Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20
I imagine, if any of you were like me, your initial reaction when you heard about the events in Connecticut on Friday was not, “Sing aloud…shout…Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” My reaction was much more in line with an earlier verse from Zephaniah’s prophecy. In 1:15, he said this: “A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Yes, that is much more like it.
When I heard there was another mass shooting to add to the stats of 2012, then that the shooting was at a school, then that the school was an elementary school, and then that the toll was borne the heaviest in a Kindergarten class, my thoughts turned to my own children. My oldest will be a Kindergartener next year. I thought of some from our church and the many like them of that very same age in our own community.
Very quickly, my thoughts turned to the trappings of the season that we are in. I started thinking about Christmas trees and stockings, wish lists, family pictures, travel plans, plane tickets, and so many other things that will go unused and unopened. One reporter talked about family members coming to terms with things that were expected but now will never be: a first communion, an angel in a Christmas pageant, a cell phone reminder about Cub Scouts, a first goal in a soccer game.
These are not my children. I know no one who lives in Connecticut. And still the emotions are overwhelming. As one of my friends posted on a social media site on the Internet: “My emotions are oscillating between heartache and anger. This kind of violence is senseless.”
Over the course of church history, an order of service has arisen to see the church through the calendar year. It is marked by high seasons and what is called ordinary time. Readings were selected from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament to carry the church through its worship each week. Eventually, a set of these readings spanning a course of three years came to be generally accepted. Many churches use these readings, called the lectionary, to guide their worship services.
We don’t follow the lectionary here, but I occasionally use it to bridge gaps between sermon series or during particular seasons of the year, like Christmas. So I had looked to the lectionary for this week’s sermon. Reading through the various texts given for this week a couple of weeks ago, the passage from Zephaniah 3:14-20 struck me as the text to preach from for this week. By this past Monday, I had settled on the title for today’s sermon from that passage: Why He Came Down.
By Friday night, I was thinking that I needed to change the text for our message this morning. Perhaps the Lord’s Prayer or the text about Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents in that we read earlier might better match the events of the week. But the truth is, this passage of celebration and glory and excitement and promise at the end of Zephaniah is right. Even the title of the message is just what we need to hear this morning, in the midst of the news cycle that is inundating us this weekend.
The truth is that the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, left His throne in heaven, gave up the trappings of godhood as Philippians 2 tells us, accepted frail and dying human flesh as His own, made it an integral part of what it is to be God, lived as one of us for this very reason: that on December 14, 2012, at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, evil personified would wreak havoc and kill 20 innocent children and six adults. On the very same day, on the other side of the world, a man with a knife slashed his way through 22 children and an adult at another school, with victims as young as six years old. And on the very same day, a desperate despot by the name of Bashar Assad would continue a reign of terror over the citizens of Syria.
This is why God came down. For even from the very best of us, as Genesis 6 says, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Indeed, all we have to offer are the filthiest of rags.
I posted on Facebook that I did not want to know the identity or background of the perpetrator of Friday’s massacre. I did not want to know his name. I did not want to remember more about him than I would ever know about the others who were just trying to get through another normal day on the way to Christmas. I said I wanted the murderer’s story and history expunged and completely forgotten.
You see, even the thoughts of this pastor are only evil continually.
The truth is, we are, all of us, each and every one of us, just as wicked, broken, evil, lost, wounded, and overcome by sin as Adam Lanza or James Holmes or Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold. Our destination is the same as the one that we want their destination to be. As Paul says of himself to the Romans, “I am made out of flesh, sold into sin’s power. … For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it. … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body?”
This was Paul’s story, and this is our story. This is who we all are. We are wretched. We are lost. And we are utterly without hope. Except for what hope exists in this God, our God, the only God, whose portrait Zephaniah captures so well at the end of his prophecy.
Zephaniah, like many of the prophets, is a judgment. He prophesied during the reign of Josiah, the last good king of Judah, at the end of the 700s BC. It was during Josiah’s reign that the law of God was rediscovered in a scroll in the Temple. And it was Josiah who sought to undertake reforms and restore proper worship. And it was three of Josiah’s sons who were to be the last of Judah’s kings prior to the Babylonian Exile.
