14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15 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. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 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 18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19 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. 20 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. Zeph. 3: 14-20
Here’s a crossword puzzle question you’re not likely to see: What’s a seven-letter word for creatures whose way of dealing with danger and threat is to be big and bad, with big, bad weapons of offense, like sharp claws and teeth, and big, bad weapons of defense, like huge size, armor plates and tails with spikes or clubs, everything about them big, sharp and tough, except their brains, which were so small they could only process desire and fear? The desire to eat, and the fear of being eaten? What’s a seven letter word for such creatures?
Or were we thinking of dinosaurs? That’s a nine letter word. They and their size, weapons and armor proved quite useful and successful….. for fueling our tools and our transportation. Our economy runs on reconstituted dinosaur juice, otherwise called petroleum. Well, reconstituted dinosaur food too, in the form of Paleozoic plants and algae. But for survival, and for passing on one’s genes to other generations, the lesson of life on this planet is that size, sharpness and sheer brute strength only go so far. Sometimes, they even hinder more than they help.
Oh, did you think I was still talking about dinosaurs just now? Well, there is a creature made to have dominion over the planet, but with no armor or weaponry but a brain big enough to process more than just desire or fear, a soul with the capacity to care for other creatures the way it cares for itself, and a spirit that it shares with its Creator, so that it can relate to its Creator. Now I’m talking about you and me and every other human being, friend or foe.
But we also experience desire and fear just as strongly as any other creature, alive or extinct. And that’s a good thing, if ever a truck comes barreling down the highway at us. But it’s not such a good thing whenever fear and desire override our brains, our souls and our spirits and shut them down.
Which brings me to the subject of terrorists in the Middle East who mean God’s people harm. You know, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites and the Ethiopians in the 6th Century B.C., who allied with the big, powerful empires of Assyria or Egypt, against our Hebrew spiritual ancestors in the tiny countries of Judah and Israel. These enemies all get mentioned in other passages of Zephaniah’s prophecies, than the one we just heard. By sheer numbers of chariots and warhorses and ranks of soldiers, Judah and Israel were no match for the combined weight of these neighboring enemies. Their logical fear of extinction, at the hands of those enemies, is what Zephaniah addressed in today’s reading.
Which brings me to the first question in the sermon outline: What makes Zephaniah revolutionary? Extinction was not the only fear that Zephaniah’s prophecy addressed. Zephaniah is one of the earliest biblical prophets to prophesy about “that day,” or “The Day of the Lord,” a coming day when all souls and societies, all nations and civilizations must give final account before the Just Judge of the universe for all that they did and became, good or bad. It’s the culminating moment of history when God has the last word, and all that is wrong is set right. In the first two chapters of his prophecy, Zephaniah gives some hair-raising warnings about “The Day of the Lord” for Judah’s neighboring nations. But God’s covenant people in Judah and Israel, don’t get off the hook either, because of how far down they too have slid into idolatry, immorality and injustice.
If we should feel some fear at the prospect of an appearance and an appraisal before the One from whom nothing is hidden, remember that in today’s reading, in the last prophecy of his book, Zephaniah is telling us to actually look forward to such a day with hope, but not because we should think ourselves better than anyone else who shall appear before the great cosmic bench of judgment. As scary as a final accounting on a coming “Day of the Lord,” might sound, I can think of at least one thing even scarier: no final accounting, no setting of things aright, evil free forever to do whatever it wishes, as long as it wishes. That would consign us to a mindless, pointless, ever-turning cosmic grindstone, like being trapped on some runaway nightmare Ferris wheel, and the only way to keep riding high in pleasure and prosperity is the dinosaur option: be bigger, badder, tougher and sharper than everyone else, so that you stay at top, and others get crushed underneath it, for a while, at least. In such a world, there is then no difference finally in value between good and evil, fortune and suffering. If time and history have no meaning, purpose, direction or value, then, finally, neither do you nor I. But that’s what the imperial religions of Judah’s neighbors said in Zephaniah’s day, and that’s how many see life now.
