Last Tuesday, as I began to prepare for this second message from Zephaniah, a prophet who lived some 2600 years ago, I was searching for a way to connect his words with our own experience, but I was not making progress. By mid-afternoon, I had stalled, so I got up from my desk to do something else.
Then, about 4:30, Sue and I decided to knock on a couple of doors close by where people had moved in recently.
As we approached the first place, we saw a piece of a bed frame, part of a cupboard, and miscellaneous items of junk randomly distributed near the front door, which was wide open. We stopped at the threshold, knocked and said, “Anybody home?” Peering into the darkness we saw three bored people sitting on the only piece of furniture in the room staring at a TV on the opposite wall that was spewing out some kind of drivel.
On one end of the couch sat an unkempt, pot-bellied guy, maybe 45 years old, wearing a pair of red running shorts. He had an incredibly blank look on his face and he never said a word during the few minutes we were there.
Propped up next to him was a tall, skinny, 19-20-year-old, scantily clad girl who said something about her baby that was evidently somewhere in the house. Her right arm was resting inappropriately on his misshapen belly.
And next to her was a young guy listening to something on a cell phone. When we announced who we were, he said that he goes to a church over on the other side of town and was leaving soon for some kind of reunion. The girl complained about her previous landlord who wouldn’t fix anything in the house. The pot-bellied man said nothing. Clearly, they were not interested in what we had to say, so we left.
At the other house, we saw a dilapidated pickup in the driveway that was loaded with dead branches. The porch floor was spongy, and the house was dark, but we could hear a fan running.
An energetic woman in her late 30s met us at the door. When we told her who we were, she said, “I have a church, but these two in here need one.” And she motioned for us to enter.
We stepped inside and there in that dark room with blinds pulled down, sat a man and a woman on the edge of a mattress, with two fans blowing hot air on them, pretty much oblivious to our presence. Our guide told us that they were drinking and it was probably not a good time to talk, so the three of us stepped outside again.
She told us that she goes to church every night because their church is having three weeks of revival services and the two people in the house need to go with her, but they don’t. She pointed out how messy they were as she pointed to the beer cans in the yard. We told her we could use those cans for something good, to help kids go to camp, and that we’d bring a bag over to collect them. “Maybe you’d better bring two,” she said. Before we left, we made a little circle on the porch and had prayer for her. When we got home, I grabbed two garbage bags and walked back.
For some reason, these two encounters did not do much to lift my spirits. The people in both of these houses, within a block of where we live, represented the lowest kind of material poverty and spiritual blindness we had seen for awhile. And we went to bed that night trying to deal with the sheer weight of knowing that our neighbors’ lives are so impoverished that they drink themselves silly or just sit there bored out of their skulls.
At about 3:00 a.m., I awoke to the noisy whistle of the north-bound freight, which always sounds like it is coming through our bedroom when the windows are open. The street light and the full moon combined to shine a light into our bedroom so bright that I could raise my hand and make interesting shadow effects on the wall, which I did only briefly. I couldn’t stop thinking about the two houses we had visited and the three people in each one. Then, suddenly, a thought hit me that brightened my soul.
In both houses, as depressing, deplorable and despicable as they were,
God had stationed someone to bring light into a dark place. What was it the young man had said in the first one? He had said he was leaving in a few minutes for an Emmaus walk reunion.
As some of you know, the Walk to Emmaus is a 3-day spiritual renewal program that gets its name from Luke 24, which tells the story of that first Easter afternoon when the risen Christ appeared to the two disciples who were walking together along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Jesus brought light into their darkness as he revealed who he was. The young man we talked to was connected with a community of faith and God had planted him inside that house as a witness. John 1 says that the light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it.
And in the other house there was this woman who had a faith and commitment strong enough to sustain her in the worst of circumstances day after day. She knew her job was to minister to these two alcoholics in the best way she could. And she knew they needed Jesus.
Then the thought hit me. Do the other two people in these houses have any idea that God has provided this gift for them? Do they understand that God is showing them how much he cares for them through the Godly presence of their friend? Do they realize that God himself is dwelling right there with them, in their squalor and their stupor?
My thoughts about this were going so fast that I couldn’t sleep anymore. By 4:00, Sue was awake as well, so we got up and I went back to work on this message.
There is a fascinating line of thought in Zephaniah 3 that I think was guiding my understanding of what I had seen. In Chapters 1 & 2, this prophet used harsh words to call the inhabitants of Jerusalem to spiritual renewal. They had become quite indifferent to God.
Chapter 3 begins with the words, “Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city!” and the chapter continues with the thought that even though God’s people in the city of Jerusalem had strayed from their relationship with Him, God had stayed right there with them, showing his love and concern for them in many ways. But they had refused to acknowledge his efforts on their behalf.
1. Verse 2 says that God had sent prophets to them, including Zephaniah, with instructions and warnings, but the people of Jerusalem did not listen. They were not willing to learn or to be corrected.
