"Singing Instead of Shame"
December 17, 2006 Zephaniah 3:14-20
One of the most familiar expressions to emerge from Dickens' A Christmas Carol occurs fairly early on in the story when Scrooge's nephew unexpectedly pays the old miser a visit...
"A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach. "Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!" ..."Christmas a humbug, uncle!" said Scrooge's nephew. "You don't mean that, I am sure." "I do," said Scrooge. "Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough." "Come, then," returned the nephew gaily. "What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough." Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said "Bah!" again; and followed it up with "Humbug."
We may not be as poor as Scrooge's nephew, or as morose and cynical as the wealthy uncle, yet there are probably tough moments in life when we too feel like saying, "Bah! Humbug! What's there to be merry about?" Yet the Christmas season resounds with strains of "Joy to the world" and "God rest ye merry, gentlemen". Life can be very disappointing; other people can be disappointing, hurtful even - especially when we're let down by someone we thought we could count on.
Our text from Zephaniah insists there IS something about God's intervention to sing and be joyful about: God's power turns back our enemies and takes away our fear; God's presence in Christ takes away our punishment and removes our shame; and God's treating us as precious takes away our self-doubt, giving us worth and hope.
Zephaniah prophesied at a time in history when the power was shifting in the Middle East. It was about 627 BC. About 100 years before, the Assyrians had swept into Syria and Canaan, conquering the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital Samaria in 722 BC. The inhabitants were exiled to many different places, never to really re-group again. In 701 the Assyrians invaded Judah but King Hezekiah and Jerusalem were not toppled. Still, the southern kingdom did not seem to learn a lesson from the northern kingdom's godlessness and destruction. Good King Hezekiah was followed by wicked King Manasseh who reigned 55 years and introduced many evil practices such as worship of Baal, Asherah, the starry hosts, sacrificing his children in the fire, practising sorcery and witchcraft, and consulting mediums (2Chron 33:2ff). Assyrian power started to wane. Their last great king died about the time Zephaniah was prophesying. Within about 40 years, at 586 BC, Jerusalem would be destroyed by the new empire-builders, the Babylonians.
You've got to remember back in these times there was no United Nations; no benign superpower guarding your frontier; no Interpol or RCMP. When it came to international conflict, diplomacy played a much lesser role; it was 'pay up or be strung up'. Oh, and there was no Geneva Convention, either: conquerors could be very ruthless and brutal. Fear was a big factor in the fight for survival.
The first two-thirds (at least) of Zephaniah's prophecy is a warning of destruction coming to punish the nations - surrounding pagan nations such as Philistia, Moab and Assyria - but also Judah and Jerusalem, as consequences for their evil deeds. "I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth," declares the Lord (1:2). A prominent feature of Zephaniah's oracle is "the day of the Lord" - associated with bitter cry, shouting warrior, wrath, distress, anguish, trouble, ruin, darkness and gloom, "a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities..." (Zep 1:16) Enemies marching and armies colliding. Can you feel the danger? Fear would be prevalent in this climate of conflict.
But Zephaniah not only foresees the judgment coming with four decades: God also gives him a picture of the people's restoration following the exile to Babylon. This would be something to truly rejoice about. Vv15-16, "The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.On that day they will say to Jerusalem, 'Do not fear, O Zion...'" And in v19 God promises, "At that time I will deal with all who have oppressed you..." As we see in the story of Nehemiah, the Persian King Artaxerxes even grants materials for the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem! (Neh 2:8) Quite a switch.
What can defeat the power of the enemy? God's power - the strength of the Almighty. V17, "The Lord (YHWH - who makes things happen) your God is with you, He is mighty to save." God's power is directed to help those who call out to Him. V19, "I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered" (ie exiled). Before a century had passed after Zephaniah's prophecy, all this would have come true. God, in His mighty sovereign power, brought it about.
What enemies are threatening you? Probably not oriental despots, but you may still be attacked by the world, the flesh, or the devil. Corrupt business-people can let you down; scam artists may try to rip you off. Landlords may shaft you, competitors undercut you, jealous classmates ridicule you. Our health may fail us. There is still much to fear in the 21st century. But the Lord is stronger than our enemies, turning them back, rescuing us when we trust in Him. Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble; but take heart! I have overcome the world." (Jn 16:33) John's first letter assures believers they can overcome opponents "because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." (1Jn 4:4)
The Lord loves us and protects us - even against powerful kings and vice-presidents. John Glenn loves his wife and would do anything to protect her. He tells about the time he stood up for his wife against Vice President Lyndon Johnson. She was suffering from a migraine so she wouldn't let Johnson and reporters into their home after a launch attempt was scrubbed. NASA threatened to take Glenn off the mission unless he ordered his wife to relent. Instead, a furious Glenn threatened to call a press conference, and NASA backed off. One month later, on February 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth.
Judah was not only threatened by powerful enemies on the outside; it was also threatened by corrupt leaders internally. We've referred already to wicked King Manasseh's long and influential tenure. King Josiah subsequently overhauled much of religious practice after the Book of the Law was rediscovered, but people's hearts were not changed. Zephaniah lists how corrupt various leaders in Jerusalem are earlier in chapter 3(3-4): "Her officials are roaring lions, her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are arrogant; they are treacherous men. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law." V5 concludes, "the unrighteous know no shame." Religious festivals had become so half-hearted that v18 says they are "a burden and a reproach" to the Jews.
God's power dealt with external enemies; but His presence deals with our conscience, the moral side of the equation, the guilt we have piled up from our past. "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23); we know that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23) - and that hangs over our conscience like a lead weight until it's dealt with. We may try to cover it up, but it's there; if we ignore our shame from past trespasses, foreboding of judgment bothers us, until we either repent and confess our sins or try to shove them under the carpet and pretend they're not there.