But with their vison of “The Day of the Lord,” or “that day,” or “the last day,” Hebrew prophets, like Zephaniah, actually introduced a revolution of justice, hope and human dignity into the world. If God is the just and indiscriminate judge of all actions and all souls, from king to commoner to slave, then all people are of equal worth to God. And so we should be of equal worth to each other. If faith, hope and love are on the winning side of the battle between good and evil, then God will vindicate all who stake their lives on them and live by them. If the future is headed somewhere good, then it’s worth our while to do good.
That makes the prophets’ message about “that day,” no different finally from what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., often said, that, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Nor is it any different from what we mean whenever we sing, during the Christmas season, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” Or another Christmas carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” verse 4: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”
So in this season of the church calendar, when the scripture schedule includes so many passages and prophecies about the inexorable march of time toward the settling of all moral and spiritual accounts, how did we get sidetracked into all the excess, over-indulgence and commercialism of Christmas? In light of history’s looming deadline, which Advent celebrates, how did we get so obsessed with only-so-many-shopping days left till X-mas? Yes, the birth of Jesus is the ultimate sign and statement of God’s tender mercy toward us. It is also God crossing the Rubicon of time and history, as a way of saying to us, “There’s no going back now; I’m all in and with you for keeps; Are you with me?”
To make the case that God’s judgment on human history is good news, not just something to fear, Zephaniah gives us three comforting images of God in today’s passage. And that’s the second question in the outline: What are Zephaniah’s three images of God in his last prophecy? They are: 1) God as shepherd; 2) God as bridegroom; and 3) God as warrior and defender.
The first way of relating to us, as shepherd, comes through in verses 19 and 20: “I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.” Home from the exile that Zephaniah saw coming. But also, home on that last day, to be with God and each other, forever.
If it seems strange to talk about God as his people’s Bridegroom, the second image, that’s what we’re supposed to think from verses 17 and 18: “God 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.” That’s the language of ancient Hebrew wedding songs, and it compares God, in his delight over us, to a bridegroom dancing and singing on the wedding day. And that’s an image as well of the Day of the Lord, the day of final accounting: the sealing and celebration of God’s union with his people forever. This image of God, as his covenant people’s Bridegroom, tells us that however much we might long for God and for eternity with God, God longs for us and for that eternity with us even more.
The third image, of God as warrior and defender, is quite clear in verse 17: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory,” and again in verse 19: “I will deal with your enemies who oppress you.” Now for a historic peace church, talking about God as a warrior might seem funny, but the question we must ask is, “How is God a warrior, a fighter, not if?” Does God fight evil in the manner of dinosaurs? Or of conventional human armies?
In the life and time of the prophet Zephaniah, Judah was facing the failure of King Solomon’s approach to ensuring their security, basically, the dinosaur approach. Solomon sought to out-Egypt the Egyptians, and out-Assyria the Assyrians, with bigger and badder armies, bigger and badder weapons, and of military and political alliances with bigger and badder empires. For a while, it worked, because God blessed Solomon with extraordinary wisdom. But over time, Solomon’s wisdom degenerated only into smarts, and cleverness, and technical savvy. The very height of Israel’s power and prosperity during Solomon’s reign was also the moment when the worst moral and spiritual rot set in. For all his smarts, then, the wisest man of the time became the most foolish.
It was not like no one had ever warned Israel that this would happen, if they got a king other than God, a king like what the neighboring nations had. Zephaniah stands in that line of Hebrew prophets whose vision for human flourishing requires that God be king, ruling first and foremost in our hearts. Zephaniah carries on the tradition and the message of the prophets, like Isaiah, who said, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” The law, the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, agree that the offensive weaponry of God’s people against everything that we fear, is faith, hope and love, that our best strategy of defense is submission and obedience to God. God fights by means of virtue, not violence; his is a fight for character, not conquest.
Which brings us to the third question in the outline: How does Jesus match, or fulfill, Zephaniah’s images of God? As for the first image, that of God as Shepherd, Jesus said, “I Am the Good Shepherd,” and “I lay down my life for the sheep.” He told about the shepherd who left the 90 and 9 and went looking for the one that was lost, and then demonstrated the same thing in his ministry to Israel’s outcast and undesired people.
