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The Minor Prophets: The Day of The Lord

July 9, 2017 Sermon
“The Day of the Lord”

1st Scripture Reading – Zephaniah 1:1-7

1 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.

2 I will utterly sweep away everything
   from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
3 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, says the Lord.
4 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;
5 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;
6 those who have turned back from following the Lord,
   who have not sought the Lord or inquired of him.
7 Be silent before the Lord God!
   For the day of the Lord is at hand;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice,
   he has consecrated his guests.

2nd Scripture Reading – Zephaniah 1:14-18

14 The great day of the Lord is near,
   near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
   the warrior cries aloud there.
15 That day will be a day of wrath,
   a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
   a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16     a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
   and against the lofty battlements.
17 I will bring such distress upon people
   that they shall walk like the blind;
   because they have sinned against the Lord,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
   and their flesh like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
   will be able to save them
   on the day of the Lord’s wrath;
in the fire of his passion
   the whole earth shall be consumed;
for a full, a terrible end
   he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

“The Day of the Lord”

About a week ago, I read a story that absolutely baffled me.  It was about a pre-school in Sweden.  On behalf of the municipality in which the pre-school is located, inspectors visited the school and noticed that the children in the school were saying prayers before their meals to thank God for their food…which the inspectors determined was a violation of Sweden’s Education Act.  (There’s some debate as to whether or not saying prayers at mealtimes violates the Education Act, but that’s another issue.)  As a result of the inspection, the municipality issued an edict to the school: no more prayers at meal-times, children are not allowed to say “amen” or talk about the Bible with one another while at the pre-school.  The inspectors were worried that if prayers are being said over meals by some, and if the Bible is being talked about by some, others may feel too much pressure to opt out of such Christian activities.

Oh – by the way.  This part of the story, on its own, this is NOT what baffles me.  We hear about this kind of thing all the time, even here in our country…and I get it – separation of church and state.  What baffles me is that this pre-school is a CHRISTIAN Pre-School…not some public school…as best as I can tell, it is owned, funded, and run by a Christian organization, a church.  Which got me wondering: if you don’t want to have anything to do with Christianity, why are you at a CHRISTIAN school in the first place?  OK – I know, these are pre-school kids, so it’s really their parents who are making the decision to place them in that school.  So I’ll rephrase: if you don’t want your children doing Christian things, why on earth would you put them in a Christian pre-school?

You’re probably wondering about now whether this is going to be a sermon based on today’s scripture reading or some kind of political rant.  Well, hopefully, you’ve figured out by now that I won’t begin a story, even a potentially politically charged story, unless it directly relates to something important we learn from our scripture reading.  So…let’s dive into God’s word as given through the prophet Zephaniah.

We took a break last week from our first sermon series of the summer, a sermon series in which we’re exploring the last 12 books of the Old Testament, books often referred to as the books of the minor prophets.  We aren’t looking at all 12 but rather I have arranged them into groups chronologically, and we’re exploring God’s word as given to one or two prophets from each time period.

After beginning with Habakkuk, which I mentioned was out of place chronologically in our exploration, we’ve looked at a couple of prophets from the earliest period of the minor prophets, the period leading up to the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel at the hand of the Assyrians in 722 BC.  Through those prophets, Hosea and Amos, God declared both judgment and compassion upon God’s people.  God said that the people had violated the terms of their covenant with God, so God had the covenantal RIGHT to DESTROY them.  But God offered mercy and compassion first, mercy and compassion BEFORE destruction, by sending the prophets and giving the people yet ANOTHER chance to change their ways.

Care to guess how the people responded?    As I mentioned, God withdrew God’s protection from the northern kingdom and allowed it to be destroyed by Assyria.

Let’s fast forward 100 to 150 years…to sometime between 610BC and 615BC.  This is the time of the minor prophets Nahum, Zephaniah, and Habakkuk.

The northern kingdom of Israel is gone, and, at least initially, the Judeans feared that they would be next.  But Judah turned back to God…for a while, and God spared the kingdom.  However, more than 100 years has passed since Assyria destroyed Israel, and in that time Judah has had some pretty bad kings, “bad” meaning that they haven’t kept the covenant with God and haven’t directed their people to keep the covenant with God.  And God is NOT happy with Judah.  You probably figured as much when God began talking to the prophet Zephaniah with the words, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth.”

Does it sound to YOU like God is happy?

So…God’s words to Judah through Zephaniah don’t sound all too different from God’s words to Israel through prophets more than 100 years earlier – not at first.

But through Zephaniah, God mentions something that’s worth looking at more closely, something God mentions through a great many of the prophets, so it’s worth knowing something about, and it begins in verse 7:

Be silent before the Lord God!
   For the day of the Lord is at hand;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice,
   he has consecrated his guests.
The day of the Lord is at hand!

