OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 3 – Zephaniah 3:14-20

When I arrived at one of my parishes to take up my post as vicar I inherited a curate who had been in post some time. ‘You need to understand’, she told me fairly early on, ‘that in living memory people in this church have only ever heard one sermon: Jesus loves you and everything is fine!’

Last Sunday morning I preached at my home church on the Acts passage, from chapter 2 (See? I can do NT when I have to!). I used Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost as a typical example of kinds of things the earliest Christians were preaching, and I noted first of all that the idea of preaching ‘the love of God’ is simply absent, not just from the Acts sermons but also pretty much from all of the NT. Then I noted that the theme which ran throughout the Acts sermons was the command to repent. I questioned whether we have made the gospel so nice that it has lost its cutting edge, and whether people deep down don’t want to be told ‘Jesus loves you and everything is fine’, but would rather know that there is the possibility of repentance, forgiveness and change. It certainly seemed to work in the 1st century!

But I was challenged by one person who said, in effect, that sometimes all we need is to know that we are loved. As a priest I was charged at my ordination and the start of each new post to ‘proclaim [the gospel] afresh in each generation’. Might it be the case, I was asked, that our generation doesn’t want to hear about repentance, but only about How much God loves them? Personally I wasn’t convinced, but it is a good question, and there are signs that in today’s OT reading there is some evidence that a classic OT idea, that of ‘The Day of the Lord’ was being framed afresh.

The idea of the Day of the Lord was apparently widely held long before Amos first mentioned it in chapter 5. He is clearly addressing people who thought they knew what the Day of the Lord meant, and believed it would be a day of great rejoicing, when God came to them in power to punish their enemies and make them top nation. But Amos subverts this, and proclaims woe on those who believe that when God comes it will be for a knees-up. Rather, he says, it will be a day of darkness and catastrophe, as God comes to judge the injustice and idolatry of the nation. He is certainly proclaiming the idea afresh for his current generation.

Zephaniah too summons the people to repent, with dire warnings of punishment and destruction when God appears, to ‘sweep away everything from the face of the earth’ (1:2). Even Jerusalem, the city of God, will be consumed, along with the whole world, ‘by the fire of my jealous anger’ (3:8). But then suddenly, and without warning, the Day of the Lord is proclaimed afresh afresh, in the oracle of celebration which forms our reading, and which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book. Now God’s turning up will be an occasion for rescue, singing and festivity. It’s a very upbeat message, ideal as we continue to live through the Easter period. God’s coming to his people will mean forgiveness for sin, purification, defeat for enemies, and encouragement, as God sings to his people just as they usually sing to him. Naturally there are scholars who dislike these kinds of sudden U-turns in Scripture, and suggest that this final section of the book is a later appendix, perhaps celebrating the return from exile in Babylon. They may well be right, but the question is raised for us about what the Spirit might be saying to the Church today, and how that relates to the Bible’s message as a whole. We all know the feeling that now and again ‘God really spoke to me through that passage – it was just what I needed to hear!’ We also know the feeling that having heard the Bible we are left cold and feel that there was nothing there which spoke or connected. This underlines, I think, the responsibly of preachers and teachers to discern what God is wanting to say to people now. The gospel doesn’t change, but the nuances of it may well do, and the particular facets which will speak now may not be the same as those which spoke yesterday. It is our job, as preachers, to feed people with the whole counsel of God, but we won’t do all of it every week, so it is vital that we give people what they need now, even if that is not exactly what they would like every single time.

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