Sermon Briefs : Zephaniah 3:14-20
I enjoy long walks with my children and telling them stories from the Bible. The story that touches me most meaningfully is the Exodus story, particularly as it is summarized in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy. Evidently, I tell this story often, for one day I heard my four-year-old daughter retell it to some new friends in a playground. Rachael had gathered four other little girls together and was seated in a circle on the ground. Approaching Rachael quietly from behind I heard: "I was a slave girl in Egypt and Pharaoh was so mean to me. But my God is bigger than Pharaoh, and God brought me home. I don't remember it because I was asleep in my daddy's arms."
It was the first time I had heard the Exodus story so clearly...God bringing God's people home. The deep emotion and joy in my daughter's telling of the Exodus story is dominant in this passage of Zephaniah. The joy of discovery that we have not been orphaned, the joy that we are not condemned, the joy of coming home to a new way of loving and living with one another. This note of joy of coming home is captured in an unpublished sermon by Pam King entitled: Coming Home at Christmas.1 King begins her sermon with a reflection from her father on the sorrow of war: "I've seen big strong strapping men cry like little babies—cry for their mothers, cry to go home. No matter how old they were, when they were dying they all wanted to go home."
King continues with a most creative examination of where home is. She notes that the irony of this text is that Israel was no longer in captivity, no longer way from their homeland. Yet home for Israel, and for us, is much larger than real estate, much richer. Home is that place emotionally and spiritually where we experience unconditional love and love unconditionally. Home is where our identity as someone, God's someone, is most awesomely and wonderfully realized.
The sermon draws to a close with a moving story of a young boy named Wallace Purling. Wally was nine years old and in the second grade when he really should have been in the fourth. Bigger and clumsier than the other kids, he was always helpful and well liked by adults and by children much younger than he. Wally wanted to be a shepherd in the school's annual Christmas pageant. But his teacher thought he could do a better job as the innkeeper. "After all," the teacher thought, "the innkeeper doesn't have too many lines and Wally's size makes his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful."
The night of the pageant no one was more caught up by its magic than Wallace Purling. The time came when Joseph appeared slowly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door set into the painted backdrop. Wally, the innkeeper, was there. "What do you want?" He bellowed, swinging the door open. "We seek lodging." Joseph replies. "Seek it elsewhere." Wally commanded. He spoke with gusto but couldn't look Joseph in the eye. "The inn is filled. There is no room for you." Joseph pleaded, "Please good innkeeper, this is my betrothed. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest." Now for the first time Wally's eyes rested on Mary. There was a slight pause. "No, be gone," the prompter hissed from backstage. "No, be gone." Wally mimicked disheartened. Slowly Joseph turned, taking Mary away. The innkeeper, however did not slam the door to the inn. Instead, Wally stood watching. His mouth was open. His brow creased with concern, his eye unmistakably filling with tears. Suddenly this Christmas pageant became different from all the others. "Don't go Joseph!" Wally's face broke into a smile. "You can have my room." That is the promise here in Zephaniah ...that we are not turned away but brought home by God's power and love.
In his sermon, There's a Great Day Coming,2 Bryant M. Kirkland observes that even in our terse secular age the message of the Book of Zephaniah creeps into our popular songs, although we do not recognize it. He offers for our reflection, "you better watch out, Santa Claus is coming to town. You better not pout; you better not shout, Santa Claus is coming to town." When you stop to think, says Kirkland, it is easy to recognize the deeper components of Zephaniah's advent prophecy in these lines. First, there is a coming—Santa Claus is coming to town—evidently with some significance. Second, there is a sense of causal consequence to behavior—you had better be good or else. Third, there is an implied promise of a reward and benefit. There, Kirkland shares, you have the deeper elements and message of Advent according to ancient Zephaniah; there is a foretold judgment factor working in daily life; there is an inescapable consequence or reward to be paid out; and there is a glorious promise of a coming or commitment on God's part to fulfill and restore life.
Kirkland develops his introduction by presenting the core question posed by Zephaniah, whether this is a moral universe with consequences to our thoughts and actions, and deliverance from our tragedies. He believes that is the fundamental question behind our personal struggles, our family lives, our children's endeavors, our commercial and our international conflicts. Is anyone keeping score, Kirkland asks on our behalf, or are we just playing catch?
God is keeping score, of course, and Zephaniah has sounded the warning note of God's inherent judgment on lives of injustice and indifference. But there is good news here as well. Zephaniah announces a corresponding movement by God to restore all humanity to peace and righteousness. "So our text," proclaims Kirkland, "mingles the clarion cornet notes of victory against the throbbing drum beats of judgment and consequences."
In his first movement beyond the sermon's introduction, Kirkland acknowledges the fact of judgment that undergirds human life. It is this fact, Kirkland goes on to say, that is the foundation which permits an understanding of the joy of personal salvation in Christ and the hope of God's renewal of God's people in the future. But more, it is the awareness of constant judgment and consequence to living that gives a healthy constraint to our whimsies and passions. We exercise discipline to our wild dreams and inner powers that seek to run away with us not only for the reward at the end; it is in just such discipline that we escape hurt now and embrace life. Kirkland observes that the Final Judgment Day is not the only day of judgment; it is one today also.
