Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
Reverend John Flack
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Zephaniah sounds like horror movie, doesn’t it? We hear, “I will bring such distress upon the people that they shall walk like the blind,”—zombies, I wonder—“their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung,”—reminds me of the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the evil Nazi’s face melted. So it’s tempting to dismiss Zephaniah out of hand, as something phantasmagorical and
unintelligible, an artifact of the Old Testament God impotently gibbering away in his
irrelevant wrath. Zephaniah himself knows this, and promises God will search out those who say in their hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he harm.” It’s so tempting to think this way—the world turns, the world burns, the Republicans win, the Democrats win, life goes on until it doesn’t. And the Old Testament and it’s crazy, angry God stuff has nothing to do with it and just makes everything worse with its constant judgment and Raiders of the Lost Ark mumbo jumbo. Let’s move on to the love. Less wrath, more grace.
turns up to 11, so be sure to come back to hear that parable. A man goes away. He
entrusts his servants with capital. He leaves. Two work hard. The other one, afraid
because this guy throwing money around is harsh and cruel, buries the money and gets thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and, if you ask me, that sounds a whole lot scarier than the zombie wonderland of Zephaniah. So, no luck there. On to Thessalonians! Except in Thessalonians we’ve got this chunk of bleeding red meat: “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” As the people who teach our birthing class tell us, “Don’t worry, you’re definitely not going to miss the birth of your baby. It’s not like you’re going to sleep through that.” That’s what the coming of Christ will be like. You won’t sleep through it.
Yeah, so no luck, everybody. You were right when you were walking through the
park. Maybe today would be a good day to stay at home and watch a movie, see what’s new on Netflix. Sometimes Scripture can sound so crazy we feel like that guy in the parable, who takes his talent and buries in the ground. We want nothing to do with this harsh master, who reaps where he does not sow, who gathers where he does not scatter seed. It’s tempting, isn’t it, when God is so fierce and so angry, for us just to tune him out. And why not? If all he’s going to do is yell and threaten—it might be better out there in the outer darkness than in the “joy of the master.”
There are indeed interpreters who think this is the point of the parable. They say
the real hero is the one who buries his talent, and gives it back, refusing to play a part in the unjust and exploitative economic system, and finds himself on the margins, where Jesus hangs out, far from the centers of power. And I guess that’s a fine interpretation. It does it’s own job. It reminds us that God cares for those on the margins. But I find it unsatisfactory in the end. In fact, to that interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew I much prefer the zombie wonderland of Zephaniah, and the wrath of God. Because if all God is going to do is hang out on the margins to weep and gnash his teeth, so much for God.
It’s been a long time for me to come here, but I’ve struggled a long time with this
awful, alien side of God, this murky-willed threatener. And that’s why Zephaniah’s prophecy is so valuable. Because in Zephaniah, God promises to do something about
injustice. God promises to stir things up, to make things right, to end the economies that shove the poor to the side. It’s one thing to say that God is on the side of the
marginalized. It is a much more cruel thing, to my mind, to say only that. Instead, with Zephaniah and with Matthew and with the whole witness of Scripture, I prefer to say that God will end marginalization. God will end injustice. Zephaniah’s word is God’s promise of that. And like labor, there is no escape. God will give birth to a new order and a new world. And that is happening even now, at this table, and in the callings we follow as daughters and sons of God.
I take comfort in the notion that God hates sin and injustice so much that he will
utterly wipe it out. I love this verse—“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.” We live in a world where, too often, the gold and the silver of the
guilty save them, while the poor suffer condemnation. But it’s good to know that God,
who is just and righteous, pays no attention to wealth, but that God himself burns with
passion to see that things will be set right. I take comfort in knowing that God, who will remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, will remove systems of human injustice, too.
And make no mistake. Zephaniah is about justice. Here’s another verse from the
book where God lets us know he sees the behavior of the mighty and the uplifted: “The officials…are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.” The wrath of God is wrath against these things. The anger of God is anger and sorrow over the sins of people taking from
others. And full power of God is leveled against these things, and they will be utterly
Sometimes it is hard for us to believe these things, especially since we experience injustice in countless ways ourselves, or worse, perpetrate it, either consciously or unconsciously. But think of what the Master has given us. We know what God gave to us: he emptied himself. He took the form of a slave. He died in the outer darkness, on the cross, outside the city. And yet that death gave us more than we could ask or imagine. It was was victory over death. It was the winning of freedom. It was God’s own giving of himself to us. And from the outer darkness, God returned in glorious light, and we look forward to his coming again. The Master has given us the Holy Spirit, the strong enduring Word, and the means of grace. The Master has given each of us a calling. And through Christ, God is reforming us, removing sin from us,
The cross has become the form of God’s wrath, and the promise of Christ’s coming again should terrify only those who have placed their trust in the systems of injustice and the power of wealth. The fire of God’s passion is a purifying fire, not a ravaging one. Indeed, we should ask that the fire rage and blow among us, so that we can more clearly see and use the gifts, the limitless gifts, God has given us. Amen.