Friday, November 2, 2012

Hide and Seek, Seek and Hide - Zephaniah 1-2

The first apocalyptic movie ever made was Deluge in 1933.  It showed a massive earthquake in California and a tsunami that went all the way around the world and destroyed New York.
Through the 1950’s only eleven apocalyptic movies had been made.  The most famous was based on H. G. Well’s novel, The War of the Worlds.  
  In the 1960’s we picked up the pace a little with thirteen apocalyptic movies as we started worrying about nuclear war.  We produced The Day the Earth Caught Fire and the dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove.
The 70’s brought us 23 apocalyptic movies, including several sequels of Planet of the Apes in which intelligent apes take over the world.  Also, there was a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers - as if one wasn’t enough.
In the 80’s we stepped it up with 30 apocalyptic movies, including the classic Aliens and Arnold Schwartzeneger’s first Terminator.  When said, “I’ll be back,” I guess he was right.  Who knew it would be as governor of California?
We were kind of slackers in the 90‘s.  We only made 29 apocalyptic movies, but we hit it big with computers sucking the life out of humanity in The Matrix and a meteor bound for earth in Armageddon.
But since 2000, we have seen an explosion of apocalyptic movies, a total of 76.  We’ve killed ourselves off through cold, heat, disease, computers, zombies, pollution, evil, divine judgment, and of course more aliens.
  More than ever before, we humans are aware that our lives may be violently disrupted by events beyond our control.  This is the essence of the apocalyptic genre - the sense that life cannot continue indefinitely as it is now, the sense that huge, cosmic changes may be coming soon.
Zephaniah is an apocalyptic prophet.  He is a preacher of dramatic, unstoppable change.  

Today, we’re going to explore chapter 1 and a little bit of chapter 2 - which covers the bad news of Zephaniah’s message.  Next week, we’ll hear the good news in chapter 3.  Today, let’s take this passage bit by bit and talk about it as we go along.

The Lord gave this message to Zephaniah when Josiah son of Amon was king of Judah. Zephaniah was the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah.
This actually gives us some context for Zephaniah’s message.  At this point in history, the nation of Israel was split into two kingdoms, much like North and South Korea.  The northern kingdom was called Israel, and the southern kingdom was called Judah (after it’s dominant tribe).  
Assyria conquered the northern kingdom, but Judah remained free under Hezekiah.  He was a good, God-fearing king.  But his son and grandson who came after him rebelled against God.  They put idols in God’s temple and encouraged people to blend their worship of Yahweh with worship of the surrounding gods.  When Josiah came to power, Israel was in bad shape.  Assyria was at the borders, itching to conquer Judah next.  The people pretended to worship God, but also had idols in the temples and at home on their rooftops.  The whole society was falling apart with injustice, superstition, and corruption all over the place.  
Zephaniah sees an apocalyptic scenario.  Life cannot go on like this for God’s people.  They are cutting themselves off from God, and trouble is on the way.  

“I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” says the Lord.
“I will sweep away people and animals alike.
    I will sweep away the birds of the sky and the fish in the sea.
I will reduce the wicked to heaps of rubble,
    and I will wipe humanity from the face of the earth,” says the Lord.

Well ... that’s pretty extreme.  Everything.  Not just the wicked.  Not just the people.  Everything.  Total annihilation.  Now that’s what I call apocalyptic! 
But before we take this too far and get too literalistic, let me give you a little “spoiler alert.”  Zephaniah starts out with the most sweeping judgment possible: death, destruction, total annihilation of all humanity.  But he ends chapter three with the most soaring restoration imaginable: singing, joy, salvation, love, delight, honor.  
So, here’s my question:  Who is God going to save if he literally “wipes humanity from the face of the earth?”   Zephaniah seems to be a great poet using a classic poetic tool: hyperbole, or intentional exaggeration for the sake of emotional impact.  Basically, he’s trying to get our attention and capture our hearts.  He’s saying, “Bad, bad, very bad!”

Next, Zephaniah mixes together scenes of judgment with the reasons that God is so angry, and conveniently, they all start with the letter “I”: idolatry, independence, and injustice

“I will crush Judah and Jerusalem with my fist and destroy every last trace of their Baal worship. I will put an end to all the idolatrous priests,  so that even the memory of them will disappear.  5  For they go up to their roofs  and bow down to the sun, moon, and stars.
They claim to follow the Lord,
 but then they worship Molech, too.

