By porthkerryandrhoose, Jan 11 2019 09:13AM
Everyone seems to love a bit of singing at Christmas time. Whether that's the traditional carols, the classic Christmas rock anthems or the latest Christmas number 1. Christmas music is everywhere, in every shop and in every public place. I was asked last week 'What is your favourite Christmas song?' and I really had to think about it. What about you, what's your favourite Christmas song?
We sing at Christmas because it is a happy time, a time for celebration, and our Old Testament reading starts in this same vein v14 "Sing, daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel!" But what sort of a song? Is it to be a jolly but not very deep 'So here it is, Merry Christmas' or is something a little more theologically challenging called for?
To understand what the prophet is saying, we need to get to grips with the whole little book, otherwise it's like we're reading the last page of a novel, when the hero and heroine get to walk away into the sunset together, but we've no idea what they've been through to get there. If we just read the last verses of Zephaniah it's like celebrating Christmas without knowing why Jesus came. Now I'm guessing that not many of us know much about Zephaniah. It's not a book we suggest to new Christians to read, nor is it the place we turn to when we're deciding what to do next in our quiet times. I suspect that if we didn't give the page number out, many of us would have struggled to even find it in the Bibles. Yet it contains in its 3 chapters a wonderful summary of the gospel message. We discover: why we need Jesus; what Jesus has done and what Jesus will do, all written over 600 years before he was born.
Zephaniah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah during the reign of the great reforming king, Josiah. Judah needed a reforming king, because the two previous kings, Manasseh and Amon, had turned the entire nation away from God and to the worship of Baal and Asherah. By the time the boy king Josiah took the throne, the temple worship had become so corrupt that nobody even knew where the Book of the Law (the Bible) was. (You can read about all of this in 2 Kings 21-23). Despite the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel 100 years previously, and the loss of 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel for exactly the same sorts of behaviour, the people carried on regardless. 'It won't happen to us. God wouldn't do that to us. Jerusalem and the temple are here, we'll be fine'. But they weren't going to be fine. Zephaniah's job was to warn the people that God was coming to judge. Rather than being a book of joy and singing, his prophecy contains some of the clearest expressions of God's anger against his people. Turn back to chapter 1, if you would. Look at v4-6
" ‘I will stretch out my hand against Judah
and against all who live in Jerusalem.
I will destroy every remnant of Baal worship in this place,
the very names of the idolatrous priests –
5 those who bow down on the roofs
to worship the starry host,
those who bow down and swear by the Lord
and who also swear by Molek,[b]
6 those who turn back from following the Lord
and neither seek the Lord nor enquire of him.’
Can you see what was happening? The people were outwardly saying they were people of God, but they never sought him, they never prayed to him or asked for direction. They never listened to him. Oh, they might go to the Temple and go through the motions of worship, but when they weren't there, they were kneeling to the stars or swearing by Molek. And they probably didn't even know that what they were doing was wrong, because the priests were doing it too. There was the form of religion, but its heart had been ripped out. God's word had been lost and his name had become a mere formality. You think that's an ancient problem? Take a trip around our nation today. You will find churches with no Bibles, priests who cannot speak to God unless they are reading words off a page, and people who spend an hour a week reciting the words of the prayer book and the remaining hours worshipping the gods of secularism. 'We're God's people, he doesn't mind', the folk of Zephaniah's day said. 'God is love, he won't judge', the people of today say. God was saying something completely different. "I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all who live in Jerusalem." He was coming to judge. And that judgement came in 586 when the Babylonian army swept in and destroyed everything, including the temple.
But, just as Rhiannon reminded us last week, Biblical prophecy often works on several levels. There are different horizons, different fulfilments at different times. Zephaniah's message wasn't just for the Jewish people of the late 7th century.
Look at v 2-3
" ‘I will sweep away everything
from the face of the earth,’
declares the LORD.
3 ‘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.’[a]
‘When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the earth,’
declares the LORD,"
Here is a universal judgement, and it's a judgement even more devastating than the flood in Noah's day. Then at least some of the birds and animals survived, here even the fish will be swept away. It is the Day of the Lord (v14). Why is it coming? The answer is in v17 "I will bring such distress on all people . . . because they have sinned against the Lord." There's the heart of the problem. People in Zephaniah's day, people today, temple goers, church goers, people of no religion and those who dabble in many. All have sinned against God and he will judge. You might ask 'how can a loving God do that?' When you hear about babies being raped and killed, how do you respond? When you see footage of frail elderly people beaten in their own beds in the middle of the night, or disabled people taunted and exploited, what is your gut reaction? Is it not for justice? How much more does God feel that way, whose motives and responses are not tainted by sin? Anything that damages another person is a sin against God because they are bearers of his image. We can't excuse ourselves because we're not as bad as all that, because we know we haven't lived a perfect life of loving God and others. Like Nineveh we've all put ourselves at the centre of the world 2:15 "I am the one! And there is none besides me." God's judgement is coming, and we desperately need a rescuer.
Zephaniah's prophecy would be very gloomy indeed if all we had were the first 2 and a half chapters. But we don't. God showed Zephaniah the things he was going to do further into the future. 3v9 is a turning point "Then I will purify the lips of the peoples that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder." One day people from all over the world would come back to God, including a remnant of Israel. How would this even be possible? The answer is in v15 "The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy." Though God was bringing judgement, he himself would take their punishment. The verses are written in what is known as the 'prophetic perfect' where the prophet speaks about things that will happen using the past tense, because they are so certain to take place it's like they've already happened. God would take away their punishment, turning back the greatest enemy, death, as Jesus hung on the cross. God himself, judge and judged. That's Jesus. That's why he came. It wasn't to give us a happy occasion to celebrate as the days get short, it was to take away the punishment we have brought on ourselves. That's the reason for the singing we started with. Our rescuer has come! We are saved! And there's even more than that. Look at v17
" The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.’
God doesn't look at us and just tolerate us. I made them, I suppose I'd better save them. He delights in us! He rejoices over us with singing! When we come back to God, through Jesus, the whole of heaven erupts with joy. God saves us. And to truly know the wonder of that, we need to know about the judgement.
But salvation isn't the end of the story either. Jesus' work wasn't finished when he died on the cross, or even when he rose or ascended. There is a further horizon to Zephaniah's prophecy. v19
" At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honour
in every land where they have suffered shame.
20 At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honour and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes[e]
before your very eyes,’
says the Lord
It's a future picture of restoration. It was partly fulfilled when the Jews came out of exile in Babylon, but its true fulfilment is yet to come, when God creates the new heaven and the new earth. His judgement will fall, everything will be swept away as in the flood, but those who are in the ark which is Jesus will be held safe, their punishment paid, and they will be kept safe until Eden is restored and perfected. So the big question is: have you been, will you be, saved by Jesus? Is your faith one where your trust is in him, or is it something you do for an hour or so in the week? God knows the difference, and the consequences are strikingly different.
So, a whistle stop tour of Zephaniah this morning, but one where we've seen why we need Jesus: because God is going to come in judgement; we've seen what Jesus has done: by taking the punishment we should have had - God the judge and the judged; and we've seen what Jesus will do: hold us safe in him until the world is remade in God's wonderful perfection. How we need Jesus! What a wonderful reminder of why he came.