Thinking Biblically: Introducing Prophecy

Thinking Biblically: Introducing Prophecy

Primary Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20

All scripture references in this sermon are from the NRSV, unless otherwise noted.

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
    shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter Jerusalem!
15 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.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
    do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
    a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
    he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18     as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
    so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors
    at that time.
And I will save the lame
    and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
    and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you home,
    at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
    among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
    before your eyes, says the Lord. 
- Zephaniah 3:14

What is hope?  Where is it found?  In whom is it found?  While prophecy is one of the most diverse and complex genres of literature in the Bible, these questions permeate a great deal of biblical prophecy.  Biblical prophets were not mysterious sages whispering ethereal messages to those who would seek out their wisdom.  They were people, called by God to be God’s megaphone in their world.  They were people called at particular times and places to deliver messages from God which would speak into their present moment and rouse a deaf world.

  The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah.

– Zephaniah 1:1

Zephaniah was a noble, the great grandson of King Hezekiah, who was known for his religious reforms (which were eventually abandoned by the people) and prophesied in the early days of the reign of King Josiah, who would later on enact religious reforms, which would also be abandoned by the people.  He lived in unique and turbulent times and delivered a unique and powerful message.

The book of Zephaniah is a short book.  It contains just three short chapters, and about as many pages.   Yet, it moves through so much.  The book begins with Zephaniah’s warning of judgment on his own kingdom, for it’s idolatry.

"I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal
    and the name of the idolatrous priests;
those who bow down on the roofs
    to the host of the heavens;
those who bow down and swear to the Lord,
    but also swear by Milcom;
those who have turned back from following the Lord,
    who have not sought the Lord or inquired of him." 
Zephaniah 1:4-6

Then Zephaniah speaks of God’s judgment on all the surrounding nations, before returning once again once again to a cutting criticism of Zephaniah’s own people.  Yet, this is not the end, because so quickly, so unexpectedly God, speaking through the prophet Zephaniah says this.

At that time I will change the speech of the peoples

    to a pure speech,

that all of them may call on the name of the Lord

    and serve him with one accord.

Zephaniah 3:9

God will not leave the nations in despair, but one day, God will gather them and make them new.  And at the last,,this. 

" 14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
    shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter Jerusalem!
15 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.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
    do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
    a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
    he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18     as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
    so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors
    at that time.
And I will save the lame
    and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
    and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you home,
    at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
    among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
    before your eyes, says the Lord."
Zephaniah 3:14-29

That one line “He will exult over you with loud singing as on the day of a festival” is so beautiful.  Literally translated, the word translated “loud singing” means ululation, which is kind of like yodeling, but sharper, and more rhythmic and emotive.  The picture  that Zephaniah paints is of God celebrating letting out a joyful, exuberant, rhythmic sound.  That is ultimately where the world is going.  Our hope is not in princes or powers, or presidents, but in God.  The message of Zephaniah is so powerful because it conveys a message of hope that transcends circumstances and is rooted in the work of God.  This is the pattern when it comes to most biblical prophecy, from Zephaniah to Ezekiel, to Jeremiah, to John the Baptist, the prophets acknowledge the darkness of the world, but point their readers to a hope that is found in God.

There is a lot of talk these days about this stupid year to end, as if when the ball drops at midnight on January 1st it will be like we finished a game of Jumanji, and the world will suddenly go back to normal.  That is not going to happen.  We don’t know when the pandemic will end, and it may be here for some time. Many of the other struggles which have characterized this year will certainly still be here when the ball drops on January 1st.  There will still be a long road and a lot of hard work ahead.     The epidemic of political divisiveness will still be with us.  One of the great temptations of our present context is to  the idolatry of party, the golden donkey and golden elephant.  We will need to do the hard work of guarding against such temptations within ourselves and helping one another keep our eyes on Christ alone.   We will need to do the hard work of asking hard questions about all that divides us seeking complex, not accepting simple prepackaged answers of various kinds, but really wrestling and looking for nuance.  The road ahead will be difficult. The world is a dark and cold place.  And yet, there is hope, hope which transcends our circumstances, hope rooted in the One who was, who is, who is to come.  In the end, this. 

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
    do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
    a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
    he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18     as on a day of festival.

– Zephaniah 3:16-18a

There will come a day when we stand side by side, with all our sisters and brothers of all nations, tribes, races, and peoples, gathered together alongside those who have gone to glory ahead of us, and those who will follow us after we have completed our journey, when sin and death, when disease, and racism, and injustice, and tyranny off all kinds will be no more.  And there we will shout, we will sing, for our God has made all things new.

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