Preached by Rev. George Yando on November 19, 2017.
Zephaniah 1: 7, 12-18
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
Many if not most of you will know that it has been customary here at St. Andrew’s to follow the Revised Common Lectionary when it comes to choosing Scripture readings for Sunday worship. Again, many if not most of you will have noticed that I didn’t include a Gospel reading this morning. That’s because you have read it – or heard it read quite recently, last Sunday in fact. It was the Gospel lesson chosen by our Stewardship Committee for the theme “Legacy Giving” that was their focus in the service last week.
You’ll recall it was Jesus’ well-known story of the man who leaves on a journey and entrusts the disposition of some of his wealth to his slaves. He gives each of them an amount, we were told, “to each according to his ability.” As he does this, the master clearly expects more of some than others. After a long time passes and he returns, he finds that both the most trusted slave and the one with just an average amount of financial prowess had done their duty and produced a return on the master’s investment. On the other hand, the one with the lowest level of responsibility failed for lack of trying. The master’s response was not a pat on the head and an assurance that the slave could do better next time. In verse 30 he says, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Now this would probably be a far less disturbing story if it did not end with the bit about “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Yet this is not just any story or illustration. Jesus claims in the beginning of chapter 25 that he is describing what the kingdom of heaven is like. God’s kingdom demands responsible action from its citizens, and according to Jesus, inaction results in exclusion.
We all know the escape clause that we invent to accompany Jesus’ story. It goes something like this: “I see that the master punished the slave for whom he had the lowest expectations, probably based on past performance. I’m not that guy. I do things for God . . . occasionally. So, the bad ending of this story doesn’t apply to me.” Unfortunately, our familiarity with this passage of Scripture can lead to missing some aspects of its powerful message. So, to help us hear God speaking more clearly through this familiar and challenging text, I ask that you turn with me now to what is most likely an unfamiliar and challenging text: Zephaniah chapter 1, verse 7 and then verses12-18.
Zephaniah was a prophet who came in the time of Amos, was likely a contemporary of Amos, one who likely spoke while Josiah was king, briefly. Josiah came to the throne of Judah after a series of bad kings, bad leadership experiences. As a country they were under tremendous pressure from the growth of the Assyrian empire to the east. They looked to the east and saw Assyria growing and knew that they were probably in line to be conquered.
Consequently, it was felt in the best interests of the country to cultivate relationships with Assyria. And so they embraced Assyria, politically; religiously they came under the influence of Assyrian religion and as a result, Jewish faith and religion became “tainted” with Assyrian elements of worship, the worship of idols. The one God, Yahweh, was replaced by the whole pantheon or array of Assyrian gods.
The One True God became one of many. Worship of the stars and the burning of incense to them became a commonplace activity, one in which entire families participated.
Israel was looking to its economic and political interests, trying to find ways within its own resources to strengthen those ties and so perhaps to stave off assimilation by Assyria, to stave off invasion and subjugation. But in the process, Zephaniah says, their religion had become corrupted, tainted. They had developed a kind of complacency about their relationship with God. No longer believing that God could save them from being overwhelmed by the Assyrians, believing instead that they needed to look to their own resources. And if that meant allowing outside influences to temper or change the character and quality of their religious life then so be it.
Zephaniah takes straight aim at this measure of what he calls complacency, a complacency that says “God will do neither good nor ill for us.” God has become irrelevant, God no longer matters. And in the absence of that confidence that God is in control of life, the people had begun to look to their own resources to safeguard their interests. In the passage that we read the prophet is speaking to the people of Israel, to those who have been less than ethical in their business dealings, who have been less than faithful in their religious dealings, who have looked to their own resources in their political dealings.
Zephaniah uses an image from winemaking to communicate that “believing in God” but not interacting with him in day-to-day life is as absurd as not straining out the yeast that ferments grape juice once it has died. Swallowing the sludge of sediment at the bottom of a glass of impure wine prompts the kind of stomach-turning revulsion that God has toward this very common lifestyle of apathy.
What kind of person was this practical atheist, or if you prefer, “apatheist?” According to verse 13, a prototypical ancient apatheist was a person who invested himself or herself in the accumulation of wealth for the construction of houses and vineyards. Now, the Bible doesn’t deride the wise use of money, or living in a house, or even owning a vineyard. However, in the midst of all this industrious activity, this apatheist could not care less about God. God will do nothing: no good, no harm. Whatever.
To them the prophet says, “The time is at hand, folks. God is God. And whether or not it is clear to you, God is in charge. Whether or not it is apparent in the present scheme of things as we see political events unfold, God’s will is unfolding in the world. And God will have His day. God will have His way in the lives of those who have been less than faithful.
Zephaniah doesn’t mince words. This is one of the most powerful and damning pieces of prophetic word we find the whole of the Old Testament. It resonates with the images painted by Amos, the image of God coming like a reaper who will sweep down the weeds and wheat together and sift them all out on the winnowing floor, burning the weeds and gathering the wheat in. It is an image we find coming across into the New Testament when Jesus speaks of the end times. God is God and God will have His way. Therefore, the prophet is speaking against complacency, against a rejection of God’s sovereignty in the world and in the live of those who hitherto have been faithful. God is sovereign, which means God is in charge.
How did that shake out then, for the people to whom Zephaniah spoke? Zephaniah was calling for a return to faithfulness, to worship of the one true God. He was calling for an acknowledgement that God would have God’s way in their lives and that ethics would govern their business dealings. The people would no longer look to their own resources as a way of safeguarding their own security and their peace, but that God would be acknowledged as the God under whose charge the events of history would unfold, the God whose way would become clear and whose way would be accomplished, in spite of whatever might happen in the short term.
