A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA
November 15, 2020
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
How did your parents discipline you? Was it different than how you raised your own kids, or how you saw your friends disciplining their kids?
I don’t recall facing discipline a lot as a child. It’s possible I’m wrong on that and I just blocked it or something, but I don’t think so.
My parents were generally pretty consistent with their rules. I do have a few memories of running away from what I knew would be a spanking, although I can’t remember the infraction. I might guess I was mouthing off.
There are lots of discipline styles. Bargaining. Shame. Logical consequences.
Some people use the idea of discipline as an excuse to abuse and be violent, and even if they use the word discipline, that’s not what it is. It is abuse and terror. And that’s not what I’m talking about here.
At my parenting best, I tried to respond to my kids’ misbehavior in a way that would teach them, and help them to understand how their behavior affected other people.
At my parenting middle, I went for the emotional shortcut of, I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed. Hoping my love for them would push them to better behavior, rather than really dealing with the consequences of their actions.
At my parenting worst, I likely screamed like a banshee and made threats they knew I’d never carry out. I remember once saying, “if you don’t do what I told you to do, I’m going to get rid of the TV!”
My kids did what I told them to do, but I’m sure they also knew momma wasn’t ever going to get rid of her TV. How would she watch Seinfeld or West Wing?
I bring up my parenting foibles, and ask you to think about your own experiences, because I think they are relevant to reading the prophets. As you read through the prophets, you see all the parenting styles. The ones we love, the ones that make us cringe, and the ones that make us really uncomfortable.
Of course, if the prophets are the parents in this scenario, it means that Israel and Judah are the misbehaving children. It means that we are the children.
And it has me wondering how we hear bad news best? When are the times we need the conciliatory parent who says “what you did was bad but we can get through this together” and when do we need to hear the heavy thump of judgment?
I suspect this lectionary passage from Zephaniah has often been passed over in favor of cheerier texts, and I might even guess that it has likely not been preached from Calvary’s pulpit before. I agreed to tackle it because I think we need to remember such messages are in scripture, even if they aren’t our favorite verses.
Mainline Protestants have, speaking in big generalities, likely erred on the side of preaching mainly messages of love and other things that make people feel good. And while those happier messages are also in scripture, they aren’t the only messages in scripture.
Perhaps we should have been attending to a wider breadth of the voice of scripture all along, rather than hoping messages of peace and love alone would suffice.
I trust we need to be addressed by this passage, even if we don’t like it one bit.
Victor, Joann, and I decided to spend three weeks with the prophets in the weeks leading up to Advent. Last week we heard Victor’s good word from Amos and next week, Joann will preach from Ezekiel. Each of these readings have very different approaches to parenting, I mean, propheting.
Which leaves us here today with Zephaniah, a short collection of prophecies tucked in the back of your Hebrew Bible. I invite you to open your Bibles and follow along, as I’ll make reference to other parts of the letter than what we heard read. Zephaniah is only three chapters long and all we know about him is from his writing.
He lists Hezekiah as an ancestor, and judging by his knowledge of court behavior, scholars think it is possible that King Hezekiah, one of the good kings, is the reference. Hezekiah had been positively influenced by the preaching of the prophets Isaiah and Micah.
Scholars think Zephaniah had a similar influence on King Josiah, who instituted reforms and restored religious practices in Judah, perhaps even in response to this challenging oracle. Which means this oracle was placed around 670 BCE.
Zephaniah was an insider, well familiar with priests, temple practices, and the behavior of people in power.
And the message he has for us today is a tough one. The day of the Lord is coming, and it will consume the entire earth.
Zephaniah starts by saying ‘be silent before the Lord God’ but the Hebrew word would be more closely translated as “hush”.
Hush your mouth before the Lord God.
Zephaniah doesn’t want to hear any more excuses. He’s seen the way people in power have ignored justice to gain power; have sacrificed faithfulness to pursue popularity and idols; have used their office for personal gain at the cost of the welfare of the nation.
Hush your mouth, he says.
He’s heard their excuses. He’s heard their phony cries of moral supremacy. He’s seen the way they bow to idols and corrupt God’s word.
Hush your mouth.
