A Prophet's Joy

We continue our Advent journey today with a reading from the prophet, Zephaniah. His very name means God protects. Zephaniah's prophecy is limited to three chapters, just 55 verses. In his signature verse, his lineage is traced back four generations. That's a little strange if you know the prophets! Others go back two generations. Zephaniah goes back four.

The text begins:  "The word of the Lord came to Zephaniah, son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah." Three of those names mean very little to us. But the last one rings a bell. Hezekiah was king in Judah from 725-696 BC. Hezekiah was an outstanding leader. In fact, 2 Kings 18 says of him: "He did what was right in the sight of the Lord. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah." Zephaniah the prophet may have been a great-great grandson of this great-great king!

 If so, he had royalty in his veins. He was a blue blood. Hezekiah was followed by two kings who did not follow his lead--Manasseh and Amon, both of whom "did what was evil in the sight of God." Josiah, the boy king, followed Amon and brought great reform to the nation. It was during his reign that Zephaniah preached. Initially, Zephaniah was supportive of Josiah's reform, but he knew in his heart that it was too little, too late. Zephaniah saw exile coming, and he could not keep silent. Eighty percent of his prophecy is bad news. And yet, the concluding verses end on a note of joy. (Zephaniah 3:14-20)

If you know Zephaniah, you know the last words of the text are out of character for him. In fact, he's one of the gloomiest, doomiest of the Old Testament prophets. It's no wonder we know so little about him. If I were to announce a series in January on Zephaniah, most of my congregation would come down with the flu! If I could put a contemporary face on him, I'd say he looks and sounds a little more like the Grinch who stole Christmas than the prophet who promised it.

But at least, he's an Equal Opportunity Prophet! Zephaniah not only calls out Judah, he pronounces judgment on all the nations! Indeed, on all of creation. Let me give you a little taste. "'I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth', says the Lord. 'I will sweep away humans and animals. I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth.'" Try putting that on a Xmas card! If he were around today, Zephaniah would be dismissed as a loose cannon, a disturber of the peace, an angry elf!

But Zephaniah saved his harshest rebuke for Judah. There were four sins in particular that drew his ire.

  • First, Religious Syncretism. The blending of different belief systems, as though they were all equal. In the temple, not only were they worshiping Yahweh, they were bowing before Canaanite fertility gods.

  • Secondly, there was Political Corruption. "The judges are like ravenous wolves," says Zephaniah, "who leave only the bones of their prey for the morning."

  • Thirdly, there was Moral Injustice. Men and women who were said to be without conscience and without shame.

  • And lastly, Spiritual Complacency. They had become indifferent, apathetic, agnostic. "The Lord will neither do good, nor will He do harm," they said. Indeed, God is irrelevant.

A recent article in USA Today analyzed a surge in a group of Americans called the "spiritually apathetic." "They aren't atheists," said the writer. "They simply shrug off God, faith and the ever-trendy search for meaning and purpose. Their attitude can be summed up in two words: 'So what?'"

One professor of religion concluded, "The real dirty secret of religiosity in America is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest, and ultimate questions, is minimal."

C.S. Lewis said what would really satisfy us would be a god who said if anything we happened to like doing--what does it matter so long as we are contented? We want, in fact, not so much a father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven, a senile benevolence, who as they say, likes to see young people enjoying themselves and whose plan for the universe is simply that it might truly be said at the end of each day, "A good time was had by all!"

Brian McLaren addresses this concern in his book Finding Our Way Again. He tells of being at a pastor's conference where he interviewed Dr. Peter Sengee, scientist and teacher at MIT. In the course of the interview, Sengee mentioned that he had been in a bookstore recently and had asked the manager, "What are the most popular books these days?" "The first book," said the manager, "are those on who gets rich in the new information economy. The second most popular book is on spirituality and, in particular, books about Buddhism." The pastors asked Dr. Sengee why books on Buddhism are becoming more popular than books on Christianity. He said and I quote, "I think it's because Buddhism is being presented as a way of life, and Christianity is being presented as a system of belief."

Christian ministers need to rediscover their faith as a way of life, because that's what people are searching for. That's what we need the most!   

That was Judah's problem. It wasn't just theology, it was practice.

In chapter 1, verse 12, Zephaniah thunders away: "On the day of the Lord, 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.'" It's interesting the word for dregs means thicken or congeal. The term comes from the wine-making process, in which new wine was left to stand with the dregs or the sediment of the grapes long enough to enhance the wine's color and body. But it had to be drawn off before the wine became too thick and syrupy. Zephaniah is saying that His people have become like wine that has sat too long in the sediment and become congealed, complacent, syrupy, and spoiled.

The result of their complacency was disastrous. Jerusalem became easy pickings for Babylon, who promptly deported them into exile into an unpromised land.

