3rd Sunday of Advent

December 13, 2015


God can’t be serious, can he?!

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 quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
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,” says the Lord. (Zephaniah 3:14-20 ESV)

If you had to choose, which God would you prefer to meet – the God in the Old Testament or the God in the New Testament?

The smart money is of course on hedging your answer because it isn’t the brightest of questions! For Christians, the God of the OT is the same as the God of the NT. What we have in the NT is not a different God but the clearest revelation of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as encountered in the person, Jesus of Nazareth. But if you had gone along with my question then you might have concluded that in the NT, God is more loving, softer almost and forgiving; while in the OT, God is more severe, black and white, punishing. Such is a view I regularly hear within the church and outside of the church when God and the Bible are under discussion. It’s a view often generated by God’s response to people’s rebellion and the message of the prophets.

Zephaniah is a case in point. He is a prophet to the people who have had some of the worst kings in their history and now there is a small respite with King Josiah. Zephaniah said strong words – some of the sternest in Scripture. God will not let rebellion, injustice, oppression, down-right evil go unpunished. Judgement is coming and judgement is happening.

Human behaviour is fundamentally guided by our relationships – with ourselves, with others – and God was reminding his people of the relationship he had with them and that they had with him. God wasn’t pleading in some sort of whingy voice to get people to like him or worship him but was calling to them so that they might live for there is no living – ultimately – apart from the living God.

Now we also know that if people are going astray, amok, around the bend – or driving us that way – that selfish, destructive living is not helpful for anyone. So we know times when we want people to do the right thing in life – obey, no fighting, no attitude, no lip – whatever it is. Think of parents dealing with teenagers; teenagers dealing with a friend who is being destructive; colleagues dealing with bad attitudes or poor performances at work; or numerous other scenarios. In these situations if you want to help someone then you need to recognise that you can only help them so far – after that they must be feel the consequences of their actions if they’re going to learn for themselves. Of course, this is easy to say and more difficult to work out when to get involved and help and when to be firm and not help or rescue. Consistency is often valued at this point.

So what is God doing when he sends Zephaniah to speak judgement, judgement, judgement, judgement, judgement, judgement and then he concludes his letter with our text which begins,
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? (Zephaniah 3:14,15)

What’s going on?! Why is God letting them off the hook? Doesn’t he know that people will take the mile every inch they get? Too right the people might be glad and rejoice – there are usually smiles when you’ve got away with something. It seems that OT God slipped up here – he should have just struck them down so that when he got to being the NT God he could then be more forgiving and tolerant.

In our text, Zephaniah promised God’s deliverance, God’s help, and even said that God himself will take delight and sing as if in a big party as he restores them. Human beings, by nature, will take everything God gives, while rejecting him personally and any relationship he might want to have. People, by nature, are only really interested in a relationship with themselves – and that is the relationship that foundationally governs behaviour. People thus will sidestep, shelve, ignore, deny, placate God for as long as possible and certainly while the gifts keep coming. So it makes sense to us for God to judge, punish, stop the gifts and get us to taste some of the consequences of our rebellion. A bit of hardship won’t hurt. That’s what we’d do in his place.

Thank God, we are not god!

We do not even analyse and understand our situation properly. It’s more serious than we could ever imagine. We are not some silly child who needs a shake up so that we can get onto the right path in life and be good. Humanity from conception and birth are the living dead – condemned in original sin – for which we each are responsible for our own sins. We are trapped in our sinful existence. We are not just having a bad few days which we’ll sort out eventually and get on the right path. Our whole existence is unable to do anything other than scheme and scam serving self interest.

God’s call to us of judgement is a call to death – we tend to think of it as death when we die – but in truth it is a call for humanity to face its situation and recognise that we are spiritually dead. This is brought home to us when God waves a cross before our eyes – not an empty piece of wood – but one that is ghastly and gory – and points out that that’s a picture of us. Of course we look away, and we shield our children’s eyes – it is too horrible to contemplate God doing that to us.

It is then that we hear the words ‘Don’t be afraid’ and it is too hard to look but somehow we look to see who is speaking such nonsense and humanity is amazed – it’s that same man who God weaved in front of us on that cross – alive – scarred yes – but oh so alive – speaking to us. “I did it for you – I died and I live – I drown you in baptism and make you alive in a new birth because you are linked to me – my meal proclaims my death until I come again for the world to see and gives you life.”

Sin and grace – law and Gospel – repentance and joy – are all themes that speak of God’s action from Genesis to Revelation so that we may die and live – and now physical death becomes just a door to seeing God face to face.

No wonder Christians can rejoice! I’ll say it again: Christians can rejoice! Yes, one more time: rejoice with all your heart because God has not ignored us and let us have our way, not put a bandaid on us, but killed and recreated us through the death and resurrection of his Son. If this God is for you, who / what can be against you?! This is the relationship that defines how we live day to day.





Bible References

  • Zephaniah 3:14 - 20