Sermon Ideas For Zephaniah 3:14-20 Part 6
The United States enjoys at the far end of the twentieth century an historically unprecedented prosperity. To reach American ears, the prophecies of Zephaniah must travel to us from "the other side of history." That is, the bad side of history, where warfare and ruin exiles a people in distant lands where they live as those who have no home.
Certainly there is homelessness in America. The social and economic dislocation of the 1930s produced America's most vivid impression of homelessness. Of this misery Woody Guthrie has memorably sung in the following biography of one luckless man: I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore.
I ain't got no home, I'm just a-ramblin' round I'm just a wandin' worker, I roam from town to town.... And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.1 Associated with the experience of homelessness is the experience of shame.
Shakespeare's' Rape of Lucrece, written in 1594, contains a study of guilt and shame. The narrative poem is about a Roman lady of outstanding virtue and beauty who is raped by Sextus, son of the king. A theme of this poem is the paradox of shame. Shame does not rest on the victim but rebounds upon the perpetrator. It is the contradiction of a puddle which pollutes an ocean:
"`Thou art,' quoth she, `a sea, a sovereign king; And, Lo! There falls into they boundless flood Black lust, dishonour, shame, misgoverning, Who seek to stain the ocean of thy blood. If all these petty ills shall change thy good, Thy sea within a puddle's womb is hearsed, And not the puddle in the sea dispersed.'"2
The more this shame is covered up, the more it rules the person in whose behavior it has been hidden:
Shame folded up in blind concealing night, When most unseen, then most doth tyrannize.
Zephaniah declares that God will save God's people and will: "...change their shame into praise..."
The third section of Dante's Divine Comedy contains his experience of an ascent through the various spheres or levels of paradise. In canto nine of Paradise, Dante is in the sphere of Venus. Here he finds a paradise of love. In this realm of heaven, Dante encounters Cunizza, who, while alive had been the sister of a murderous villain. Cunizza had achieved notoriety through her love affairs. But, when Dante finds her, she is here, purified of impure love in contemplation of God's perfect love.
To Dante, Cunizza "brightens without," shining with the vision of God which floods her soul. Another person in this heaven is described as "a fine ruby on which the sun is shining," and Rahab, the harlot who aids the exodus community in Joshua, is described as one who "sparkles like a sunbeam in clear water."3
Here, in the paradise of love, human desire has been purified. Impure loves and obsessions are cleansed and transformed. Dante, witnessing the splendors revealed here is told that in this heaven, guilt is not remembered. Rather, what is remembered in heaven is not the guilt but the power of God which has transformed the guilt into praise. Because the impurities infecting human love are of many kinds, the splendors of this realm of heaven are many hued, providing evidence of God's many-colored grace. As explained to Dante by a citizen of paradise:
"Yet here we do not repent; nay, we smile, not for our fault, which does not come back to mind, but for the Power which ordained and foresaw. Here we contemplate the art that makes beautiful the great result, and discern the good for which the world above wheels about the world below."4
Heaven is a place where the original sites of shame and guilt shine with the radiance of God's many-colored-grace. The sin is not remembered. What remains is contemplation of the grace that removed the sin.
Zephaniah speaks to a people who dwell on the bad side of history. It is a side of history that many, living in our present prosperity, must view as if from a great distance. The message that comes to us from this distance is a saving one. God will break the hold of shame and guilt. Ultimately, in this providence, what will shine will not be the shame but the grace by which such shame is changed to praise.
1. Woody Guthrie, I Ain't Got No Home in the World Anymore. 2. William Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece. 3. Dante: The Divine Comedy 3: Paradiso, Translation by John D. Sinclair (Oxford Univer sity Press, New York), p. 137. 4. Dante, Paradiso, p. 137.