The second movement of this sermon announces the good news of a day of restoration. "The same God who honors justice and righteousness with consequential judgment also loves His created world enough to promise sending his only Son, our Savior, the Messiah, to redeem persons and cultures. The energy of a creating, sustaining God is also utilized to forgive and cleanse individual lives and whole generations." Kirkland believes that it is this promise of renewal and hope that gives meaning to our lives.
It is in the third and final movement that the richest treasures of this sermon are found. Claiming the voice of the congregation, Kirkland asks: "So what do you expect us to do, Reverend?" The first thing is to stop, think and repent. That means change directions, says Kirkland. "Repentance is a major change in life's course. It is a change that can be constantly corrected against a stiff opposing wind, or the subtle lateral pressure to drift or conform." Another Advent response to God that Kirkland identifies is to reconcile. This is more than conflict resolution, more costly and energy draining. It is usually the injured party who has to take the initiative. Kirkland observes that this is the time to stop arguing about theology and be reconciled to a son or daughter who has been afraid to come home over the years, or who may have been told "never to darken this door again." Of course, argues Kirkland, you have your principles of judgment, but you need the counterbalancing promise of forgiveness and renewal by God. If you want to experience God's forgiveness, you might try a sample of it by forgiving your loved ones or your enemies.
Kirkland concludes this sermon with one final Advent response: restore broken trust and relationships. When the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City celebrated a jubilee, it announced that it would accept the return of stolen silverware, dishes and treasures without penalty or retribution. Dozens of pieces of silver and dinnerware were returned—some anonymously—and others with names as people sought to rid themselves of hidden burdens that had grown heavier with the years. Kirkland shares that one could make a hundred applications of the example that now is a good time to release the burdens of the heart by repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. Underneath the jingle bells and ho-ho's of secular Santa Clauses with shiny cellulose beards, there is Zephaniah's warning of judgment and his glorious promise of Christmas yet to be, when the lion will lie down with the lamb in the peaceable Kingdom of God.
This sermon is preaching at its finest by one of the most brilliant craftsmen on the homiletical landscape. Here is the Bryant Kirkland that was for a number of years deeply appreciated as pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City, and continues today to stir the hearts of women and men with preaching that is both passionate, imaginative, and compelling.
A Wonderful Life3 is the title of a sermon on this text by Thomas W. Currie, III. Here Currie invites a fresh hearing of Zephaniah's message through the life of one man. A tall, rangy Texan, he was a son of German immigrants, that second great wave of settlers who came to Texas after the Civil War, did not move on but stayed, farmed and built up the land. His business was pecans, wholesale and retail. He was good at what he did, his business was profitable.
This sermon is the story of that man as he fell victim to multiple sclerosis. Currie observes that there would be times—weeks, months even—when his deterioration would appear to come to a standstill, but never did he improve, never did he regain lost ground. He was not going to get better. Yet, he was a man that brought laughter from children and gave moments of grace and joy to friends and family. He was a man of hope, the kind of hope promised in Zephaniah.
His hope was not wishful thinking, argues Currie. He entertained no thoughts that he would get better, that he would finally defeat this disease. No, proclaims Currie, what he was about was not wishing for what could never be, or even resigning himself to what he had lost, but hoping for more than he had ever known. "Hope began for him in the wheelchair, not apart from that reality but embedded in it. That was where it began. Every day. It began with the all too vivid reminder that he could not do for himself, that he could not stand up, that he could not make things right. It began daily in defeat. That is where faith and hope and love always begin. Every day. And that is how they become so powerful."
Currie shares that his was a life that thought once again that hope is so much easier to discern from a wheelchair than it is from atop the Empire State Building. "To be a person of faith is, in some sense, to have been defeated; it is to die, to have come to the cross and confessed that what we have wished for has only imprisoned us more deeply, that hope is exactly what we cannot give ourselves, yet is what we need to have any sort of life." "Behold," Zephaniah tells us, the gift of Christmas is not a wish but a promise that "I will save the lame and gather the outcast and change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home..." What happened to my friend, said Currie, was that he became a gift. On a foggy, gray December day he was buried. As the last words were said and the final prayer was offered, the sun's rays began to break through the clouds. Currie remembers turning to one of the young men standing next to him and saying, "It looks like it will be a beautiful day after all, doesn't it?"
And he looked back and smiled and said, "It is a beautiful day already," echoing the words spoken by the pecan farmer nearly every day of his life.
W. Douglas Hood, Jr.
1. This sermon was provided for my review by Pam King.
2. This sermon was written for my review by Bryant M. Kirkland.
3. Thomas W. Currie, III, A Wonderful Life, Journal for Preachers, ed. T. Erskine Clark (Decatur, Georgia: Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1995), pp. 10-13.