During Josiah’s reign, Zephaniah prophesied a harsh judgment that would encompass not just Judah, but the whole earth – sweeping away even the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. He described a frightening day of the Lord. Verse 1:15 that I quoted from at the beginning of this sermon describes the Day of the LORD as a day of wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, devastation, darkness, and gloom.
But after all of the judgment against Judah, Judah’s enemies, and the world itself, comes the ending promise of hope and restoration and glory. The world’s speech becomes “pure speech” in 3:9. Everyone calls upon and serves the Lord, even those from “beyond the rivers of Cush” in modern Egypt and Sudan. Verse 13 says that, “they shall do no injustice and speak no lies … and none shall make them afraid.”
But the question is all of this is why? Why would God redeem such a fickle and godless people as Judah? Why would He come down for people like Adam Lanza? Why would he come down for someone as wretched as me?
Zephaniah says, “The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst.” He goes on, “The LORD your God is in your midst … I will gather those … gather the outcast … I will bring you in.” After Adam and Eve ate that fruit, they hid themselves because God came for His walk in the cool of the day. When God created each of the parts of the world, He looked at them in turn and said, “This is good.” But when he created people, who are in his own image, he said, “This is VERY good.”
God loves us. He WANTS to be with us. And we can do nothing to change that. For all of the things that my two kids do that frustrate and anger me, I still want to be with them at the end of the day. I still want to hug them and make sure they know that I love them. That I will always love them. That I am the most privileged man in the world because I get to be their Daddy. And I want to be their Daddy. This is God. He wants to be with us. He wants to be in our midst. He wants to be wanted and to be known and to be loved, because He wants us, He knows us, and He loves us. God came down because He wants to be with us, broken and in disarray as we are.
Zephaniah also says that God will save us, that He will take away the judgments against us and clear way our enemies. He will make it so we will never again fear evil. He will make sure that we no longer suffer reproach, are oppressed, lame, or outcast. In short, God comes down to deliver us from everything that we need to be delivered from. And there is much to deliver us from. All that there is that is wrong in the world, all that destroys, all that causes fear and anxiety, all that creates hardship – God delivers us from all of it. God comes down to be with us. And God comes down to deliver us.
Zephaniah says that God will “bring us in” and “gather us.” At the end of Genesis 3, God casts mankind out of the Garden into the wilderness of the wide world. The entire rest of Scripture is about God bringing us home. God wants to bring us home. All of us.
How many of you think of the holidays as a time to be with family? How many of you long to have your tables full of every member of your family? How many of those heartbroken, grief-stricken parents want nothing more than to bring their little children home one more time? That is God. He wants to bring us home, to gather us together into one loud, joy-filled place where He can be God the Father and Brother and we can be His people and family and we can all be together. For this, too, God had to come down.
I love verse 17. Listen to it: “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” All of the other things Zephaniah says about God can be summed up by this verse, which declares with great passion this truth: God loves us. Broken we may be, it does not matter. God loves us. Consumed by grief as we are, it does not matter. God loves us. Angry as we are even when it is directed at God, it does not matter. God loves us. Idolaters we may be, it does not matter. God loves us.
His love is passionate and unreasonable. Often it is unrequited. It does not matter. He loves us. Often, we abuse it and take it for granted. It does not matter. He loves us. Often, we ignore it or even pretend and imagine that it is not true that God loves us. It does not matter. God loves us. We are His creation that He carefully knitted us together in our mother’s wombs. We are desired and greatly treasured. God came down, because He loves us with a love we cannot begin to understand.
God came down because when he looks at the world, he always sees what we were reminded of so clearly on Friday. He sees a dark, sin-stained, evil-consumed world with no hope of anything but grief upon grief. And He loves us too much to leave us there. So He came down. He came down to be with us, to deliver us, to bring us home, and to show us – leaving no room for any doubt – that He loves us.
As we all grapple with a world gone awry, as we all have to live with the uncertainty of what today and tomorrow might bring, as we all celebrate this Christmas season, shattered as it may be for us, let’s remember that God came down. And He came down for you. He came down for me.
O, come, O come, Emmanuel, God with us. May we welcome You as You come with arms open wide.