God Reigning

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I’ve just read the memoir of Violet Jessop. She was a maid on board the Titanic, and survived when it sank on April 15th, 1912. And her description of that is chilling. She says she was woken by the ship shuddering and then the engines shutting down. She got up, put on her dressing gown and joined the passengers on the first class deck. She writes,

‘The gentlemen I passed cannot have known what had really happened. They behaved as if they were promenading. And I look back on that moment and shudder at the complacency of us all.’

Well, tonight we resume our series in the Old Testament (OT) book of the prophet Zephaniah. And God’s main purpose in speaking through him was to tackle a form of complacency with far more serious consequences than those of that night in 1912. And that is spiritual complacency – complacency towards God. And it’s easy to think that can’t be an issue for a committed church like this. But it is, because relationship with God is a dynamic thing where commitment needs to be constantly renewed, and where complacency is always possible – the complacency that says that whether I pray or not doesn’t really matter; whether I sin or not doesn’t really matter; whether people hear the gospel or not doesn’t really matter – and so on. So whether we need the Lord to get us out of complacency tonight or keep us out of it, we need this part of his Word. So would you turn in the Bibles to Zephaniah as we look at God’s cure for complacency.

Zephaniah was God’s spokesman to his people during King Josiah’s reign – which was 640-609BC. And if you look at chapter 1 verse 12 you’ll see what the Lord said about them:

“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps
and punish those who are complacent,
who are like wine left on its dregs,
who think, 'The LORD will do nothing,
either good or bad.”

So spiritual complacency says, ‘God will do nothing good or bad – i.e., there are no serious blessings to be had from being committed to him, and no serious consequences of ignoring him. So why bother? That’s what much of the world is saying: ‘We’re enjoying life without God. And he hasn’t struck us down. So why bother?’ To which Zephaniah says, ‘Bother because although God allows people the freedom to treat him as unimportant or even non-existent, he won’t allow it forever. Because a day of judgement is coming when God will reassert his right to be recognised as God, whether we like it or not. And Zephaniah is all about the reality of that day, our readiness for it, and the reasons for taking it with absolute seriousness. So tonight is about the ‘three r’s’ of judgement day: REALITY, READINESS and REASONS.

Firstly, REALITY (1.14-18)

Now the first sermon in this series majored on this so I won’t labour what’s already been said on verses 1-13. So let’s pick up where we left off at verse 14:

14 "The great day of the LORD is near—
near and coming quickly.
Listen! The cry on the day of the LORD will be bitter,
the shouting of the warrior there.
15 That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of trouble and ruin,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness,
16 a day of trumpet and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the corner towers.
17 I will bring distress on the people
and they will walk like blind men,
because they have sinned against the LORD.
Their blood will be poured out like dust
and their entrails like filth.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the LORD's wrath.
In the fire of his jealousy
the whole world will be consumed,
for he will make a sudden end
of all who live in the earth."

Now to Zephaniah’s first hearers, some of that would have sounded like a local judgement within history – e.g., verses 16-17 sounds like the siege and fall of the cities of Judah. But the end of verse 18 sounds much bigger – like a cosmic judgement at the end of history. And Zephaniah has ‘run the two together’, so that his first hearers would have thought that just one big judgement was coming. But because we live further along the line of history, we can separate out the judgement within history and the judgement at the end of it. So we know that a judgement did come upon Zephaniah’s first hearers when God allowed them to be invaded and taken into exile. But since then, Jesus has come, lived, died on the cross for our forgiveness, risen from the dead and promised to come again as Judge. So as we read Zephaniah, we know that both the exile and Jesus’ second coming were in God’s mind, but that we’re now to apply it for ourselves to the reality of Jesus’ second coming. So look again at the second half of verse 18:

“In the fire of [God’s] jealousy
the whole world will be consumed,
for he will make a sudden end
of all who live in the earth.”

That shows that jealousy is not always wrong. If you have something I have no right to – like your abilities or your job – then for me to be jealous of those things is wrong. But it’s possible to be rightly jealous for what you do have a right to. E.g., the Bible speaks of the jealousy of a husband for his wife’s love: he has a right to it in the sense that she’s promised it to him – and vice versa, of course. And the Bible sees God as the husband who has the right to the love of everyone he’s created. So it’s an awful offence to him that millions have lived in his world today without consciously thanking him for life or making any effort to live to please him. And you can do that as a decent, middle class person, as a terrorist, or anything in between – the refusal to love God looks the same to God, even if the consequences to others are very different. And God allows that freedom to treat him as unimportant or even non-existent, but not forever. Because Jesus will come again. And those of us who’ve wanted and tried – albeit imperfectly – to love God will have our relationship with him consummated. And those who’ve not wanted relationship with God will get what they want forever. As C.S. Lewis puts it in his book The Great Divorce:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’, and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All who are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. Whereas no soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Because those who seek find. And to those who knock the door is opened.”

