Zephaniah 3:14-20 Every Lutheran pastor wants to make sure that the Law is preached in such a way that even the most upright person recognizes the futility of trusting in their own righteousness for salvation and the Gospel is preached in such a way that even the worst of sinners knows that they are loved and forgiven by God.
This way of preaching the Law and the Gospel is not a Lutheran peculiarity—it is the way God speaks to us in the Bible. In the first two chapters of Zephaniah we hear some of the strongest Law in the whole Bible. Through the prophet Zephaniah God says:
“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth.” “I will bring distress on mankind so that their blood will be poured out like dust… Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of wrath…”
Zephaniah spoke about the judgment to befall Judah at the hands of the Babylonians but his message was universal—applying to people in every place and time because the judgment upon Judah—as terrible as it would be—was still only a picture, a sign—of what would befall the whole world on the great and terrible Day of the Lord.
And so why was there this unrelentingly harsh message of judgment and condemnation from Zephaniah? It was because of Judah’s sin and the sin of all people. That is important for us to recognize. The charges that Zephaniah brought against them were not just their sins-- but condemned all people. God said:
“You have turned back from following me…you do not seek my face or inquire of me.” “You listen to no voice and accept no correction.”
These words of judgment and law are spoken to us too. We have not always followed the Lord as we should. We have not always sought his will first before our own. We do not always offer our plans to him in prayer and seek his direction. We have adopted many of the ways of the unbelieving world around us. We do not always amend our lives in any meaningful or lasting way.
And that is a very dangerous place to be spiritually! The great tragedy of what happened to Judah was that right up until the day the Babylonians appeared outside the walls of Jerusalem they kept on saying of God’s judgment: it will never happen to us.
But it did—and it will. The flood of Noah’s day- and the fall of Jerusalem in Zephaniah’s day- and the destruction of the temple in the apostles’ day (as terrible as they were)--were still merely signs of what will happen to the whole world and all people on the Last Day.
That is the message of God’s Law in Zephaniah and it is meant for all people in every place and time—including us here tonight. But what is also meant for every person in every place and time is the Good News of the Gospel.
The people who heard Zephaniah preach these words of the Law must have thought that there was no hope for them such was the fierceness of God’s judgment upon their sin. At times we feel as if there is no hope when we fall again and again to some sin
But the Lord is a God of love who does not desire to see a single person separated from him and so he has made a way to escape his wrath. That Gospel message of the Mighty One who saves is what we hear tonight. God says:
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 cleared away your enemies.
God did not promise to relent from his judgment like some modern parent who is lax in their discipline. What he promised to do was to personally take it away and clear away our enemies.
Judah had to look forward to that in faith-- but we know and believe it as an accomplished fact of history.
The righteous judgment of God fell upon Jesus. Taking our place at the cross, God’s righteous verdict of “guilty” was pronounced upon him and he suffered the wrath of God that we deserve. His blood has cleared away the enemies of our sins and his resurrection cleared away the power of death and the devil over our lives.
What better reason can there be to sing and shout and rejoice and exult with all our heart for what God has done for us in his Son? For not only have our enemies been destroyed, but a right relationship between us and God has been accomplished so that now: The King of Israel, the Lord, is in our midst; we shall never again fear evil.
The fellowship that God intended between himself and us—has been restored. God the Father is with us wherever we go: into the hospital bed or nursing home or dorm room. God the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts. And God the Son speaks to us in his Word and makes himself present to us with his body and blood under bread and wine.
Because the Triune God is with us—we never again have to fear evil.
When we face physical evil such as sickness or drought the Lord promises that he will cause all things to work for the good of those who love him.
When we face personal evil in the form of the devil and his angels the Lord promises that the One who dwells in us is greater by far than he who is in the world.
And when we face the moral evil of our own sins, the Lord promises that we have an advocate in Jesus who has atoned for our sins and for the sins of the world and so he remembers our sin no more.
This Good News of the king’s deliverance changes everything for us—not just eternally—but in our daily lives here and now. The Gospel sets us free and empowers us to serve. God says: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.
When the Law shows our sins, we may be tempted to throw up our hands in defeat and quit. But the Good News of Jesus is not only forgiveness—it is the power to fill up our hands with good works that serve God and our neighbor.
The biblical picture of one redeemed by the Messiah is someone who is busily and joyfully engaged in the lives of those around them: caring for the poor and sick—loving those in their family and church—reaching out to those who do not yet know what God has done for the world in Christ.
That’s the rich, active life of a child of God who is loved by their heavenly Father. He says that he rejoices over us with gladness; quiets us by his love; and exults over us with loud singing.
In those dark days when Zephaniah preached, just imagine what it meant to the know that (1) God was with them—even as they were carried off into exile—that (2) there was God-pleasing work for them to do even though they would be far from home—(3) that God loved them and rejoiced over them even as he loved and rejoiced over his own Son.
These words are Good News for us too! We live in dark days. Judgment Day is closer now than ever.
But we have nothing to fear because we are children of the heavenly Father and he rejoices over us like the father of the prodigal son who was glad to have his boy back home—and loves us with an everlasting love no matter what happens to us in this life—and exults over us with singing until the day we stand in his presence and join our voice to that of the heavenly choir. God says:
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; 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.
The lives of God’s people in Zephaniah’s day may be far removed from us in space and time—but they are remarkably similar.
Christians throughout the world—and more and more in our own country—suffer the reproach of their fellow citizens and outright oppression from unbelievers. We are not immune from the effects of living in a broken world. We suffer the same hardships and illnesses as everyone else. There is more and more distance between ourselves and a godless culture.
But this valley of sorrow and death will not endure forever! Our King’s return in glory will be a day of judgment and punishment for those who have not trusted in the Lord and have oppressed his people.
But it will also be a glad day of deliverance for his children when God will gather us together at his right hand to bring us into our heavenly home.
On the King’s Day, everything that we have lost in this broken world and everything that we have forsaken for Christ will be restored to us. The tears and sorrows of this life will fade away before the glory and joys of heaven. And the new life we will live in the presence of the Mighty One who has saved us will last forever. Amen.