Summary: The prophet Zephaniah points us to the meaning of spiritual renewal

Today I want to begin with a question. How long has it been since you have felt God nudging you to follow him more closely? Some of you may have committed your life to Christ many years ago and you haven’t thought much about it since. Others may be struggling right now with the question of how to respond to God because, whether young or old, you know that he is speaking to you about making a change in your life. David Young says in his book, “Renewal is responding to divine nudging and leading.” (David Young, Springs of Living Water, 31) Is God nudging you toward a closer walk with him?

Springs Renewal

Many of you are aware that this congregation, has been participating in a spiritual renewal process called Springs of Living Water. The idea is that God is interested, not just in renewing one person here and another one there, but whole congregations, and there are steps we can take to discover where God is leading us.

That process has included the appointment of a renewal team, special Bible readings which many of you have followed, focused prayer, Sunday messages about spiritual disciplines, and meetings to talk about the strengths with which God has blessed this congregation. Our prayer is that these activities are drawing all of us closer to God and that God is nudging all of us to pray for renewal in the church.

Welsh Revival

From time to time throughout history the Christian church has been jolted out of complacency into spiritual revival, sometimes because of a traumatic event, sometimes because someone recognized the voice and leading of God.

One such revival started back in 1904, on the other side of the Atlantic. A young Welshman named Evan Roberts had been praying for 13 years for the Holy Spirit to control his life. He often awoke at 1:00 a.m. and prayed until 5:00 a.m. That was the beginning of the Welsh revival because God also used him to speak to others.

By all accounts, that revival drastically changed churches, homes, and even mines. According to the London Times, coal miners wrote out Bible verses and fastened them on the doors of the mine underground.

Profanity stopped. The horses in the coal mines became confused when the miners stopped kicking and cursing at them. Employers noticed a great improvement in the work produced by their employees. The Times observed that "The whole population had been suddenly stirred by a common impulse. Even football matches were postponed...quarrels between trade-union workmen and non-unionists had been made up. Many hardened sinners were converted.” (

That revival spread throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland. And revival is still the prayer of many people in our churches even today.

Josiah’s Renewal

The Old Testament prophet Zephaniah was one of God’s instruments in bringing renewal to God’s people back in the 7th century B.C. Remember that the land of Israel was divided into two parts: the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. By 722 B.C. the Northern Kingdom had been occupied and overtaken by the armies of Assyria. Only the Southern Kingdom was left standing. Zephaniah’s message said that unless these people in the south repented and returned to God, the day was coming when they too would be lost. Just because they had survived Assyria’s attacks on the North didn’t mean they would be exempt from God’s judgment. Unfortunately, by 586 B.C. they also were wiped off the map.

Just before that happened, one person who took Zephaniah’s warning to heart was the king of Judah whose name was Josiah. He became king at the tender age of 8, but we read in II Kings 22 that he did what was right in the sight of the Lord. He instituted reforms and called people back to obedience to God’s law. In II Kings 23, we read this summary of his life, “There was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, soul and might.” Wouldn’t you like to have that kind of an epitaph written about you?

What was it about Zephaniah’s message that nudged this king toward spiritual revival? Today and next Sunday we want to focus on Zephaniah’s message not just for the Jews living in and around Jerusalem, but also for the church today.

Zephaniah’s Message. I invite you to keep your Bibles open because we are going to examine some of the language Zephaniah used in his message.

A few moments ago, when your heard the first seven verses from Chapter 1, you may have been startled by the harsh words of judgment you heard. These verses picture God as a Cosmic Housecleaner, sweeping away the dirt and filth of a sinful world. Verse 2 says, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” says the Lord. “The humans, the animals, the birds, the fish.” So much has gone wrong in God’s creation. The sinfulness of humans has dragged down the whole creation. That is not the kind of world God desires, so he is determined to rid the world of its evil. But, as we know, this word of judgment is not the last word, because this warning serves as the prelude to an invitation for God’s people to be spiritually renewed. He may be speaking to you this morning.

When we read stark language in the Bible like this, it is easy to kind of slide over it, as though it doesn’t apply to us, but we shouldn’t hurry past it too quickly, because it might be more relevant than we think.

Why do you think God is so upset? Zephaniah records three reasons in vv. 4-6.

1. First, he says that these people were worshiping other gods instead of the true God. Remember that after God delivered the Israelites from Egypt and they traveled as far as Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the 10 commandments, they promised not to worship other gods just as the first commandment says. “You shall have no other gods before me.” We may not think there are other gods in competition with the God of the universe. But how many people do you know who consult tarot cards or the horoscope as though their future depended on them? That is a kind of idolatry. Or how many people allow the stock market to control their lives? Or the latest fashion? Or what about the messages that show up on your cell phones? Do they control your life? Some of you have a hard time shutting them off even when you know your attention should be focused on worshiping Almighty God. Many people today submit the direction of their lives to all kinds of other forces, rather than to God. Do you think God is any less displeased today than he was then?

2. Second, Verse 5 says they were confused. They bowed down to the Lord on the one hand and gave allegiance to foreign gods on the other. That happens today as well. Jesus is not just one more great teacher. You can’t equate Jesus with Buddah or Allah or some other god. There is a lot of confusion in our world today. Some people say they are spiritual, but not Christian. Some say they like Jesus, but not the church, and some talk about a churchless Christianity. But, let’s not forget that Christ loved the church. He loved it so much he died for it. There are some who say that what you worship doesn’t really matter because all roads lead to heaven. But that is not what the Bible says. As Peter said in Acts 4;12, when he was talking about Jesus, “There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” God wanted the confusion about God to stop then; He wants it to stop now. So let’s be clear about the object of our worship.