So that’s the reality we each ultimately face. Then,

Second, READINESS (2.1-3)

What we’ve heard so far is not what we like to hear. It’s like when I go driving out into Northumberland for a walk and you go past those road-signs saying, ‘7 fatal accidents in 3 years.’ And a bit further and there it is again, ‘7 fatal accidents in 3 years.’ And I think, ‘Are they trying to spoil my day?’ And the answer is: no, they’re trying to safeguard it from my own carelessness – Zephaniah would say ‘complacency’. It’s a loving warning. And so it is whenever the prophets, and supremely the Lord Jesus, speak of judgement. They want us to be ready for it, to be on the right side of God, before time runs out. And that’s Zephaniah’s next move. So look down to chapter 2 verse 1:

1“Gather together, gather together,
O shameful nation,
2 before the appointed time arrives
and that day sweeps on like chaff,
before the fierce anger of the LORD comes upon you,
before the day of the LORD's wrath comes upon you.
3 Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land,
you who do what he commands.
Seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you will be sheltered
on the day of the LORD's anger.”

Now in verse 1 he addresses the ‘shameful nation’ – i.e., everyone in Jerusalem and Judah, however far away they were from God. So the door of repentance – of turning to God – is open to everyone – then and now. But then in verse 3 he addresses the ‘humble of the land, you who do what he commands’ – i.e., those who’ve been trying to be faithful to the Lord. And what’s striking is that he prescribes the same medicine for both groups. I.e., whether you need to get ready by turning to the Lord for the first time, or to stay ready by keeping yourself turned to the Lord, the prescription is the same: ‘Seek the Lord, seek righteousness, seek humility.’

So what does it mean to seek the Lord? Well, Isaiah put it like this:

“Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him [i.e., pray] while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”
(Isaiah 55.6-7)

So in the first place, it means praying, and admitting to the Lord that in the light of his judgement we need forgiving. Now it may be you’ve never done that, to begin relationship with God. You’ve never come to him and brought your whole past to him and said, ‘I realise that so far I’ve not given you your rightful place in my life. And I need to be forgiven and given a new start in life in relationship with you.’ If you’ve never prayed like that, can I encourage you to pick up a copy of this booklet Why Jesus?, which explains how to seek God for the first time, and includes a prayer to help you do that. It’s on the Welcome Desk at the back or through on the tables in student supper.

But to already-believing people, this is saying: keep seeking God in prayer: keep asking his forgiveness. But not just that – keep telling him you want to please him – i.e., renew that commitment of your heart to him – and keep asking him to work in you by his Spirit to enable you to live it out. Because the person who just wants his sins forgiven isn’t actually seeking the Lord at all. He’s seeking a clear conscience, which if that’s as far as it goes, is simply another form of self-seeking. The person who’s really seeking the Lord doesn’t just want to be forgiven his sin; he wants to stop sinning (although he won’t this side of heaven). And if you want a model of praying like that, go to Psalm 51, where David has adultery and murder on his conscience, and prays:

1 “Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions...
[But he doesn’t just want to be forgiven his sin. So he goes on:]
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
(Psalm 51.1,10)

But the prayer above all that’s tailor-made to help us seek the Lord is the Lord’s Prayer. ‘Your will be done’ – that’s renewing the commitment of our hearts ‘Forgive us our sins’ – that’s admitting we haven’t lived it out. And ‘Lead us not into temptation’ – that’ asking his help as we try to live it out again. So do use the Lord’s Prayer as a guideline for your personal praying. Seek the Lord.

But then in chapter 2, verse 3, seek righteousness – i.e., carefully try to live right. Because that’s the only evidence that our seeking of the Lord is genuine. Because when we pray, ‘We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins,’ God knows we mean it only if he sees us – albeit imperfectly – resisting sin. And when we pray ‘Your will be done’, he knows we mean it only if he sees us – albeit imperfectly – doing it. That’s what John the Baptist said in our Gospel reading, isn’t it?

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Luke 3.8)

I.e., if it gets no further than our hearts and prayers, it’s not real.

But Zephaniah also says, chapter 2, verse 3, seek humility. Because we’ll never seek the Lord and seek righteousness perfectly, this side of heaven. So we’ll never be in a position to say proudly, ‘I can now face God’s judgement safely because I’m good enough.’ No, the message of Zephaniah and the rest of the Bible is, ‘You’re not good enough and can’t make yourself good enough. But you can be made ready, by turning to God and being forgiven and changed by God.’ And that forgiveness comes to us through Jesus’ death on the cross, as we’ll be remembering later with bread and wine.

