The Prophecy of Zephaniah begins with a message of horrific judgment upon the surrounding nations of God’s people. In Zephaniah chapter one, the Lord declares:
I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,”I will sweep away both man and beast;I will sweep away the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.
The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly.
That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the Lord.
Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung.
Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.
In the following chapter, chapter two, Zephaniah then tells the people of God to watch and listen carefully to these judgments of God pronounced upon the surrounding nations. He tells the people of God to be humble and to keep seeking the Lord, searching out those things which He has commanded them to do. Zephaniah warns them to seek justice with humility in order to receive shelter on the day when the Lord comes to judge the nations (2:3).
After these instructions to Israel, Zephaniah's message becomes more specific about every thing—more specific about which nations would receive the Lord's judgment and why they would be judged. We see that God's holy fury is against the wicked nations surrounding His people.
Our attention is first directed to the land of the Philistines with a description of God coming to visit them in his wrath, laying waste to their major cities with their temples and all their false gods (2:4-5):
Gaza will be abandoned and Ashkelon left in ruins. At midday Ashdod will be emptied and Ekron uprooted! Woe to you who live by the sea, you Kerethite people!The word of the Lord is against you, Canaan, land of the Philistines!
I will destroy you, and none will be left.
Next, the Lord moves on to other surrounding nations of Israel, to the Moabites and Ammonites, who insult God and His people, boast in the power of their own idols, and threaten to conquer Israel's God, bringing them all under their rule (2:8-11). To that the Lord responds, saying:
I have heard the insults of Moab and the taunts of the Ammonites, who insulted my people and made threats against their land.Therefore, as surely as I live, surely Moab will become like Sodom, the Ammonites like Gomorrah—a place of weeds and salt pits, a wasteland forever.
The idea, again, is to emphasize their complete destruction as a powerful civilization and nation that had become morally bankrupt.
After this the Lord moves on to the people of Cush and their soon-coming destruction as a nation. Then He moves on to the Assyrian empire, because they were a people who reveled in their safety, making claims about their uniqueness and greatness as an empire. Assyria says to herself, “I am the One! And there is no one besides me!” (2:15) Does that sound like any nation you know of?
This is interesting, and dare I say, damning, because the Lord is truly the one Sovereign and only One. There truly is no Sovereign one beside Him who can compete with Him or defeat Him. Nevertheless, Assyria had grown in its imperial might, wealth, and prestige to the point of thinking so highly of itself, that they considered themselves uniquely mighty. They alone, supposedly, were great. So the Lord declares to them:
I will stretch out My hand against the north and destroy Assyria, leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert.Flocks and herds will lie down there, creatures of every kind.The desert owl and the screech owl will roost on her columns.Their hooting will echo through the windows, rubble will fill the doorways, the beams of cedar will be exposed.This is the city of revelry that lived in safety.…What a ruin she has become, a lair for wild beasts!
The feeling that God’s people are supposed to have regarding all of these judgments is fear and awe. Alongside this there is supposed to be a sense of respect for what God promised to do to those wicked nations. From this it's clear that God has never been ignorant or indifferent about evil in the world. God sees how nations and people treat each other. God knows their entertainments, their idols, their indifference to His truth, their boasting against Him, and their persecution of His people. The Lord knew that the Assyrians, the Moabites, and Philistines were a people who would not humble themselves before Him and obey His commands, worshiping Him alone in His holy temple. They would not seek God on a path of humility with the meek and lowly. They were proud of being high and mighty. They would not seek God on a path of justice with the poor and outcasts of society. Instead they paved their own way to success by plundering their neighbors. That is why, on that “Day of the Lord” spoken in the first chapter of Zephaniah, the Lord promised to come and visit those nations and clear a path of holiness for Himself to walk on. If the nations would remain stubborn and rebellious, set on paving their own ways of evil and destruction, the Lord would come and bring destruction upon their cities and all of their evil ways. And it would be terrifying. When we look back at the history of these ancient nations, after the time of Zephaniah, we can see their complete and utter destruction as spoken through the Prophets, and it's not a pretty picture. The Lord most certainly did bring their evil and destructive ways to ruin.
So far, the word of the Lord through Zephaniah is powerful and dreadful. It's a message which, if we were the people to whom the Lord spoke these words, we too ought to be fearful. This is important to keep in mind because it is in light of this dreadful message that we find our lectionary reading for today (3:14-20). Intriguingly, that reading is not about dreadful judgment, but rather, is about rejoicing. However, before we get to the part about rejoicing, we need to remember carefully what the Lord had said to His own people back in chapter two. Recall that brief warning I cited earlier in passing (2:3). Speaking to the people of Jerusalem, Zephaniah said:
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands.Seek justice. Seek humility.
Then you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.
The reason why I'm stressing that particular warning to God's people is because of what comes next in Zephaniah's prophecy. In order to appreciate the message of great joy pronounced to God’s people, we need to empathize with those people who were willing to seek God with humility.
After denouncing Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush, and Assyria, and just before God's people hear the great news of salvation and rejoicing, Zephaniah cries out one more time this way:
Woe to the city of oppressors! The rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one! She accepts no correction!She does not trust the Lord!She does not draw near to her God!
