Word of the Week

Excerpts from a sermon preached at Springfield Christian Church, Springfield, Va on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Failure-as-learning-opportunityHere's a great unifier of the what it means to be human: we’ve ALL failed at something If not at a lot of somethings. (And maybe even a lot of somethings today!) And when we fail, we don’t like to talk it!

However, in the past couple of years I've noticed, there’s a new willingness among many of us to embrace failure as a part of our lives. "Vulnerability" is on the rise, google says, as a topic we discuss with friends. And in response, there’s a growing group of social commentators and bloggers joining in the conversation about failure.

One of these is over at More magazine, Kathy Caprino. Recently she embarked on a series of posts called: “The 52 Worst Mistakes I’ve Made.”

Here are some of them on her list:

#4 Spending too much money on her business before learning how to earn

#13 Staying too long in a job she hated, not realizing it will, eventually, hate her back

#33 Letting people walk all over her because she felt badly for them

#45 Spending more time complaining about her situation than changing it

Identify with any of these?

And if we know anything about failure, we’re in good company with the book of Zephaniah.

It's a book of the Bible that has a lot to say about failure.

For if we were to read the book of Zephaniah from cover to cover, what we’d realize is that 85% of it could fall in the category of “the day of wrath says the Lord” Or, in simpler terms: people of God “you’ve failed big time.”

As the word of the Lord came to Zephaniah son of Cushi in chapter 1, we learn that many in Zephaniah's time worshipped other gods like Baal, Molech, and the starry hosts. They’d not kept up their spiritual practices. They'd lived selfishly to the core. They’d also failed to be a light to the nations. They’d forgotten their responsibility to bless other people as was a part of God’s covenant with their ancestor Abraham.

So, Zephaniah spoke against Philistia, against Moab and Ammon, against Cush, against Assyria, and then begins chapter 3 with a word of judgment against Jerusalem.

Zephaniah speaks most harshly to Jerusalem at the end saying in chapter 3 verse 1: “Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD, she does not draw near to her God.”

So if the layers of failure weren’t described on enough, Zephaniah’s book paints a picture of a God who likes to punish.

In the church, we often avoid scriptures like this.

Besides not liking to read about our own failures, texts like these force us to look at the realities of life with God. God seems to be all about doom and gloom. Or as one of my nephews asked me after hearing a Sunday School lesson once on the tales of the prophets, “Is God always angry like a monster with a couple of heads?”

But looking at the full picture is important because of where the full story is going. By time we arrive at Zephaniah 3:14, the

tone has changed.

We are greeted with words, like, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion, O Israel! Rejoice.”

It’s a complete change of tune! It’s a word of hope for Zephaniah says it’s time to be happy! It’s time to sing loud. It’s time to shout. It’s time to rejoice and exult the Lord with all your heart! For verse 17 tells us that “The Lord, your God, is in your midst” and God “will rejoice over you with gladness.”

Here we might be confused. I know I was as I dug into this book this week. But besides thinking that the prophet Zephaniah is bi-polar and can’t make up his might for what his message might be, is there an alternative?

Might this scripture help us know more what it’s like when God comes? I think it does.

Look with me at verse 20: “At that time I will bring you home, at that time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.”

Consider this modern day example.

I have a friend who’s first born son left home at 18 years old.

He hated the rules and the restrictions placed upon him by his mom and dad so he couldn’t wait to get out when he was of legal age to leave. At first, the boy did ok. He lived with some friends. He got a job at the local grocery store, working the night shift to make extra cash. But of course, soon he learned the harsh realities of life. He needed his family. He needed more education. Or some combination of both if he wanted to live the kind of life he grew up with at home.

So when the calls invitations came and kept coming to consider joining the brotherhood of a local gang, they got harder and harder to refuse. The young man was promised money and life in a community. And, one day he joined. Five years passed. This boy’s parents did not hear from them again.

They heard from the grapevine of neighbors that their son was in and out of jail. They heard that sometimes he slept on the streets. They tried hard to reach out to him, but they never heard a word.

You can imagine the pain, the agony, the sleepless nights this brought on my friends.

They loved their son. They wanted to be in relationship with him. They wanted him to make better choices for his life.

But then one day, they got a phone call. It was about around this time of year. It was their son. “Could I come to Christmas dinner?” he asked straightway. “I’m sorry, mom,” he said. “I know I’ve disappointed you big time, but I want be with family at Christmas.”

Of course these parents could have said no out of bitterness. But how could they? This was the moment they’d dreamed about for ages!

Can you imagine the celebration that occurred in preparation for an on the day of the Christmas dinner?

Only the best music would do.

Only the best turkey would be baked.

Only the brightest bows of presents under the Christmas tree would be added.

Then after supper there would be dancing. Lots of it. And so much laughter!

In those moments, who cared about the failures of the past? A turn had been made of relationship! These parents forgave their child. They just wanted to look at him. Hug him. And adore how handsome he was!

Can you picture the look of love from the mother to her son on that joyous Christmas meal?

I have to imagine that this look is exactly the way God was trying to communicate to the people in Zephaniah’s time. The look of total love. That’s what God wanted the people to most see!

For yes, there had been failure.

For yes, there had been anger on God’s part.

For yes, there had been broken ties of relationship.

But SUCH WOULD NOT last forever. For God loved Judah. God was just waiting on Judah to hear the word and come home.

And God’s deepest desire through it all was to say, WELCOME HOME! Come sit around the fire. Eat some amazing food. And know that I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m not angry anymore.

And what good news this is for our Advent, for our lonely hearts, for our longing hearts, for our broken hearts!  God will not stay angry at forever. God is a loving parent who wants to draw us close!  God wants to just sing over us, rejoice over us and say thanks be over us!

So it is with great joy I give you this invitation-- come on home. God wants to welcome you! Christ will soon be born. a-big-welcome-home