So that’s readiness. Not good-enough-ness – which is impossible. But readiness – which, thanks to Jesus dying for us on the cross, is possible.

Third, REASONS (2.4-15)

Zephaniah now gives reasons for taking all this seriously. We can only overview the rest of the passage. So just look in your Bibles at the headings in italics. They’re not part of what God inspired; they’re put in by the translators. From chapter 2 verse 4 you’ll see it says in italics: ‘Against Philistia’ (that was the territory to the east of Jerusalem and Judah), then ‘Against Moab and Ammon’ (to the west), then over the page ‘Against Cush’ (the south) and ‘Against Assyria’ (to the north). So imagine a target. In the outer circle are: Philistia at 9 o’clock, Moab and Ammon at 3 o’clock, Cush down at 6 o’clock and Assyria up at 12 o’clock. And in the bull’s eye, the inner circle of the target, are God’s people. And in chapter 2, verses 4 to 15, God is saying, ‘I am about to act in judgement against those around you.’ And, e.g., in 605BC, God allowed the Assyrian empire to be overthrown by the Babylonians.

But now look back to chapter 2, verse 4. In this NIV translation it begins, ‘Gaza will be abandoned.’ But in the original it says, ‘For Gaza will be abandoned.’ And that word ‘For’ is the whole point of what Zephaniah says next. He’s just said, ‘Get ready for coming judgement.’ And now he says, ‘For [i.e., because] you’re going to see it coming on others – which is reason to believe that it’s really going to come on you, too.’

So, remember: they were saying, 'The LORD will do nothing... bad.' I.e., there are no serious consequences of ignoring him.’ But once they’d seen, e.g., judgement fall on Assyria, they wouldn’t be able to say that – at least they would be foolish to. And it would be reason to believe that judgement was really going to come on them, too. And it’s reason for us, too, because the fall of Assyria, the flood earlier and the exile later, are all judgements within history that give us reason to believe in coming judgement at the end of it. Now someone might say, ‘But there don’t seem to be any signs of God’s judgement right now.’ But the Bible says there are actually signs of God’s judgement all around us. Romans 1.18 says:

“The wrath [i.e., judgement] of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men...”

And Romans 1 goes on to describe society where God gives people over to a life of doing what they want. And it describes all the pain and shame of the sexual revolution; and of human life being held cheap as people are killed; and of the breakdown of relationship between parents and children; and so on. I.e., it describes the way our society is, and says: that is the judgement of God. You’re reading about it every day in the papers, you’re seeing it every day on the news, as God gives people over to living as they want. And the result is a foretaste of hell – albeit, thankfully, a tiny foretaste. Because hell will involve all the consequences of sin, but with none of the restraint or good things that are mixed in with it in this fallen life, thanks to God’s mercy on us fallen people.

So one reason for taking all this with absolute seriousness is that there are signs of coming judgement all around us. But the other reason is that there are indescribable blessings for those who do. You remember they were also saying, 'The LORD will do nothing... good.' I.e., there are no serious blessings at stake. But chapter 2, verses 4 to 15 also contain glimpses of great blessings, to be had beyond judgement – for those who are ready. E.g., look at chapter 2, verse 7. Speaking about the land of the Philistines, Zephaniah says:

“It will belong to the remnant of the house of Judah;
there they will find pasture.
In the evening they will lie down
in the houses of Ashkelon.
The LORD their God will care for them;
he will restore their fortunes.”

I.e., beyond judgement there lies blessing. That was true of the exile – beyond which lay the blessing of restoration. But it’s supremely true of Jesus’ second coming. Because beyond that lies the blessing of what the New Testament calls ‘a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’ (2 Peter 3.13). Zephaniah says more about that in chapter 3, as we’ll see. And it’s his other reason for taking all this with absolute seriousness. Because, contrary to those who said, ‘The LORD will do nothing... good,’ the Lord will do indescribable, eternal good for those who seek him in this life.

Let C.S. Lewis have the last word. This is from an essay on heaven called The Weight of Glory. He writes:

“We are told to deny ourselves... that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we will ultimately find if we do contains an appeal to desire. And if there lurks in... modern minds the notion that to desire our own good... is a bad thing, I submit that this notion... is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward.... in the Gospel, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about [here] with drink and sex and ambition [and so on] when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Zephaniah would say ‘far too complacent’ – not really believing that God is a jealous God, worthy of all our love; not really believing in his judgement; not really believing in his blessings to those who seek him – rewards in this life and then indescribable rewards beyond it. And Zephaniah calls on us to believe these things afresh, so that we seek the Lord now, and are ready to meet him whenever he comes.

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