Exile, I think, is a metaphor for the human condition. Exile is a prolonged separation from one's country or community. Exile is estrangement from one's vision of how life was supposed to be. Exile is a picture of grief and brokenness brought on by loss, like the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, a foreclosure, an addiction, an illness, a loss of independence, the loss of a dream.

Melanie Kantrowitz articulates the pathos of exile in her free verse poem called "Inhospitable Soil." "I can't go back," she writes. "Where I came from was burned off the map. I'm a Jew. Anywhere is someone else's land."

But for the child of God, exile is never the last word. Estrangement is not our destiny. The final word of the prophet is not one of sin and judgment; it's not one of gloom and doom, darkness and despair. The final word is one of joy & salvation, restoration and homecoming. In chapter 3, verse 14, Zephaniah changes his tune.

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 turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 

Why this sudden shift in Zephaniah? Why this sudden burst of joy? The situation hasn't changed. The circumstance hasn't been altered. They're still in exile. They are still far from home! So why joy? It's because the prophet knows that Yahweh is not stuck in the holy city! God is not restricted to Jerusalem, to a fallen temple. God is not restricted to a declining institution or a denomination. God comes to us in our exile! And His presence changes our darkness into light, sorrow into singing, exile into exaltation, and brings us home.

Psalm 90 was written by one of those exiles. He expresses the joy of Zephaniah in verse 1: "Thou, O Lord, hast been our home, throughout all generations." Think of what that meant. When we were slaves in Egypt, you, O God, were our refuge. When we were wandering in the wilderness, you were our tent. When we lived as refugees in Babylon and had no place of our own, you were our dwelling place!

Robert Frost once said, "Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

The great good news today is that home is not just a place, it's a relationship. The One whose birth is promised by prophets will be called Emmanuel, which means God with us. God is our home! God is our place! And His presence turns our grief into joy.

The psalmist says, "Weeping remains for the night, but joy comes in the morning."

Nehemiah said, "The joy of the Lord is our strength."

Isaiah said, "Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing into Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing will flee away."

That's not just wishful thinking! That's the Gospel truth!

I conducted a funeral recently for a single mother. She died unexpectedly of a heart attack leaving two boys, age 15 & 8. Her parents gave me a post-it note that she had placed beside her computer on which she had written these words: "Joy is not the absence of suffering. Joy is the presence of God."

Sue Wyatt was a Methodist lay teacher in Florida. Her son is a minister in the Florida conference, my wife's cousin, in fact. Every fall, Sue had a circuit of churches for whom she did retreats for women. She was a popular teacher and a lifetime student of the Bible. Every fall, she would work her way through North Florida and South Georgia. One year, she felt God leading her to teach on the subject of joy. She started in the spring, reading, studying, researching everything she could find on joy. But the more she prepared, the less joy she felt. She said, "I felt as if someone had pulled the plug on my joy." But she went on and did the retreats. She spoke every weekend. People who knew her would ask, "Sue, are you alright? You don't seem yourself this year!" And she would always say the same thing, "I'm fine! Everything is fine!" But she knew it wasn't. She finished her teaching early in December and was absolutely depleted. It was like the wine had run out.   

Every year in December, Sue's gift to her daughter was to meet her in Tallahassee and help her with her Christmas shopping. Her daughter noticed it too. "Mother," she said, "is everything alright? You're not yourself. What's wrong?" "Nothing's wrong," Sue would say. "I'm fine. Why does everyone keep asking that?" They were in a grocery store getting groceries, and her daughter said, "Mother, you finish here, and I'll run next door to the drugstore, and we'll meet up there." Sue finished the grocery shopping and took them to the car. And as she was walking to the drugstore, she encountered a Salvation Army fellow ringing a bell. As she walked beside him, he put the bell in her hand, and said, "You are to have this bell. It will bring you joy." She thought he was asking her to do his job. She said, "Excuse me. I'm in a hurry"--fished out a dollar bill out of her billfold and gave it to him. He said, "No, Ma'am, you are to have this bell; it will bring you joy." She said, "I'm meeting my daughter. I'm busy" He said, "Lady, take the bell." She took the bell. She began to ring it. When she turned to see the man, he was gone. She went into the drugstore ringing that bell. She went up and down the aisles ringing the bell. And suddenly, her feet became lighter. People gave her odd looks, some smiled. Suddenly, as she turned the corner, she came face-to-face with her daughter. "Mother, what on earth are you doing?" she said. "Have you lost your mind?" "No," said Sue. "I haven't lost my mind, but I think I've found my joy!" The next morning Sue called the Salvation Army to return the bell. They said, "Ma'am, we don't give away bells." Further conversation revealed that there was no kettle at the location she specified. Sue concluded that day that an angel of the Lord had appeared to her and restored her joy.

Teilhard de Chardin once said, "The infallible proof of the presence of God is joy." I believe that's true. In a world that is still rife with hate, hostility, division, and exile, Zephaniah the prophet speaks good news:

"The King of Kings is in your midst and the result is joy!"

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.