Zephaniah was calling for a return to the true worship of the one God who has control over all of life. Sovereignty means God’s in charge. Sovereignty means that God’s will is being accomplished whether or not it is clear to God’s people.
The image of complacency perhaps is an apt one when we turn to the New Testament passage we read this morning, this portion from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Paul was taking here about encouraging people to “walk their talk” to live the life of faith in the face of pressures to do otherwise. Paul draws us an image, contrasting the children of the light and the sons of darkness. He says, “You are not of the darkness; you are called to be the people of light.” Paul is speaking, I think, in his own way, against complacency, against the kind of disregard that says, “God doesn’t matter; God will do neither good nor bad in our lives. God has become irrelevant.”
We face that pressure in our world, don’t we? We face in our world a majority of our population for whom God has become irrelevant. And there is a certain kind of incongruence even in the behaviour of those who do acknowledge that God is God, that God is one, and it is to that incongruence that Paul speaks. He says that if you are children of light and not of darkness, then let your deeds speak. It is to this disconnect, this incongruence between our words, our statements of faith and our actions that Paul speaks.
He says that if you’re going to be children of the light then live and walk as children of the light and not as those who dwell in darkness. Not as those who accept what he calls “drunken behaviour,” as those who sleep. And “sleep” shares the same root in Hebrew as the word in Zephaniah for what he referred to as “complacency.” “Do not be like those who have fallen asleep, who have lost their sense of the need to be alert for the presence and the coming of God. Because whether or not it is clear to you, children of the light, whether or not it is clear to those who are children of darkness, God is God; God is sovereign; God is having God’s way in our world. And there will be a reckoning.” Consequently, he says, “Be not like those who have fallen asleep, those who have become complacent, those who have taken the view that God has become irrelevant.”
If asked, most of us would say, “Well, no, we don’t believe that at all. We believe that God is the Lord of the universe. Our faith statements claim that God is Lord of our lives.” Paul would encourage us, then, against complacency, against sleeping as those who are in the dark, against those who live incongruently, those who actions do not reflect their beliefs and their statements. Paul says that if you are to be children of light, then live as those who walk in the light.
Now if that sounds as harsh as the word that Zephaniah proclaimed to the folk of his day, take heart. Paul wasn’t an ogre, the complete zealot that many would like to think him to be. I would draw your attention to the words I shared with the children when Paul encouraged us to encourage one another and to build each other up. Because he reminds us in v. 10 that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” Paul is recognising that even though we have claimed God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, the transformation, if you will, from those who walk in the darkness to those who walk in the light is not yet complete.
Paul is acknowledging here the incongruence in our lives, that although we talk the language of faith, the walk doesn’t always reflect the talk. And to in light of that incongruence, Paul says we need to aspire to live the life of those who walk in the light. Paul is saying that Christ died for us, regardless of whether we are awake or asleep, whether we are those who live in the light, or as those who still dwell in darkness. Paul says that in spite of our incongruence, Jesus Christ died for us, and therefore, there is a need to encourage one another and to build on another up just as in fact you are doing.
Paul reminds us of the need encourage one another, to recognise – in the words of John Savage, a wise teacher of mine – that each of us as children of God is radically gifted and radically flawed. Think about it. As human beings, as children of God, we are radically gifted and radically flawed. To acknowledge the sovereignty of God in our lives is to accept what God is doing in our lives, that God has chosen to work with who and what we are, and is accomplishing God’s purposes, often in spite of us. God accepts us as we are, radically gifted and radically flawed and is accomplishing His purposes just the same, calling us to live as those who walk in the light, but recognising that we haven’t completely forsaken the darkness.
Paul’s challenge to encourage one another doesn’t mean to beat up on one another, to be hard on one another when we have been less than the perfect children of light we are called to be. Paul challenges us to encourage one another and to build one another up; to work on those things which we are doing well, those areas where we have our gifts, our strengths, and to recognise that God is not yet done with us, either. The sovereignty of God means simply God’s lordship over the whole of creation, which includes God’s lordship in each of our lives. God is continuing His transforming work in each of us.
I remember a song I heard years ago that came from some Vacation Bible School material we used in a church, a song called “Kids Under Construction.” It tells how God hasn’t finished us yet, that we are all children under construction, called to be those who walk in the light but as those who have not completely forsaken the darkness. If we recognise and accept one another as God has recognised and accepted us, namely as those who are radically gifted and radically flawed and loved just the same, then we encourage one another and build one another us, even as God encourages and challenges us.
Sovereignty means God’s in charge. God is having God’s way in our world, and in our lives. The task of the church is to share that word with the world, the word that “Yes, the day of the Lord is at hand and is coming, but more importantly, that God is God, that God will have God’s way with the world and with each of us.
The call then is to be those who walk in the light, not in the darkness and to recognise that God isn’t finished either with the creation or with each of us. And because sovereignty means that God is in charge, the challenge is for each of us to examine our lives and discover those areas where we have not yet fully given God sovereignty.
Are there areas of your life where God does not yet have complete charge, where God’s purposes and the unfolding of God’s kingdom are not at the top of your personal agenda? Sure there are. But God is in charge, for that is what sovereignty means. God will have God’s way. Our calling then is to encourage one another, to build one another up that God’s purposes might be accomplished in those who are faithful. May it be so in your life and mine and ours together as the family of God in this place. Amen.