So that’s the idolatry.  They are still worshipping God.  The problem is that they aren’t worshiping God alone.  They are mixing in worship of other gods.  Or they go to the temple to worship God, but then they go home and pray to the stars.  God is not their only god.

And I will destroy those who used to worship me   but now no longer do.  They no longer ask for the Lord’s guidance  or seek my blessings.”

And there’s the first hint of independence.  They used to depend on God, but now they act like they don’t need him.  They make their decisions on their own, without seeking God’s will in prayer.  They try to focus on earning their own way in life without depending on God for blessing and help, without even acknowledging that everything we have comes from God.

Stand in silence in the presence of the Sovereign Lord, for the awesome day of the Lord’s judgment is near.  The Lord has prepared his people for a great slaughter  and has chosen their executioners.  8 “On that day of judgment,”    says the Lord, “I will punish the leaders and princes of Judah     and all those following pagan customs.  Yes, I will punish those who participate in pagan worship ceremonies,  and those who fill their masters’ houses with violence and deceit.
10 “On that day,” says the Lord, “a cry of alarm will come from the Fish Gate
and echo throughout the New Quarter of the city.
  And a great crash will sound from the hills.  11 Wail in sorrow, all you who live in the market area, for all the merchants and traders will be destroyed.

And there’s the injustice.  They have filled their houses with good things through violence and deceit.  Injustice has made them rich.  On September 11, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center as a sign of the injustice of the global economic system.  Here God is saying that the centers of money and business in Jerusalem will shout it sorrow and pain.  

12 “I will search with lanterns in Jerusalem’s darkest corners   to punish those who sit complacent in their sins. They think the Lord will do nothing to them,  either good or bad. 
13 So their property will be plundered,   their homes will be ransacked. They will build new homes  but never live in them. They will plant vineyards  but never drink wine from them.

And here’s the independence again.  They believe God is not actively involved in the world.  God will neither bless them nor punish them.  If you want to make it, it’s up to you - not God or anybody else.  And so they sit, comfortable in their sins.  

And then Zephaniah brings that powerful emotional imagery of judgement again. 
14 “That terrible day of the Lord is near.  Swiftly it comes— a day of bitter tears,    a day when even strong men will cry out. 15  It will be a day when the Lord’s anger is poured out—    a day of terrible distress and anguish, a day of ruin and desolation,    a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness, 16     a day of trumpet calls and battle cries. Down go the walled cities    and the strongest battlements! 
17 “Because you have sinned against the Lord,  I will make you grope around like the blind.  Your blood will be poured into the dust,    and your bodies will lie rotting on the ground.” 
18  Your silver and gold will not save you  on that day of the Lord’s anger.  For the whole land will be devoured   by the fire of his jealousy. He will make a terrifying end    of all the people on earth.

Bad, very bad.  Dark, very dark.  Terrible, very terrible.  And none of your idols or independence or injustice can save you.  You won’t be able to buy off the invading armies.  You won’t be able to stop the flood.  You won’t be able to make the earth stop shaking or the lightening stop striking or the storm turn back.  
That last verse has an important Biblical concept: “devoured by the fire of his jealousy.”  “God is a jealous God,” (Deuteronomy 6:15).  God doesn’t like to share.  Not when it comes to our hearts.  Not when it comes to worship.  God wants all of us.  God wants to keep us all for himself.  God wants all of our worship, all of our praise, all of our prayers, all of our trust, all of our hope.  God is jealous for us.  God is jealous for our love.  
And like a jealous lover, God will not tolerate unfaithfulness.  His jealousy burns like fire, and he will make us pay for being unfaithful.  Now, on one hand this sounds kind of terrible, like God is an abusive husband.  But that is making God too much like us weak and sinful humans.  God’s jealousy is actually for our own good.  God is jealous for us out of his infinite love for us.  All of those other gods are no good for us.  Idolatry, injustice, and independence are simply bait on a hook.  They will snag our hearts and pull us down to the mud.  They get their hooks in us and drag us into the downward spiral of chaos and mutual self-destruction.  God is jealous for our love and worship because he wants to protect us from the consequences of live outside God’s way.  He knows that serving other gods will destroy us bit by bit and hurt others along the way.  He knows that our unfaithfulness pollutes the world and makes it harder and harder for others to be faithful.
So out of his great love for the world, for humanity, and for us, he acts in jealousy to stop our sin.  Sooner or later we must all face God’s jealous fire, where we face the consequences of our actions.  God judges us precisely so that he can save us.

