For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20
We are well used to the idea that biblical books can have bits added to them later. The last part of Mark 16 and John 21 look very much as though they are additions, afterthoughts or PSs. Indeed what we call the book of Isaiah is almost universally accepted to consist of three parts, written respectively before the Babylonian exile, towards its end, and after Israel had resettled in Judea. Todays book, Zephaniah, looks very much the same. The passage set for us is in stark contrast to the rest of the book, which predates the Exile, and which promises the most severe judgement on a nation which worships false gods, whose leaders are corrupt, where violence and fraud are rife, and where, worst of all, nobody seems that bothered. The prophetic oracles which form the bulk of the book, written to people who tacitly assume that God is powerless to do anything to stop their corruption, promises judgement perhaps more severe than anywhere else in Scripture, with echoes of Noah’s flood, when not just people but also animals will be destroyed completely, to the great anguish of all who see it. But then, in a complete contrast, comes our section, from chapter 3. After the nation has been purified (3:9), great rejoicing will follow, not just on the part of the people, but also by God himself. On one level this looks like the equivalent of the middle section of Isaiah, when the sadder but wiser exiles are promised a homecoming and forgiveness (Is 40 – 55), but it does raise an interesting question for us, a question which lies at the heart of all theology: just what is God like? Do the two halves of this book give us two different answers? And following on from that is another question: what does God think of us?
Chapter 3 reveals a God who is forgiving (3:15), protecting (3:16), encouraging (3:17), and caring (3:19). Yet earlier in the book God is destructive, punishing and outraged by human sin. What has changed? The whole book seems to pivot around 3:9 – Jerusalem and the peoples around will be purified. Haughtiness and pride will be cut out, leaving only humility and obedience. So what does this say about God, and about his attitude to us?
Once while I was working in an Anglican parish, at our weekly staff meeting, one of the leaders there confessed that although he had been brought up to believe that God loved him, because after all that was his job, he never really felt that God liked him that much. That comment opened the floodgates, and in a group of people most of whom had been brought up in somewhat strict and severe ‘reformed’ denominations, we agreed that it did seem quite hard to believe that God was pleased with us. (Someone, a bit provocatively, asked the question ‘At what point did you come to believe that he liked you?’ to which I found myself answering ‘When I became an Anglican.’) Yet this passage speaks in the most extravagant terms of God’s sheer delight over his people. Many of the terms used, in the Psalms among other places, of extravagant human worship of God are here used the other way round: he takes great delight in us, and even sings over us (3:17), giving us honour and praise (3:20). The extravagance of God’s anger and judgement seem to be matched by the extravagance of his delight in those he has purified and reshaped in humility and obedience. So is God subject to severe mood swings, or can we reconcile these two halves of this little book?
The answer, it seems to me, can be found in our view of God. Elsewhere I have suggested that the Church has been mistaken in majoring on describing God as a God of love, when actually far more commonly in the Bible he is described as a God of righteousness, in other words a God completely incapable of doing anything wrong or unfair. If that’s true, it would be highly ironic if, in condemning people who weren’t that bothered that the nation was going down the pan (3:12), God joined in and merely ‘tolerated’ the state of affairs. You ought to be feeling something about this, he says, and what you ought to be feeling is complete outrage! Let me show you what that looks like! The extreme wrath of God in the first half of the book is modelling what any right-minded Jew should be feeling, and it’s strong stuff indeed. And the important thing is that he’s feeling it not because he hates the people, but because he loves them. He can see what all this idolatry, viciousness and corruption is doing to people, including those who are at the forefront of committing it, and he doesn’t like what he sees. So he’s going to do something about it – he’s going to purify the people, so that his natural rejoicing over them need not be compromised by their sin. He’s going to remove everything unlovely about them, and them express his love in singing and jubilation.
For those of us who have been purified by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from death, those of us in whom evil and sin has been defeated (even if it hasn’t quite vanished altogether yet) this is an exciting section, and a real answer to any questions we may be harbouring about how keen he is on us. But for those who continue to perpetrate evil, oppress others, and believe that God is powerless to do anything about it (1:12), it’s a different story. Oh the joy of being people of the resurrection!