Zephaniah’s wedding and bridegroom image of God and the last day is another one that Jesus and the New Testament often employ, like when Jesus said, in John 14, “I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” That’s what young men in First Century Palestine did to prepare for their coming wedding: when the engagement was made, they went back home, built a house or a room to which they would take their bride on the wedding day, and then came back for her on the wedding day.
Jesus also used wedding imagery to talk about the end of history and his coming in glory, like in the parable about the wise and foolish maidens. Half of them did not have their lamps filled with enough oil to greet the bridegroom when he came to claim his bride, by night. Just as the Bible begins with a wedding, the presentation of Adam and Eve to each other in Genesis, so it ends with a wedding, in John’s Revelation, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, and the marriage of heaven and earth, when the New Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth, “as a bride adorned for her husband.”
As for God as warrior and defender, who would have thought that the king of the universe would invade a world occupied by sin as a defenseless and homeless baby? Who would have thought that the ruler of Creation would come to our defense as a refugee child in Egypt? That he would fight the hosts of hell armed only with God’s Word and God’s Spirit? That he would approach Israel’s enemies, like Romans, Samaritans and Syrians, with gifts of healing and words of blessing? Or that our warrior and defender would face the most terrifying enemy of all, death, by absorbing and enduring it, when he could have called twelve legions of angels to obliterate his tormentors? Yet the unarmed Jesus is precisely how God fulfills Zephaniah’s promise, to be a warrior and our defender: he comes disarmed, in order to disarm us, especially, to disarm us of the weapons of our fears.
These three images of God in Zephaniah’s last message were meant to comfort and encourage God’s covenant people. Which brings us to the fourth question in the sermon outline: What do these images of God call forth from us? With what actions or attitudes are we to respond? First of all, what the righteous judge of the nations asks of us, and looks for in us, is not perfection, nor performance, for no one can stand before the Most High and Holy on those terms, boastful of their own faithfulness. The God who holds history in hand looks first for trust, trust in his righteous judgments, trust in his mastery over all creation and history, but also for trust in his mercy, tenderness and clemency toward all who flee to him for refuge, for all who rely upon God’s goodness, more than their own. Such faith is the first work of God’s law, and from it alone everything else of eternal value flows.
If we would cultivate such trust in the face of our fears, then we must counter our fears with lives and actions of fear’s opposite: love. Because faith works and grows through love. That’s especially pertinent today, when hunger, war and terrorism are driving more people than ever from their homes, to seek refuge and asylum. At the same time, our own very understandable fears are ratcheting up because of our own recent experiences of violence and terrorism.
That’s nothing new; we’ve been here before. About two hundred years ago, people of a suspect minority religious group were looking to come here to the United States, from France. They too had experienced war and persecution. They lived on the border of two warring countries, in territory claimed by each. It belonged to France then. But the French did not trust these people; they had come from enemy territory to the east, and continued to relate to family and friends of similar faith in enemy territory. They were also accused of terrorism, because less than three hundred years earlier, a crazy, violent, apocalyptic group who claimed to be these same people took over a major city in Germany, engaged in ruthless violence, and installed their own crackpot vision of society, which included deplorable immorality, like polygamy. These were not the same people, but in a climate of such fear, how do you convince anyone of that?
Inspired by the recent American Revolution, the French were also engaged in a revolution in human progress and democracy, with the battle cry of “Liberty, Brotherhood and Equality.” But these undesirable people on their eastern border seemed to show insufficient interest or enthusiasm for this revolution.
The French were also trying to make all their citizens secular. They changed the calendar, imprisoned priests and bishops, and took land and property away from churches and monasteries, because all such things, they said, were so medieval, so Dark Ages. We’re in the 19th Century now! But this strange, recalcitrant minority group on their Eastern border weren’t even trying to be medieval; they were trying to be First Century Christians. So much so, that their sons resisted the draft and refused to fight in the armies of the Revolution, and then in the armies of Napoleon. To get out of the increasing hostility, persecution and pressure to leave their faith and to fight for their country, people of this despised and distrusted religious minority started to do what they had often done before: to leave and look for freedom and refuge elsewhere. Some packed and prepared for America.