In chapter 2, Zephaniah makes a turn.
 1 Gather together—yes, gather together,  you shameless nation.  2 Gather before judgment begins,    before your time to repent is blown away like chaff.  Act now, before the fierce fury of the Lord falls  and the terrible day of the Lord’s anger begins.  Seek the Lord, all who are humble,    and follow his commands.  Seek to do what is right    and to live humbly.  Perhaps even yet the Lord will protect you—   protect you from his anger on that day of destruction.

Before it’s too late.  That is the theme of our Gospel and Epistle Lessons for today.  Jesus says, “You don’t know when the Master will return, so be ready.  Be faithful.  Be ready at all times before it’s too late to get ready.” (Luke 12:35-46).  Paul says, “The day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly like a thief in the night” so be ready.  Be alert. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-8).  Zephaniah says “before” three times: “before this chance passes you by, before God’s anger comes against you, before the day of God’s anger begins.”  Before it’s too late.

But what are we supposed to do before it’s too late?  Seek.  Again, Zephaniah says “seek” three times.  “Seek the Lord ... seek righteousness ... seek humility.”  These are the exact opposites of Israel’s three sins: idolatry, injustice, and independence.  
  • Don’t worship other gods, not even a little.  Don’t put your hope in any human being.  Seek God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  Make God your top priority in every part of your life.  Seek the Lord.
  • Don’t deal unjustly.  Don’t cheat or lie.  Don’t try to manipulate the system.  Seek righteousness in everything you do.  The right thing is always the right thing to do.  Seek righteousness.
  • Don’t think you can make it on your own.  Don’t get proud.  Don’t try to live independently of God’s grace and mercy.  Don’t think that you can work out your life by your own smarts and hard work.  Don’t try to find a new pastor just by looking hard and thinking hard.  Recognize that we need God to show us the right way and the right person.  Seek humility.  Be intentional about choosing the humble path.  Ask others to tell you where you are week and how you can improve.  Be gentle with others faults  because you are well aware of your own faults and weaknesses.  Seek humility.

And maybe God will protect you on the day of judgment.  This word “protect” is really hide.  
  • Imagine you are walking with your girlfriend down the sidewalk and a bus comes speeding down the road through a muddy puddle.  What do you do?  If you’re a gentleman, and you think fast, you cover her so that the muddy water goes on you instead of her.  You hide her.  
  • Think about that old hymn:
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life in the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand,
And covers me there with His hand.

  • Think about those pictures of the Kennedy assassination.  His body guards stretched out their bodies spread-eagle over the top of the convertible.  They were trying to hide him from the bullets.  
Zephaniah says, “Seek the Lord ... and maybe he will hide you on the day of judgement.”

There’s something really interesting going on with these too words of hiding and seeking in this passage.  
At first, it’s the people who are hiding and God who is seeking.  The people are trying to hide their sins from God, or they are trying to hide from God.  But God says, “I will search with lanterns in Jerusalem’s darkest corners to punish those who sit complacent in their sins” (Zephaniah 1:12).  God will seek out all their hiding places.  We can’t hide anything from God.  He knows all our hiding places.  He will shine a flashlight under our couch and behind our refrigerator and in the back corners of our closets.  If we are trusting in anything besides him in any deep corners of our hearts, God will find it.
But then, it’s the people who are seeking and God who is hiding.  “Seek the Lord.  Seek righteousness.  Seek humility.  And perhaps the Lord will hide you on that day.”  The action flips.  
The way to deal with God’s searching judgement is not to run away and hide.  “Uh oh, I’m a bad person.  I’ve done so many wrong things.  I better get as far away from God as possible.”  That’s a plan for disaster because we can’t hide from God.  
The way to deal with God’s search-light of judgement is to run straight into God’s arms with humility.  “Oh man, I’m so lost.  I’m so messed up.  I’ll never make it on my own.  God, I’m desperate for you.  Your mercy is my only hope.”  That is what God wants.  Then, God will hide us from his angry judgment.  Like Paul said, “For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us.  Christ died for us ...” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10). God took his own anger on himself through Jesus.  Jesus died for us, and now if we will seek God, God will hide us in Christ.
There’s one more thing about seeking I really can’t leave out.  Jesus told another story about someone lighting a lamp and going looking in dark corners.  
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’  In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.”  (Luke 15:8-10).
God is actively seeking us.  We are the lost and hiding ones.  God is seeking us to save us.  If we will seek God and be found by his love, then there will be great rejoicing all around.  But if we refuse God’s seeking and keep hiding and keep running, then someday the joyful seeking will be over, and on that dark day, when God finds us, it will be with judgment and wrath because we refused to be found.
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