2. God provided his covenant promise of love and relationship, but they did not trust in him. They responded to His faithfulness with their unfaithfulness.
3. In Verse 5 we see that God was bringing the sun up each morning and granting them a new day without fail. He kept order in the natural world for their benefit, but they went on with their lives as though God didn’t exist.
4. And Verse 6 says that God, as their defender, had even destroyed the nations and enemies around them so they could experience safety and protection.
God had made all of these provisions for his people. As v. 7 says, God’s hope was that “Surely, the city will fear me, it will accept correction,” but the people in it failed to recognize the significance of his actions on their behalf.
God had been present with them, supporting them, providing for them the whole time, but they only turned their eyes the other direction. How could they do that? How could they be so blind?
Perhaps you also wonder how it is that in our day so many people around us are so insensitive to God’s presence and so deaf to his voice.
One writer (Elizabeth Achtemeier, Interpretation, p.84) says,
Our society is slowly being undermined these days by those who will not keep their covenants—those government officials who violate the public trust, those businessmen and laborers who do not make reliable goods or give honest return for the consumer’s money, those husbands or wives who consider their marriage a bond to be easily broken, those parents who turn over the responsibility for guiding their children to the TV set for hours on end, day after day.
Is it hopeless, we might ask.
But “wait,” God says in v.8 “Wait for me.” He wanted them to know that this was not the whole picture. Yes, the city of Jerusalem was a long ways from the city God wanted it to be, as are cities like Lima, Elida, Wapak, or wherever you live. God wasn’t finished. He could have exercised his prerogative and destroyed the whole lot of them and been done with it all. But he didn’t.
And here we are reminded once again that God’s word doesn’t end with judgment. God’s goal is not death, but life. He is God of the living, not God of the dead. He announces a new beginning. And that new beginning focuses on new people.
V. 9 says that God will reverse what happened in the story of the Tower of Babel, when the language of these proud and arrogant people became confused. Zephaniah says that God will change their speech to a pure speech with which they will “call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.”
God would call his people out from a confused world so they could worship him and live as his servants. And even though these people would come from all over, they would serve him together, shoulder to shoulder, which is what the expression “one accord” means.
And in Zeph. 3:12 & 13 we start to get a glimpse of what God expects his people to be in whatever city they are planted. Remember, He is talking about Jerusalem and, by extension, the church we are a part of. Look at the qualities of the people who will live there. And ask yourself, how do these qualities fit you?
1. People who are repentant, humble and lowly, dependent on God, not on themselves. They will live not as though they are self-sufficient, but as God-sufficient. As God’s people, we know that it is only by grace that we are saved. We don’t have much to offer on our own. In fact, as someone said recently, Jesus is really all we have going for us, and that should humble us.
2. People who are faithful, who keep their promises to God, to each other, and to their neighbors. They know what a covenant is and they keep it. These are people who “seek refuge in the name of the Lord.” They understand that when God makes a promise He keeps it. And they demonstrate their faithfulness in the same way.
3. People who reflect the character of God. God does no wrong and we take our cues from Him. Verse 3:13 says “they shall do no wrong and utter no lies.” Many people have mastered the art of deception, like the woman who gets a call from someone she doesn’t want to talk with and so she says, “I have a call on another line.” Or the man you invite to church who says “I’ll be there,” just to get you off his back. We know that God doesn’t lie and neither should we. God is forming people who reflect his character. He is changing people at the core. As II Cor. 5:17 says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”
So it is these people whom God has changed who will worship Him, who will serve him, who will make a qualitative difference in their world. Spiritual renewal is not just an exercise to make us feel good. It is God’s way of making us better servants. As we all know, it is not just the block around this church or just this spot on the map that needs to be changed. But God wants to demonstrate through us that he still loves people in our neighborhoods and in our cities. How do we do that? Here are some suggestions:
Pray for them. Several times Sue and I have asked people we meet if they know of anyone who is praying for them and sometimes their answer is no. Maybe you can be that person. You can pray for them privately or join in a neighborhood prayer walk.
Stand with them in their poverty, illness, or other calamity. Lots of people are going through tough times. You may not be able to solve their problem, but you can at least let them know that you are rooting for them.
Befriend them. There are a lot of lonely people around. Some of their relationships have gone south. For whatever reason, they may have lost their best friend, but you may not find that out until you meet them and talk with them.
Do something for them. Sweep their walks or scoop their snow. Pick up the garbage on their street. It’s not a lot of extra work to carry a plastic shopping bag to pick up cans and other stuff.
Yesterday I stopped in to see the young man I mentioned earlier. He said he enjoyed the reunion. He told me someone had befriended him a few years ago and he became a follower of Jesus. He has been clean for four years now, and in addition to becoming active in a local disaster organization, he is working with other groups to assist people who are in trouble.
Someday we will see the potential of God’s city, the new Jerusalem. And at that time we will be able to sing aloud and rejoice as Zephaniah says in v. 14. Until then, God dwells with us here and we dwell in the midst of those who need him.