Her officials within her are roaring lions!Her rulers are evening wolves who leave nothing for the morning!Her prophets are unprincipled! They are treacherous people!Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the Law!
The Lord within her is just.He does no wrong.Morning by morning He dispenses His justice.Every new day he does not fail, yet the unjust know no shame.
For those who are new to the book of Zephaniah and his message, you might be thinking that this message is not surprising at all. It sounds like the same message of justice and judgment, re-hashing the same old news to the surrounding nations. But it's not.
When we look closely at this message, this is the climax of Zephaniah's entire message, and it's not at all directed at the surrounding nations of Israel. It is a message directed at Israel. It's about the people of Jerusalem. When the prophet cries out, "Woe to the city of oppressors! The rebellious and defiled!", that is a woe to the people of God's land. When the Lord describes them as accepting no correction, of having civil rulers who strip their people of sustenance, leaving them in poverty, that's a description of civil rulers in Israel. And when God condemns the people who lie and deceive and use perverse speech to promote greater injustice, God is condemning people who carry His name among them.
This is not a light matter. The people of God were addressed at the climax of Zephaniah’s message because they were the most peculiar people in the world at that time. They were a peculiar people chosen out of all nations by God, and set apart to be like God—to be Godly. But here, at the climax of Zephaniah’s message, we see that they have become just as ungodly as their surrounding nations.
The Lord continues speaking through Zephaniah, saying:
Of Jerusalem I thought, ‘Surely you will fear me and accept My correction!’ Then her place of refuge would not be destroyed, nor all my punishments come upon her.But they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did.Therefore wait for me, for the day I will stand up to testify.I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdomsand to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger.The whole land will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.On that day you, Jerusalem, will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me, because I will remove from you your arrogant boasters.Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill. But I will leave within you the meek and humble.The remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the Lord.They will do no wrong; they will tell no lies.A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths.
The Lord is coming, Zephaniah says. He is coming to visit the nations surrounding Israel, but He is also coming to visit the city where His name dwells, the city of Jerusalem where both His people and his own house reside. And when he comes, Zephaniah says, the fire of His jealous anger comes with him, consuming “the whole land” because the whole land of Israel had become accustomed to their own defilements, approving of their own evil desires, just like their surrounding nations. A terribly jealous fire comes with the Lord's visitation, but here at the end of Zephaniah’s message we learn that His visitation of fire does much more than destroy cities and their buildings. Above all the things which the fire of God brings, most importantly it brings purification.
When the Lord comes to visit His people, the lips of His people are cleansed so that they can call upon Him with thankfulness, serving Him without defiled offerings of speech (3:9-11). The Lord says to them, You will not be put to shame (v. 11). I will leave within you the meek and humble (v. 12). They will do no wrong. They will tell no lies. A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths (v. 13).
Notice carefully that when the Lord gathers the nations together for judgment, He has no intention of destroying His own people in their midst. His judgment included the land of Israel and the people of Israel, but the remnant of His people were purified by His visitation. So in that “Day of the Lord” which Zephaniah spoke about (that day when the people of Jerusalem saw their own city and temple brought to ruin by the Babylonian armies, and the subsequent deportation into Babylonian captivity), that was not the destruction of God's people. That was the destruction of all their idols and entertainments, basically the entire world as they knew it, but it wasn't the destruction of God's people. God was destroying all the vain confidence they had in themselves, and their arrogant boasting like the nations around them. God was destroying their love for lies, and their deceitful tongues, promoting gross injustices and treachery toward their neighbor.
It is in that context in mind that we finally reach our reading for today. It is in the context of God visiting His people to change the way we live our lives—to think and live Godly again—that Zephaniah proclaimed God's good news:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel!Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!The Lord has taken away the judgments against you!He has cleared away your enemies!The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst!You shall never again fear evil!
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:“Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will direct you by his love; He will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the appointed time, so that you will no longer suffer reproach.Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.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 in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes”
When God comes, He comes to clean His house, but the purpose of cleaning house is because He wants to live there. And if His people are going to dwell in his house, they need to be holy and pure even as He is holy and pure.
Notice carefully that this message is virtually the same as what we find in our gospel and epistle readings for today. In our gospel reading, John the Baptist is approached by the rulers of Israel in his day. And he message is very much like Zephaniah’s. He scolds them for their corruption and vain confidence. You vipers!, he says. Who warned you to flee from God's wrath that's about to fall upon this generation? The axe is already laid to the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Don't say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' so God won't come and cut us down like he does with the surrounding nations.
That was the message of John the Baptist. It was a message of God coming to judge Israel as an idolatrous nation that boasted like all the other surrounding idolatrous nations.
The crowds then asked John the Baptist, “What then shall we do?”He answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
John's message was about God coming to purify a remnant of people for Himself, and a bunch of people understood that. Notice carefully that when some of the people asked John what to do, he told them what to do. John didn’t say ‘There’s nothing you can do! Just sit back, do nothing, and let God do His thing.” Not only does John not say that, but he says the very opposite of that. It is precisely because God was coming to visit His people that he told them to prepare to meet Him. In preparation for that meeting, he tells them to purify the way they've been speaking, and thinking, and behaving with their neighbors, in their homes, and in their workplace. To the one he says, in essence, help others in need with the abundance of good things that God gives you. If you have two tunics in your closet or enough food for a buffet at dinnertime, don't covet what you have. If one of your neighbors is in need of a tunic (and there definitely is at least one), give one of your tunics to him, and invite his family over for dinner too.
