December 13, 2009
Zephaniah 3:14–20; Luke 3:7–18
The first sentence of Zephaniah’s prophecy pictures a cosmic catastrophe that results from divine judgment: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth” (1:2).
Between the first and last verses, at least twenty-five times Zephaniah mentions “the day of the Lord” or words close to it. He announces a coming day of destruction for all the oppressors of the earth. He compares these predators to ravenous wolves, and then envisions their destruction: “The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “The great day of the Lord’s wrath” (1:14) will be a day of bitterness, anguish, ruin and gloom.
This is our Text of Hope for this morning! How do we get from a message about God’s anger and judgment to the text we heard read this morning–where the Lord is rejoicing over his people with gladness?
Perhaps the answer to that question can be found in the story of Don Rabbit.
The moral of the story of Don Rabbit is, in fact, not so far from the message of Zephaniah and John the Baptist. In Zephaniah God’s people were chasing after Sexy Carrot in various forms. Here is God’s laundry list of grievances:
- Idolatry: Worship of other Gods–Baal and Molech (1:4, 5)
- Exploitative consumption: wanton luxury that was possible because of economic exploitation– (1:8)
- Greed-driven markets: The financial district, merchants, and those who “trade with silver” — Jerusalem’s equivalent to Wall Street — will be “wiped out” (1:11).
- Violent oppression in the social and cultural realms (1:9, 3:1)
- Corrupt leaders: Politicians, officials, prophets and priests are all identified as hostile predators who “know no shame” (3:3–5)
This was the list in Zephaniah’s day mind you. Doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to see their relevance to our day. But where is the Hope?
Perhaps the Hope comes in recognizing that in a world where things are messed up—the message of the prophet is clear that God is not okay with it.
Zephaniah’s searing words are good news to all the exploited of the earth who have endured pillage, plunder, displacement, torture, starvation, burning of villages, and systematic rape of women no matter their age, Zephaniah preaches a message of radical redemption: a day is coming when “never again will you fear any harm” (3:15).
God’s judgment is Good News because it is a purifying response to everything that dehumanizes us — political violence, oppression, superficial religiosity, economic exploitation, exile, famine, and war.
The Good News in Zephaniah’s message is that divine judgment is NOT inevitable. There is hope. Zephaniah’s very last sentence rejoices in human redemption: “I will restore your fortunes before your very eyes” (3:20).
The question is: Do I really want God to leave me to my own worst impulses of envy, greed, anger, and lust, or do I want Him to judge, rescue and purify me from them? How many years of chasing after Sexy Carrot are necessary before we become dissatisfied with tasteless illusion of happiness in this story?
John the Baptist points the way home…the way out of the illusions—the Sexy Carrots of our age…. Like Zephaniah, John the Baptist, pulls no punches. His words sting like peroxide on an open wound—“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Not exactly a page out of the seeker-sensitive church manual of late 20th century American Christianity.
John’s message is also a message of hope and redemption because he is willing to name the pathology of the age. This is what prophets do. Their jarring prophetic voice challenges the status quo assumptions of the age. History is usually not kind to the prophets. It was no different for John—he eventually got his head cut off.
His message in the wilderness was a direct challenge to the religious and political power structures in which Luke situates his gospel. The characters include Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas, and Caiaphus (Luke 3:1-2).
Again we ask the question: Where is the Hope in this text? John’s message was that Hope does not come from pedigree or entitlements. It was so then, it is so now. No matter where you are from or what your story is, the call to the repentance in the baptismal waters puts everyone on level ground. God is able to raise up sons of Abraham from stones so we should not be too stuck on any privileges that go along with being “true Israelites” or “true Christians” by birth.
No matter what our last name, no matter where we are from…all of us are called to make a decision that involves which script we will live in. Our baptism is the quintessential marker of this decision. John does not call us to the altar for a psychological salvation, for a feeling, for a mood. John calls us to the waters of baptism where we repent of and die to the false script. John calls us to name the Sexy Carrots we are chasing after. To Repent. And then to turn away—to practice the fruits of repentance.
For the immediate audience, John offers three examples involving coats, taxations, and extortion. The implications of repentance are decidedly ethical. We are called to turn away from the world of violent greed which knows nothing of limits. Our personal salvation is tied to the redemption of all things through the Christ who is coming to us again this Advent season.
A number of questions emerged for me out of these texts as I think about our journey together in the various communities that make up Sunnyside Mennonite Church.
- Are we open to the prophetic voices that will deconstruct our illusions and threaten the status quo…the old order?
- Where is the wilderness where the voice of John the Baptist is speaking in our day? (third places…margins…)
- How will young adults play a vital part in helping us discern what the Spirit is saying to the Church in our day?
We may be tempted to dismiss their message as eccentric, extreme, not realistic for life as it is. They may in fact be wet behind the ears, full of idealism, and lacking the wisdom and perspective of experience. However, I believe we need to make room for their questions and stories–they are a gift to be received. This may lead us into wilderness spaces, we will undoubtedly be stretched and feel uncomfortable at times. This is part of the wilderness experience…the renewal process.
We have been praying this week that we would heed the voice of the prophets who come to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. That God, who is merciful, might grant us grace to head their warnings and forsake our sins. That we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.
May it be so!