From Dust to Songs of Joy

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, the Might Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”

“I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. At that time, I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. At that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the Lord.

Introduction

What we read this morning are 6 verses of Zephaniah. I’m fully guilty of cherry-picking the Bible this Sunday because, while these 6 verses sound like lovely promises from God, the rest of Zephaniah is super depressing. Like, God-is-very-judgey depressing. In fact, the last verse before we enter into a bit more cheerful times is “Therefore, be patient,” says the Lord…

Well now, that doesn’t sound so bad. Usually when God is telling us to be patient, something good is coming but… let’s keep reading.

“Therefore, be patient,” says the Lord. “Soon I will stand and accuse these evil nations. For I have decided to gather the kingdoms of the earth and pour out my fiercest anger and fury on them. All the earth will be devoured by the fire of my jealousy.”

It’s times like these when I would like to pull God aside and say, “You know how to want me to teach people about your unfailing love and kindness? It would be helpful if you hadn’t said stuff like this. Like this, right here.”

But, it is there and so we have to deal with it. Why was God so mad?

History Lesson

Well, here’s some biblical history in 30 seconds.

The Israelites were going through a really bad period of ignoring God until finally King Josiah comes into reign and things are looking a little hopeful. King Josiah was Israel’s reforming monarch. During his reign as a young king, his priests found the book of the covenant in the corner of the temple and brought it to him to be read. He thought “hey, this is some pretty good stuff” and instituted a reform that had been needed in the Israelites lives for quite some time.

But, this didn’t last forever and eventually King Josiah died tragically in battle and the Israelites and Judah (they are two separate nations at this point) are overrun. The prophet Zephaniah saw this whole thing happening and writes these words at a time when Israel had experienced great shame on the world stage. They’ve been overrun, they don’t have a temple, they aren’t obeying their God.

It’s in this place that Zephaniah writes the words of Chapter 3. It’s in a place where the idea of God being present is kind of disturbing. At this point the Israelites can only assume that God is a benign, indifferent deity who has little influence on the reality of their daily lives.

God’s presence in our lives

The prophet Zephaniah wrestles with these questions:

  • What would happen if God interrupted us?
  • What if God barged into the midst of our daily lives?
  • How would you feel?
  • How would you respond?
  • What change would God’s presence bring?

When I was a teenager working at Bible Camp, my friend and I were having a conversation about following God’s call in your life. This was a term used widely, particularly for teenagers finishing highschool or young adults who had yet to pick a career path. Camp staff were filled with wonderful stories of getting into programs they didn’t apply for, or direct words that came from God about which program to follow, or where to move. My friend and I were a little bummed out- we hadn’t had any of these divine experiences telling us what to do with our lives.

As we walked along, my friend concluded: “I guess, for me, following God’s call on my life is just doing what seems right. If I don’t get struck by lightning, I’ll assume its okay.”

Reflecting on this story this week got me thinking about how many people who would identify themselves as Christians feel the same way- think that God is out there but not really affecting their daily lives. And so, I went on a bit of a stats hunt for these types of things.

In a 2017 survey in the United States, of the people who clicked that they believe in God, 27% of those people believe that God determines what happens to them in their daily life (all the time), 21% believe that God determines what happens to them most of the time.

Of people aged 50-64 (again, these are only the people that do believe in a God), 71% of those people believe that God has  the power to direct or change everything. In the 18-29 age bracket, that number goes down to 52%. So just over half of young adults who believe there is a God, believe that God has the power to change anything in their life. Interestingly, the number for people aged 65 and up is also lower with only 67%.

But we’re not the states, so let’s get some Canadian statistics up in here. In a Project Canada Survey Series in 2015, 73% believe that God or a higher power exists. 61% of participants in the survey believed that God or a higher power cares for them personally and 47% would say that they have experienced God’s presence.

In answering the question, “to what extent to you see your life determined by…”, the answer “your own efforts” comes in first place with 89%, Chance is in fourth place with 40%, God is neck in neck with Chance with a 39% and “Luck” is trailing not too far behind with 33%.

Okay, I’m done.

The point is, for folks who have a belief in God, it certainly cannot be assumed that they believe in God’s participation in their life. The Israelites were in the same situation.  But this is a sermon series on resurrection and Zephaniah tells a story of resurrection. In Chapter 3, there are three messages of resurrection. Three messages of reasons to rejoice whether you feel God’s presence or not. Whether you think God has influence on your life or not. Here are the three messages of resurrection I have for you today:

We rejoice because God forgives us.

We rejoice because God lives among us.

We rejoice because God rejoices in us.

God forgives. These words may not be very meaningful to some people. To others, they may be the most meaningful words they’ve ever heard. I’m sure to the prophet Zephaniah, who heard the words of wrath and anger and judgement from God, they were enough to bring tears to his eyes. God goes in one verse (chapter 3, verse 8) from “I’m going to destroy the whole world” to “I’m going to purify the lips of the peoples. Everyone is invited to come and be with me. To call on the name of the Lord. To be forgiven.” No matter where you’ve come from, no matter where you’re going, God forgives.

God lives among us. For the Israelites, who had a strong, strong belief that God only lives in the temple, this was groundbreaking. Their temple was destroyed. It was long gone. If there ever was a God in there, it’s certainly gone now. The only conclusion they could draw was that God was no longer with them. And, according to the statistics I was reading, many people today still believe the same thing- God, while existing, is certainly not part of our lives. But I believe the Bible holds value and I believe that if Zephaniah is telling a people who believed God only existed solely in the temple, that God is with them in their homes, in their places of work, in the lives of their children, then that is a message I will spread today. You  may not believe it. You may not feel it. But God is with us, here, today. God is in our midst.

And finally, God rejoices over you. The Old Testament is filled with stories of the Israelites disobeying, God showing mercy and the reunification between the Israelites and God. Then the Israelites disobey, God shows them mercy and they are reunified. But this part of Zephaniah about God rejoicing over us sticks out to me- it’s a bit unique to this story. The image of God taking up a tambourine, dancing and singing with pure, absolute joy that you are here. That you are alive. That you are a part of God’s world.

The story of humanity is a broken one. We certainly are not perfect creatures. Whether you would fill out that survey saying you’ve never felt God’s presence or that you feel it everyday. Whether you would say that God has influence in your life down to what you eat for supper or not at all. Whether you are somewhat of an Israelite with a long history of ‘leaving’ and ‘coming’ back or you’re hearing of God for the very first time. God is here. God forgives you. And God delights in you.

May you know that.

Amen.