To you, the tax collector, John says not to collect more in taxes just because you have the power to do so. Don't ever capitalize by an injustice to your neighbor. Even if it’s legal. Even if it’s “safe.” Even if you could move up the corporate ladder by just taking a tiny advantage of your neighbor, don’t do it. Resist that temptation. Don't encourage or advance business policies which exploit the poor and needy.
Even soldiers—military and police men of the region—came to John asking what to do, and notice carefully again that John didn't tell them to stop protecting the peace of the city. He doesn't advocate that they quit their jobs or throw away their weapons. Instead, he tells them to stop their abuse, and the cover-up of their scandalous abuses. He tells them to stop their threats and false accusations, their extortions and discontent. He tells them a message which many people in our American police force need to hear.
John is directing the people, telling them to turn to God and His ways for purification. He's telling them to seek God's ways of humility and justice, because God was coming to pay a visit. One mightier than him was coming, the strap of whose sandals he was not worthy to untie; and that One comes with a winnowing fork in his hand, to clear the threshing floor of Israel, and to gather the wheat into his barn, leaving the chaff for burning.
Does that sound like good news to you? Do these messages of God, through John or Zephaniah, sound like the gospel of our Lord? Does all of this talk about justice and purification sound like a gospel which helps our hearts rejoice? Our answer might be 'No', but it should be 'Yes'! At least that's what Luke tells us. Luke tells us that this message of purification was essential to the gospel. In verse eighteen of our gospel reading today, Luke says this:
So with many other exhortations John preached the gospel to the people.
God's gospel is, first and foremost, a dreadful message of purification. When we hear about God coming in these terrifying ways, we cringe, as we should. God's good news is that He cares so much about this world we live in, and the sins we persist in, that He doesn't leave us alone in our sin. He comes to change us. He comes to purify nations and cities, villages and towns, neighborhoods and homes, parents and children. He comes to lay an axe to the root of our pride and arrogance. He comes with a winnowing fork in his hand to gather up our heaps of lies, threats, and false accusations, to destroy them. He comes to purify our abusive speech, evil schemes, and unholy discontent. He comes to clean house so that he can dwell with us, in our midst again.
Take a few moments to reflect upon this idea of God dwelling with us. Ask yourselves: When I look around at my surrounding neighborhood and city, does it look like a city filled with people who God wants to dwell with?
Look at the police force in this city, or the military personnel stationed around our state, and ask yourself, Are these people who God wants to dwell with?
Look at the politicians of your city and ask, Are they people who God wants to dwell with?
Last, but not least of importance, look at the people you work with, or those who are just friendly acquaintances here around you in this city. Take a good look at the way they speak, and how they discuss the treatment of others. What are their views about people of color? What do they say about refugees? Is their speech unjust or arrogant? Is their view of our nation like that of Israel or Assyria, that "we" are special descendants of Providence, that “we” are "the one" and there is no other like us? That “we” must not tolerate "them" or that they must become one of us?
Does God want to dwell with people like that?
Again, our instinctive answer might be 'No', but that kind of answer tells us more about how much purification we need as His people. Our answer should be an emphatic 'Yes' because our God comes into the midst of this messed up world as the One and only, the Almighty One who can save us from the mess we create. Like we saw earlier in Zephaniah, God has no interest in destroying us. Instead he wants to clean up this messed up world. That's why he came in Zephaniah's day, that's why He came in John's day, and that's why the Lord continues visiting His Church throughout all nations today.
When we consider how messy this world is, and how our own lives contribute to that mess, don’t let that become an opportunity of despair for you. Rather, let your conviction of that truth become an occasion to rejoice in the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is an occasion to rejoice because it means that God is coming to dwell among you and in you. Even for those of us who are like the soldiers and tax collectors in John's day, earnestly questioning what it is that we must do to prepare for God to enter our homes and our lives, this is still good news because in our readings for today we are told what to do. We are not left wandering around in despair. We ought to seek the Lord and His ways with humility. We ought to put away the foolish and wicked ways of the world, and instead put on Christ. We know that when God comes into our homes, and into our lives, He comes to clean us up. He cleans us up, not so he can kick us out and boast in his might, but so he can rejoice over us with gladness, direct us by his love, and change our shame into praise (Zeph 3:14-20).
When you look at the messiness of life, do not despair.
Turn to God and rejoice in Him always.
The Lord is very near. So Again I say, rejoice!
The Lord is very near. So Again I say, rejoice!
In baptism, our shame has been washed away.
When we confess our sins together, we are welcome to draw near to Him at His Table, to eat a meal with that One who alone is mighty to save the world.
Let that joy be known to everyone.
With great thanksgiving, direct your prayers to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
* * * * * * *Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us, and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.
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