|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.