3. Verse 6 targets those who are just plainly indifferent to God. These are people for whom the story of the Bible no longer seems important. They don’t think about God; they don’t show up to worship Him. And it no longer matters to them if they pray to Him. They have watered down his commands, and their first love has become no love at all. In short, they have backslidden. Verse 12 says that these people were saying that “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” In other words, God no longer matters. He no longer governs the world. It is like the man who told his pastor, “Sure, I believe in God, but I don’t believe he does anything.” Is God present in our world or not? People who don’t know have made themselves their own gods. So God allows them to experience the result of their sin. And that is why Zephaniah pronounces these words of judgment. In v. 7 he says that the day of the Lord is at hand.

The Day of the Lord

The Day of the Lord is an important expression in the Old Testament. Since Zephaniah mentions it over 20 times, let me explain where it comes from, because, as you can tell, The Day of the Lord is not be a pleasant day.

Early in the history of Israel, when God’s people were moving into the promised land, they won battles which by all calculations they should not have won. Remember when Joshua fit the battle of Jericho? Why do you think that happened? Because Joshua was such a great army general? No. Because Israel had such a great army? Hardly. The Bible makes clear that God was the Divine Warrior; he won the battles for them. Sometimes he fought their battles with thunder, falling stones, earthquakes, or panic. They knew that they had not done it themselves. God had won the battle for them. And they began to refer to those events as the Day of the Lord because He defeated their enemies.

However, when the Israelites began to turn away from God, the prophets turned that expression into a warning. They said that God would turn the warfare He had used against their enemies against them, to punish them for their sin. How terrible that the Lord of Heaven who used to fight for them would now fight against them and see them as the enemy. So the expression the Day of the Lord took on an ominous meaning.

In Zephaniah, we see the warning in 1:7 that the Day of the Lord is at hand.

In 1:9 on that day judgment will come against those who hurt the underprivileged through deceit and violence.

In 1:10, that cry from the Fish Gate is a yelp of pain from the business class. It will not be business as usual on the Day of the Lord. Do you doubt that God is trying to get our attention during this economic depression? The reformer, John Calvin, said that God is “no idle spectator, who only observes what takes place in our world.” God Himself is active in what happens.

In 1:15, we see that the Day of the Lord is a day of darkness and gloom.

In 1:18 we see that the wealth people have will not save them on that day.

When I was a youngster, one of the hymns I remember singing in church summed up the meaning of this day. It was titled “The Day of Wrath, that Dreadful Day.” God wants to clear away all the filth and disobedience and sin so that he can renew his people.

How can we escape? So, what are we to do? How can we be renewed so we can escape that dreadful day? And for the answer we turn to Chapter 2, where we see the words in v. 3 “Seek the Lord.” Seeking the Lord is what renewal is all about, isn’t it?

First, Zephaniah says to gather together in Vs. 1,2. The importance of gathering together as God’s people should never be underestimated. Again and again the Bible calls us to meet together. The prophet is calling the people to assemble to pray and fast and seek God’s help. I have never figured out why, if we say we depend on God, prayer meetings are so poorly attended. I have said more than once that if people knew everything that pastors and church leaders know about the spiritual battles going on around them, people would pack out prayer meetings to plead with God for forgiveness, to ask for guidance, to pray for healing. Spiritual renewal comes not just from meeting God in your closet, but in gathering with God’s people.

Last week we experienced signs that God is at work convicting people about the Day of the Lord. A man with a family called us out of the blue and said, “Pray for us. We need to get back to church.”

And at our family event last Wednesday evening, when we gathered out here on the island in front of the church, we were blessed to hear the testimony of the way God is working in a young man’s life. I want to urge all of you who are physically able to join us this Wednesday, whether you like ice cream or not. Gathering with God’s people is an important step toward renewal.

Second, the prophet says, Seek the Lord. In other words, turn to him. Depend on him. Pay attention to him. Prov. 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge Him and he will direct your paths,” is a verse that is familiar to many of you. It is not only a nice motto, it holds the secret to spiritual renewal.

So what happens when we turn to the Lord? Let me read Zeph. 2:3. Here are three results:

1. Seeking the Lord leads to humility and to the awareness that in him we live and move and have our being. We are not our own, as Paul says in the New Testament, for we were bought with a price.

2. Seeking the Lord leads to obedience, that is, following his commands. That happens when we give up running our own lives and when we give up running away from God.

3. Seeking the Lord leads to righteousness. As we learned from our study of Galatians, it is not following a bunch of rules that gives us a relationship with God. Righteousness comes by faith, by trusting in God for life and guidance.

This is the path to spiritual renewal.

Conclusion. As some of you know, sometimes surgery almost hurts worse than the condition it fixes. It may seem that way with God’s judgment as well. But God’s ultimate goal in judgment and in sweeping away evil is to transform his people so he can live in them and they can become his instruments.

Unfortunately, even though people in the Southern Kingdom heard God’s words through Zephaniah, they did not listen. The question is, will you?

(Resource: Elizabeth Achtemeier, Interpretation)