Many of the specifics of his complaints are in the section of the chapter the lectionary writers skipped over, and while we can still use a prophecy against idol worship in 2020, ahem, the section that grabbed me most was in verse 12 when he writes God’s complaint:
“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.”
God seems upset with people who believe God exists but think God doesn’t care. To show how much God cares, God will search the city using lamps to seek those people out from the shadows where they hide.
If they think God doesn’t have an ability to either bless them or harm them, this oracle seems intent to remind them that if they aren’t going to attend to seeking justice, smiting is a real possibility.
God, here, appears ready to silence the people who think God is indifferent to the cries of creation and community.
Zephaniah suggests that the opposite of love isn’t hate. It is apathy, indifference, and ignoring the injustices around you.
When we’ve tamed God and decided God agrees with us on most topics, we might do well to remember Zephaniah.
When we explain away God’s anger, when we look the other way at God’s fierce passion for justice, and when we ignore God’s expectation that we will live as people sent to be a blessing, we should remember Zephaniah.
When we believe God is responsible for our victories, but suddenly absent in our losses, we should remember Zephaniah.
The day of the Lord is coming, and it will consume the entire earth.
You might remember in Genesis, God promised never again to consume the entire earth, as happened in the flood. And the language in this book mirrors language from Genesis. We’re supposed to hear Zephaniah’s call for destruction and think about Noah and the flood. Using Genesis language, the Day of the Lord will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, it says in verse 2, declaring that ominous destruction will return.
Why the reversal?
We’re left to ponder that on our own, but it seems that humanity’s willful disregard for God and God’s covenant has brought them to a place where God is ready for a clean slate. This oracle seems to be more about us than it is about God, in some ways. We are the destructive force on the earth. We are the ones ignoring God’s call to live lives of faithful justice. We are the ones worshiping idols and seeking to hold onto power at all cost.
The Book of Zephaniah doesn’t offer a call to repentance as many other prophets do, but the choice to repent and to return to God is there nonetheless.
Not because humanity has shown itself worthy of more chances, but because God cares about humanity enough that God will take his lamps and go throughout the city to seek us out.
Maybe it’s easier to hear this passage and think, “my political opponents better listen to this. They better make some changes”.
But Zephaniah didn’t write his prophecy to just one political party or group. If you read on in the book, it’s clear God’s expectation for justice expands to include the entirety of the known world, including creation.
We’re all in this together, in other words. The Day of the Lord isn’t coming for people you disagree with, as if we could somehow separate the welfare of one group of people at the expense of another.
The prophets, with all their different styles of argument and persuasion, all try to remind us that we are in this together. We succeed or fail together.
Our political tribalism is not helping us, nor is it a path toward life. We must seek the common welfare with each other, no matter who we voted for. We must work to build a better, more just society, no matter who we voted for.
Alice Walker said, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, “do we turn on others or turn toward others?”
Her question is even more pressing now.
Maybe the coming great day of the Lord about which Zephaniah writes is less about what God will do, and more about what humanity needs to do for ourselves.
Because there are things we need to sweep away and wipe clean from the earth.
Crippling wealth inequality.
We could list things all day that are opposed to the Gospel and at odds with God’s call for us to live in covenantal community.
What sounds as a day of destruction to people in power might just sound like liberation to the people being oppressed. How you hear this prophecy as bad news or good news certainly depends on your social context and location.
Whether Zephaniah’s oracle is good news or bad news is up to us. We can choose to build a better and more just world. We can choose to believe God when God calls for us to care for each other and for the world God created.
What will it take for us to do so?
God’s love song with humanity began when the world was created. The prophets, both in scripture and in our lives, have tried to call us back to that love song.
Jesus, whose Advent we will prepare for soon, came and sang another verse of God’s love song, loving humanity all the way to death and back.
God’s hope for, and intent for, us is clear. May the prophets call us back to that hope again and again. May the news we hear as bad turn us down a path of creating a world that better reflects God’s love for us.
May we take the path that leads to life. Amen.
3 thoughts on “The Prophets: Hearing the Bad News”
I read all your sermons. IMO, this is one of your very best.
Thank you, Jeff. That means a lot to me!
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