David in Psalm 32(3-5) speaks plainly about the effect ignoring sin can have on us: "When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"-- and you forgave the guilt of my sin."
Zephaniah particularly criticized the political and religious leaders for their corruption. Their conduct was shameful - even though they overlooked it. Recently Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals in the US, made headlines - but not the kind you want to make! "Haggard Shamed and Disciplined", reads the bold print at the top of the first page in ChristianWeek. Mr Haggard, who was also senior pastor of a 14,000 member church in Colorado Springs, had publicly opposed same-sex marriage. A Denver man who said he is gay went public with some accusations. Mr Haggard admitted to purchasing illegal drugs and seeking the company of a male prostitute. He wrote, "I am so sorry. I am sorry for the disappointment, the betrayal and the hurt. I am sorry for the horrible example I have set for you. I am a deceiver and a liar. There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life."
It was right for this leader to resign, be disciplined, and submit to ongoing oversight from other Christian leaders. But before we get judgmental and jump all over him, how many of us have deep dark secrets we'd rather not have publicized? We too have had impure thoughts and possibly put up false fronts. If the projector could throw up on the screen visualizations of all that goes in our mind, would not some of us be embarrassed, ashamed, and try to slide under our seats?
The Good News is that God has provided a way for our sin to be dealt with, our guilt removed. Paul writes that we can be "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood." (Rom 3:24f) This only happened because Jesus became incarnate as a person and died in our place. He came to us, for our redemption. Zephaniah 3:15, "The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you..." & 17, "The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save." Isaiah (7:14) prophesied, "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." That means, 'God with us': His presence takes away our punishment and shame.
A man was lost in the Alps. The owner of the lodge where he had been staying sent out his best rescue dog to look for him. The dog found the man half-conscious, grabbed him, and started to shake him in order to wake him up. On coming to his senses the man, seeing the dog and thinking it was a wolf, stabbed the animal. The dog let go and returned to the lodge, where it died shortly thereafter. The dog's owner followed the trail of blood, came to the lost man, and saved him. The dog had given his life so that another might live.
How like our reaction when Jesus came to us! We stabbed Him, not understanding His presence was for our salvation. Because He bled for us, the stain from our sins can be erased, made white as snow.
We've looked at the threat of enemies, causing us fear; and of punishment, based on shame. A final reason God's saving action causes us to rejoice and be glad is His bolstering us when we're dragged down in self-doubt, discouragement, or futility. V16, "On that day they will say to Jerusalem, "Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp." The word literally is to let your hands "sink" or "drop"; other versions have let not your hands "grow weak" or "be feeble"; it's that feeling of being ready to give up, or throw in the towel. NLT takes more liberty and says, "Cheer up!"
If the first danger concerned our physical existence, and the second threat was to our conscience - our moral state - this is about our human spirit, when we're feeling deflated, worthless, hopeless; things are looking futile, we're not seeming very valuable in the grand scheme of things. V19, "I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered" - the exiles were dispersed amongst various countries; we can feel dissipated in our worth. When there's little hope, there's little motivation to put effort into accomplishing anything.
Some years ago a hydroelectric dam was to be built across a valley in New England. The people in a small town in the valley were to be relocated because the town itself would be submerged when the dam was finished. During the time between the decision to build the dam and its completion, the buildings in the town, which previously were kept up nicely, fell into disrepair. Instead of being a pretty little town, it became an eyesore. Why did this happen? The answer is simple. As one resident said, "Where there is no faith in the future, there is no work in the present."
But when we're feeling lowest, worthless, inconsequential, that's when God's grace surprises us. Whether or not other people think much of us, God's excited about us! V17 is the most precious in the whole book, perhaps even in the whole Old Testament, as far as giving us wonderful insight into the Father's heart: "The LORD your God is with you [PRESENCE], he is mighty to save [POWER]. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing." We're PRECIOUS to Him - He takes delight in us; not just that, but GREAT delight! He causes us to be quieted, to rest or be renewed in His love. And - get this - He rejoices over US with singing!
For those of you who prefer to think of God in austere classic philosophical terms such as omniscient, omnipresent, this image may seem too anthropomorphic (shaped in human terms): but it's one that's in sync with Jesus' own word-pictures and parables. A father jumping for joy because a prodigal son, feared dead, has returned. An excited woman calling her neighbours together because she's recovered her missing life savings. A humble shepherd throwing a party to celebrate the recovery of one wandering sheep. God greatly delights in us as dearly-loved children, when we come to Him by faith in Jesus and call Him "Abba, Papa." He "exults over you by singing a happy song" (NLT). Because we're special to Him. Jesus said,"the very hairs of your head are all numbered.Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows...[and] Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom." (Lu 12:7,32)
Zephaniah wraps up his short book by reiterating a couple of times for emphasis that God's going to give His people "honour and praise among all the peoples of the earth" when He restores their fortunes (19f). Here we thought it was all up to us to honour Him - but He chooses to honour those who are His. What a wonderful God!
In closing, we find these themes reiterated in Paul's exhortation to the church at Philippi to 'rejoice always'. Listen closely and see if you can't pick out these same key causes to shake off the glums and be happy in God! The apostle urged, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.[PRESENCE] Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God [because of His POWER - He can do anything!]. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.[guarded because we're PRECIOUS - He thinks we're a 'keeper'!]" (Php 4:4-7)
Enough, then, of the "Bah, Humbugs". If God's rooting for you, what do you have to worry about? "Come, then," returned Scrooge's nephew gaily."What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough." Rich in the Father's love, indeed. Let's pray.