Bill Carter on Zephaniah

Zephaniah spoke up for God during a time of national housecleaning. Israel had a decent king for once, a king by the name of Josiah, who was leading a national "Back to the Bible" reform. The king's Bible at the time was the book of Deuteronomy. By returning to Deuteronomy, the people were returning to God. There was a brief national emphasis on getting rid of the counterfeit gods — you know, the small "g" gods that everybody tends to worship.

It's all too easy for anybody to fall into that kind of idolatry. The God of Israel is frequently very quiet, and The Creator of the Universe is sufficiently enormous to remain out of sight. And in that supposed vacuum, other pretenders fill the gap. Or we turn to small little things or small little people from whom we expect great things. Josiah rediscovered the biblical book of Deuteronomy, a book about keeping God first, a book about loving God first before everything else.

On the surface, the prophet Zephaniah did his preaching during that time of reform. The first verse of the book was added later to date his work at that time.

But apparently, a lot of people weren't getting the memo. Because what Zephaniah actually says is that God is coming with fiery nostrils to snort and rage against the people. The very first thing God says is, "I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth!" And who can blame the Holy One of Israel? God's own people are worshiping their own pleasure, in the name of Baal, the pleasure god (1:4). They are weighing all their silver coins (1:11) and bowing down before the fake gods of money and affluence, and Zephaniah says, "Neither their silver nor gold will be able to save them" (1:18).

God says, "I have called them to live by justice, but they have ignored me" (3:2). The people live by the status quo as violence breaks out around them. They put up walls and think vainly that this will keep them safe. And to make matters worse, the so-called holy leaders take the Bible and use it as "a weapon to maim and kill souls" (3:4, The Message).

To sum up, it was a dark time in the national life. If there was any reform, it was not taking root. When you start reading the prophet Zephaniah, it is like, "Whoa! The Day of the Lord is right here. This murderous, indifferent people are going to be flushed down the sewer." It looks like gloom, doom, destruction and despair are riding closer on the horses of the Apocalypse. God is sending judgment on the people — and in a way, it was largely self-inflicted.

And then, just at that point, when the darkness is so heavy, we get the passage that we heard today. "Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Rejoice, my little girl Jerusalem! The Lord removes your judgment. The Strong King stands in the midst of you. You don't have to fear evil anymore."

Let me say something, then, about how the Bible talks, and specifically about how the prophet Zephaniah speaks. Here is a prophet who brings the honest word of God. There is no tinsel on his description of how corrupt are the people, no glitter as we describes our broken lives. As God speaks through the Bible's prophets, God never softens any words about how messed up the human family was, is. and always shall be. Because of this divine honesty, the prophets, as God's press agents, often took the brunt of human response.

But just after God speaks, and the moment of recognition comes when the people say, "Yep, that's what we are," God will then often interrupt that dark moment by saying, "Rejoice, little girl. The Warrior God will bring calm with his love. God will rejoice over you with singing." That's called "the good news." Hebrew scholars call this the salvation announcement." This is the shout of God's light in the thickest human darkness. And it is intended to shape us differently, to remake us into different people.

- Bill Carter, A Shout in the Dark, a sermon in response to the Newtown massacre, 12/16/12, published in A Good Word, an e-book edited by Landon Whitsitt, 2012, pp. 34-36.