as much trouble. And most of us have a tendency to often treat people in our family worse than strangers since we know they won’t leave us and they have to love us no matter what. When we don’t think there will be consequences for what we do, we get complacent. We start to slip. We don’t take as much concern about how we act and what we do and start to act like it doesn’t matter.
And when we get to acting like that, we all need a prophet like Zephaniah to pull out a bullhorn to remind us of the truth. To tell us again who our God is. We need to be reminded that God isn’t a sweet, meek God who aims to make everyone happy. God Our God is a loving creator and the final judge. Our God is both the one who walks with us in our struggles and the one who has the power to bring destruction.
God didn’t just start the world spinning and step away for us to handle things on our own. God can still bring destruction and judgment for the sake of the life of God’s children. Our God is one whose passion burns hot, so hot that it canseem out of control and scary. As Zephaniah tells us, God cares about sin with “a fiery passion- a fire that can burn up the corrupted world.”
And that’s the kind of God we want. One that isn’t worried about being nice and accepting everything that happens in life. It’s incredibly good news to know that God is so passionate about our lives that God is willing to burn up all that gets in the way of our health and life. And it is good news to know that God has the power to destroy all that is evil in this world and in us, the power to turn our world upside down to end things like abuse and hunger. But, what else does God’s fiery passion mean for us? What does it mean to have a God whose anger can burn so hot? What does it mean for our world and for our own lives?
It means that how we live matters. And not just because we want to be a good person so that other people will like us and we can be proud of ourselves. How we live matters simply because the judge of the whole earth commands us to act in certain ways. Simply because we don’t make the rules and we are not incontrol. How we live matters because our God sometimes lets the consequences of our sin burn us a little in this world in order to bring justice.
Zephaniah speaks the truth that we like to forget- that our God is truly the ruler of everything and is too passionate about our lives to let sin go unchecked. Our sin and the sin of our life together have consequences for us and for our world. The things that we do and the things that we allow to happen without stopping them have consequences. And God will not always save us from what we have brought onourselves. A God who deeply loves justice and deeply loves us cannot do that.
God promises not to destroy us and to always return to us in love, but God also longs for our wholeness and our health- and not just ours, but that of the whole world. And our God loves this world and each one of us too much to let us remain a mess. That means that the passion of our God may burn hot against the sin in our world and in our hearts. And it may come enough that it hurts as it works to make us new.
And yet, that is not our whole story. These words of destruction are not the whole story for us and they weren’t even the whole story for the people of Zephaniah’s time. Two chapters after the words we hear this morning, the prophet tells the people that after all these things, there will be a time when all those who seek God will be safe and will be cleansed from all that pulls them from God. Zephaniah proclaims what God proclaims to us in Christ, “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you and the Lord is in your midst.” The harsh and scary words we hear at the not the end of the story for Zephaniah’s people any more than they are for us. Our God will remove our sin far from us and care for us.
And that means that we always have reason to hope. Destruction may be one part of our story, the pain of this world and the consequences of our sin maybe part of the story, but they are never the final word. We live always looking to the promise of love and mercy beyond the destruction. We always look to the forgiveness beyond our sin. How we live matters for us and for our world- it matters desperately- and yet God’s love will always be the first and last word for all of us.
So, people of God, people of a passionate and powerful God, live as if everything you do mattered deeply. As if your words and your actions mattered more than you could imagine. But also be bold in knowing and trusting that the love of God is always the last word for you and for all our world.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on January 31, 2011 at 8:54 AM|
Sermon for January 31, 2011
So God, a mountain and the people of Israelwalk into a courtroom. It sounds like a great beginning for a joke, but instead it's the beginning of our words from the prophet Micah that we hear this evening. Because God is taking the people to court.
That doesn't seem quite right from the God we love. Because we know that God loves the people of Israel, but the truth is that they’ve been misbehaving. So God brings charges against the people and asks the mountains to be the jury because mountains are apparently quite rational about such matters. God didn’t want to bring a lawsuit against the people. God wanted that awesome love of God to be enough to keep them on the right track. But it wasn’t. And thanks be to God, we have a God who takes our lives seriously, whose love is so passionate that it’s not willing to let us go in the wrong direction forever. So sometimes God needs to slap a little sense into us, even if that’s not all that comfortable.
But as the mountains stand ready to listen and the case begins, God doesn’t start my telling Israel all she had done wrong- all the worshipping other gods and going their own way and mistreating the poor. Instead, God pleads as one whose heart is broken, “What have I done to burden you? Why are you acting like this? What have I done that’s made you so tired of me?”
Remember, my beloved Israel, I love you and I treasure you. I want nothing but life and abundance for you. Remember when I brought you out of slavery in Egypt so that you could be free? And from one side of the Jordan river to the other from Shittim to Gilgal, don’t you remember how I watched over you- bringing you through the wilderness and into the beauty of the Promised Land? Remember how I was there to guide your leaders and watch over you and protect you? And don’t you know that this love that shepherded your grandmothers and great-grandfathers in the wilderness is the love that I still have for you?