If the French thought that the people whom I just described were backward, regressive, unpatriotic, unwilling to fit in or to serve their country, linked in name at least to violent peasant revolutionaries three centuries before, should America let them in? But come they did, and just a hundred years later, frightened Americans were burning down their houses of worship in states like Kansas, Montana, and Oregon, for similar reasons. America also was at war, and they wouldn’t sign up. Even worse, America was at war with Germany, and many of these people still spoke and worshiped in German, and had unmistakably German last names.
You know who I’m talking about now? Who?
That’s what happens when the dinosaur instinct of fear overrides our God-given souls and our spirits. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I had lunch once with the imam of a neighborhood mosque in Minneapolis, a recent immigrant from Somalia. He told me how Church World Services got him and his family out of a refugee camp in Kenya, and how they settled them with a Lutheran family in rural Iowa. The father of that home drove long distances, to the nearest city with any Muslim residents, to buy Halal food that their Somali guests could eat. Halal food for Muslims is like kosher food for our Jewish friends, food that is certified clean by religious standards. The imam went on to say, “I have often wondered what makes Christians so tender-hearted; I was told not to expect that where I went to seminary, in Cairo, Egypt.”
This imam, by the way, is a leader in helping Muslims and Christians relate and understand each other. He has also stuck his neck out, courageously, to preach against violent jihadist militancy. And he knows from experience that Mennonites are good cooks, because he and other members of his mosque shared dinner with folks from the congregation one night at the church I served in Minneapolis.
Should I have told the search committee about that?
Which brings me to the last question in the outline: What should we fear most? Like everyone else, I’m afraid of terrorists and terrorism. I’m not so afraid of foreign terrorists sneaking in with the ten thousand Syrian refugees that our country has committed to resettle. It will take two years of application, security checks and red tape before any of them get here. Terrorists will look for easier, quicker ways to get in. I’m more afraid of young people born here getting radicalized if they never experience anything from other Americans like what a Muslim immigrant experienced when he was standing at a bus stop in Minneapolis recently without any gloves. A friend of mine said to him, “Here, take my gloves; I’ve got more pairs at home.”
The immigrant asked him, “Why would you give your gloves to a perfect stranger?” and my friend replied, “It’s something Jesus tells me to do.”
“That’s funny,” the immigrant replied. “Yesterday, another stranger stopped to jump my car when it wouldn’t start, and when I asked him why, he said the same thing.”
I hope we can see the journey of the homeless and the stateless toward us not as a threat but as an opportunity, an opportunity to do what we are called to do: to testify to Jesus in word and deed. Nearly seventy years ago, somebody did that for my father and his family when they were stateless and homeless refugees, and from an enemy country. Somebody did that for most of our ancestors here, or for us.
I am much more afraid of fear itself, of fear’s power to override our God-given brains, our God-given souls, and our God-given spirits. But what I fear most is coming before the bar of history, the one that Zephaniah foresaw, to have my life reviewed, to find that I had refused shelter to someone, because of my fear, who turned out to be Jesus, the just judge who says, “Whatever you did for the least of these, my brethren, you did for me.”
Even in times like these, Zephaniah tells us that we have much more reason to rejoice than to lament, much more reason to love than to fear, much more reason to hope than to despair, because of our present and coming king, who is his people’s shepherd, bridegroom, and warrior/defender. Zephaniah tells us that this God has the last word over history. The Gospel tells us that his final word is Jesus.
Prayer: To you, the unarmed, homeless, refugee Savior, we look for the victory of everything you came to purchase and to achieve by your Advent to us, for in your victory is our security. By the power of your Spirit who melts our fears with the force of his radiant, merciful love, help us to rise above the fear of everything that the world and the flesh fears, and so be those who meet life and death, friends and foes, as we would meet you, with faith, hope and love.