For God’s people, such an exhortation by God SHOULD HAVE been reason to throw a great party.  Historically, the coming of the day of the Lord was eagerly anticipated by God’s people because it meant God would come and reward those who follow God and punish those who don’t follow God.  Historically, the coming of the day of the Lord was cause for celebration for God’s people because it was supposed to be THE day on which God’s people would FINALLY receive victory over ALL their enemies, once and for all, FOREVER.

But that’s NOT the way God presents the day of the Lord to Judah through the prophet Zephaniah, is it?

God revealed through the prophet that for Judah, the day of the Lord will be:

  • a day of distress and anguish;
  • a day of ruin and devastation;
  • a day of darkness and gloom;
  • a day of clouds and thick darkness;

Why?  What happened?  What CHANGED?

In terms of the basics of the day of the Lord, nothing really changed.  God’s people had always understood that day as a day that would be WONDERFUL and celebratory for everyone on God’s side and at the same time as a day that would be TERRIBLE for God’s enemies.

So…what changed is that God’s people, now known as Judah, found themselves counted as God’s ENEMIES instead of as God’s friends.  THAT is what has changed.  And that’s about as bad a change as I can imagine.  Through Zephaniah, I’m pretty sure the people of Judah discovered that it was about as bad a change as they could imagine.

But there’s one more nuance to this “day of the Lord” thing that I want to address, one more nuance that is particularly pertinent to US modern Christians.   And it has to do with the story I told at the beginning of the sermon.

Back when people talked about and even anticipated “the day of the Lord”, one feature of that Day is that it would be good for people who ALREADY lived as if the day had come, for people who were already living as if God was in charge, as if God was the one, true king.  If you think about it this way, the ACTUAL day of the Lord would pretty much be a CONTINUATION of what those folks were already living.  Which is precisely WHY it would be a good day for them and a bad day for everyone else…even if you took out the whole violence thing.

What I’m trying to say is that if God suddenly came down to earth and said “Alright, from now on, EVERYONE must live in accordance with MY RULES…no exception”…if God did that, it would be a great day for people who were already living in accordance with God’s rules, who already desired what God desired.  But for people who wanted to live by their OWN rules, for people who wanted to live by any OTHER set of rules, such a day would be no fun at all.

And, if you think deeply about it, now that Jesus has come and has declared that he will come again, that’s the way we Christians should be thinking about the afterlife.  If you ALREADY enjoy living in accordance with God’s rules here in this lifetime, if you already live in the kingdom of God, when your life on this earth comes to a close, you will absolutely positively ENJOY an afterlife in God’s kingdom.  But…what if you DON’T want to have anything to do with God’s kingdom on this earth, if you don’t particularly like God’s rules, if you don’t want to live as if God is king, WHY do you think you would enjoy an eternity living in God’s kingdom – where you’ll have to obey God’s rules and live as if God is king –  after your time here is up?

If you like to be mean and cruel and hurtful to other people, why would you want to spend eternity in a kingdom where you CAN’T DO THAT?  If you like to talk about people behind their backs and spread rumors, why would you want to spend eternity in a kingdom where you can’t do that?  If you like to hoard money and stuff for yourself and use way more resources than any one person needs and way more resources than most people GET, why would you want to spend eternity in a place where everyone SHARES?  And if you like to spend your life complaining about other people, why would you want to spend eternity in a place that’s all about people and relationship and in which there is absolutely NO COMPLAINING?

Oh, and one last thing: if my description of God’s kingdom – here or THERE – doesn’t sound like what you’re expecting heaven to be like, do you really think GOD’S kingdom is going to be tailored to you and YOUR desires or is it going to be the place where everyone gets their desires in accordance with God’s desires?  Maybe a better way to say it is to point out that Jesus said over and again that the kingdom of God/heaven is near, and then he proceeded to tell what the kingdom of God/heaven is LIKE…and he NEVER said it would involve meanness, selfishness, hoarding, or gossipping, or even many of the ways of living I see practiced by modern Christians…but he OFTEN said it would involve sharing and love (for EVERYBODY, not just your family and close friends) and pouring yourself out for others.  Which leads me to ask, AGAIN: if you don’t like living that way NOW, why do you think you will like it in the age to come?

And…which gets me back to the story of the Swedish Christian pre-school.  Maybe you’ll think I’m off-base when I say this, but I’m guessing that parents will send their children to a Christian pre-school precisely because they want their children to be in a CHRISTIAN pre-school that practices Christian stuff like prayer and talking about the Bible and even saying such politically incorrect words as “Amen”.  But parents who don’t want their children exposed to that kind of stuff most likely would NEVER send their children to such a pre-school, unless they had no choice.

And, y’all, that’s pretty much what God was trying to tell Judah through Zephaniah, and it’s pretty much what God is trying to tell us…through the whole of the scriptures and through Jesus.  If you truly WANT this Kingdom of God stuff, if you truly WANT the Day of the Lord to be part of your future, GREAT, start living like it now.  If you don’t, don’t.

But know this, whatever you choose here in this lifetime, whatever you choose here and now, it’s pretty much what you’re going to get forever.  Amen.