And Israel can barely look at their heartbroken God. Because it’s hard to look at those who we have let down. Those we have disappointed. It’s hard enough to look at our own failures. But when we have to acknowledge that we have hurt those who love us dearly and let down those who only want what’s best for us, it’s too much. It makes us want to crawl under a table and hide or desperately try to do anything to make things right again. To restore that relationship that we’vebroken.
So the people of Israel try to make it up to God. To do something God likes, maybe send up some burnt offerings. God seems to like those. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams?” they ask. There’s got to be some magic way to make God happy again. Like giving up something really big for Lent or promising to come to church every week or giving a bunch of money to the poor. Come on God, what’s it gonna take to make things right and get us off the hook?
And the reply comes, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” The reply comes, there’s no magic way to make things right with you and God. There’s only what you have always known to do. And that’s to walk on the good path that God has always taught you. It is what brings life abundant for you as a community and as individuals before God. That’s how you live in right relationship with God.
God calls the people, calls all of us,back to the path we have always been taught to travel. We are called to do justice. Not to love justice or to think about justice, but to actually do justice. To actively work for fairness and equality for all people. Especially those that don’t have what they need. God calls us to be ones who puts things right. To do that in small ways in our own lives by sticking up for those who get treated badly and sharing our food with the hungry. And to do justice by working for the big changes in our country and our world by writing letters to senators and buying Fair Trade products and working with non-profits that serve others.
Do justice, God says. Be a community of people who cares for each others’ needs. Like my prophets have always called you to do. Like the prophet Isaiah called you to, learn to “do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Do justice, like God does justice. In a way that seeks the life of all people. In a way that shows compassion. Do justice, for your God is just.
And love kindness, God pleads with us. And yet the Hebrew word hesed is so much deeper than kindness. It’s so much more than smiling at people on the sidewalk and holding the door open for them. That word “kindness” means faithfulness and loyalty and compassion. It’s the kind of love that spouses pledge to each other and parents instinctively have for their children. It means steadfast love, alove that never ends and will go through anything for the others’ sake. It’s the kind of love that God has for us inabundance. And the love God wants us to have for each other.
God isn’t calling us to be nice people,but is calling us love like God, to reflect the same love that our God has forus. To radiate the same compassion and grace that God has poured out on us. Remember, God says, how I have loved you faithfully, no matter what. Remember how that love made me rescue you and forgive you and have compassion for you. Love like that. This hesed that God’s talking about is not a warm-fuzzy kind of love, it’s a commitment to love God and love each other the way we’ve been loved.
And finally, God calls the people to “walk humbly withyour God.” But “humbly” doesn’t really say it right. It’s more like, walk carefully with your God. Walk attentively with yourGod. Walk like it’s a game of Follow the Leader. Keep your eyes always on the one you’re following and be willing to trust God to know the way better than you do. Walk through life looking to God, sharing life with God, chatting with God. Let God call you back when you get distracted by the things of this world. Let God be your constant companion.
That’s how you make things right, God says. Do justice,love kindness and walk humbly with me. Be my people again. There’s no magic thing to do. There’s no list of prayers you need to pray or offerings you need to give. There’s no list of requirements to check off. I want you to know my love and reflect it to the world around you. So do justice,love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
It’s simple,it’s beautiful, it’s poetic. We love this verse. It's one of the most quoted in Scripture. I have it hanging in a frame on my office wall and Lutheran World Relief even uses it as part ofits slogan. Because we want to live like this- in communion with God and with the world around us. We want to bring justice and love into our world. But then the real world comes and knocks us on our tails.
Because although it’s beautiful, living like this is a lot of work. It’s inconvenient and it’s not always a lot of fun. And I don’t know about you, but I tend to get distracted by all the things that have to get done right now or by the crappy things that happen inlife and I start to walk my own way rather than walking humbly with ourGod. And yet, none of that changes what God calls us to do. How God beckons us to live. None of it changes that look of love in God’s eyes that reminds us of the love we were created in and the love we’re called to bless others with.
The work of following God is hard and that's why God doesn’t call us to do this on our own. These beautiful words are given to the people of Israel-the whole community- together. We’re not called to walk humbly with God on our own. We are called to walk together as a community. That's part of why we gather together this evening- to be a community that lives this way together. We gather among people with the same call. And we gather so we can be people to strengthen each other as we try to follow God.
As a community together, we can remind each other of who our God is and how much our God loves us when we forget. We can call each other back to doing justice and loving kindness and can teach each other how to do that. We can support each other when we stumble and encourage each other when we are tempted. In the midst of a distracting world where it’s hard to follow God, we have our brothers and sisters in Christ to walk the way with us- during this week, this semester, this time in college and through all the times to follow. We have a community to help us to do justice when we are too weak or willful and to love us when we have forgotten how. So that we can all be strengthened to walk with God and to help our neighbor to walk with God, too.
God calls us to a simple, beautiful but impossible task- of reflecting who God is to the world around us, a world that is desperate to know the love and the beauty of our God. And God keeps loving us, reassuring us, challenging us and calling us back again to the beauty we were made in. So that together we might do justice, lovekindness, and walk humbly with our God.