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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:What the Street Corner Prophet Said
Text:Zephaniah 2:1-3 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:End Times
 
Preached:2016
Added:2016-06-05
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 91:1,5                                                                                            

Ps 1:1,2,3

Reading – Zephaniah 1; Matthew 5:1-12

Ps 75:1,2,3,4

Sermon – Zephaniah 2:1-3

Ps 61:1,2,3

Hy 15:1,2,3

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, you may have come across a modern-day prophet. In the midst of downtown crowds rushing on their way to the shops or the office, you may have seen a solitary man, holding a cardboard sign: THE END IS NEAR. Such self-described prophets are on a mission. They feel that it’s their duty to sound the alarm, to warn their fellow citizens. They won’t be able to keep up forever their buying and selling, their playing and partying. Because it’s all going to come to an end. This prophet wants them to know that soon they’ll be held accountable for what they’ve done, whether good or evil.

Well, today we’re going to listen to a real prophet—not self-appointed, but one appointed by God. As a mouthpiece for God Almighty, this prophet calls urgently for the LORD’s people to be ready, to repent, and to do so before the end comes.

The prophet’s name is Zephaniah. He ministered a long time ago, around 600 years before Christ. He was actually an interesting choice for a prophet, because he was a member of the royal family. The first verse of the book tells us that he was a fourth-generation descendant of Hezekiah, who was one of the notable kings of Judah (1:1). But though he had high earthly standing, God gives Zephaniah a humbling message. The LORD calls him to stand on a street corner, and shout it loud and clear: The end is near!

And it’s a message that still resounds, one to listen to still. For the LORD tells us that his day of judgment is approaching, that now is the time to repent—now is the time to find our refuge in Christ, as the one and only Saviour. Let’s then listen to the words of the prophet in Zephaniah 2:1-3,

With God’s judgment near, Zephaniah calls for repentance:

  1. a call to gather together
  2. a call to seek the LORD
  3. a call to find shelter

 

1) it’s a call to gather together: God knows how to get his people’s attention. That’s what He does with the opening sentence of our text: “Gather yourselves together, yes gather together, O undesirable nation” (v 1). It’s dramatic, but also unusual. If you were going to warn someone who was headed toward mortal danger, what would you say? “Watch out!” perhaps. Or better: “Return to God! Come back to him!” But Zephaniah begins by calling, “Gather yourselves. Get together!” Seems strange: what’s the point of it?

The original Hebrew gives a helpful clue. The word that he uses comes from the world of farming, familiar territory for the people of Israel. It’s a word that usually describes the gathering together of straw. After the harvesters have gone through a grain field, cutting off the tops of the plants and bundling them together to be winnowed, what’s left everywhere is scattered straw. This straw or stubble can’t be left on the fields, so it’ll be raked up into piles—gathered together and then hauled away. So one translation even puts our text this way, “O people, bunch yourselves together like straw.”

It’s obvious that God is not out to flatter his people with compliments. He’s already called them an “undesirable nation” (v 1). Now He says that they’re like stubble in the field, straw scattered here and there. These are a lowly people.

That’s in fact how God continues in the next verse, words we’ll look at a bit later: “Gather together… before the decree is issued, or the day passes like chaff” (v 2). The chaff of wheat, of course, are the husks and shells of the precious kernels. The chaff is the light and worthless material that gets blown away in the breeze, like leaves off the autumn trees. The people have to understand that in their sin, they can’t stand before God. In the LORD’s judgment, those who don’t repent of sins cannot go on forever.

So why these harsh words? How can God call his chosen people an “undesirable nation?” Instead of being a stately palm tree, thriving in God’s temple courts, how have they become like lowly stubble, left behind in the field?

For the answer, let’s consider the timing of this prophecy. Zephaniah 1:1 told us that the prophet ministered “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.” You remember that Josiah was a good king. Recall it was later during his reign that the book of the law was found in some caretaker’s closet at the temple. This law of God became the stimulus for a period of reform, when the temple was repaired and the Passover restored.

But the very fact that God’s law had been misplaced—that it’d been entirely forgotten!—tells us something disturbing. When Zephaniah goes to his spot on the street corner, God’s people had basically withdrawn from the LORD. They had become too wrapped up in their sins, and they’d gone on their way apart from the Word.

For instance, think of who Josiah’s grandfather was: Manasseh. You can read the painful description of Manasseh’s reign in 2 Kings 21. Manasseh built high places. He erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole. He bowed down to the stars of heaven, even worshiped them in God’s temple. He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced sorcery and divination. And as the king went, so went the people—straight into sin.

This is why, early in young Josiah’s reign, there was little reason to expect anything different. Things had been bad—they would only get worse. For if God’s people will sin without changing course, the LORD is sure to show his anger. Not surprisingly, the main issue that God has with his people is their false worship. In Zephaniah 1:4-5, God threatens, “I will cut off every trace of Baal from this place, the names of the idolatrous priests with the pagan priests—those who worship the host of heaven on the housetops.”

When the prophet comes to them with his message, this was a shameful nation, covered with guilt. Yes, they should’ve been distressed, but they weren’t. They should’ve repented in sackcloth and ashes—but they didn’t. God’s people needed a blaring wake-up call, they needed a red light alarm on the dashboard. They needed God’s Word to call them back.

Beloved, that’s how it always is: we need confronting with the Word. Even when we think that we know the Bible, the LORD wants us to hear it, and the LORD wants us to read it. For example, every Sunday again we hear his law—and we need that. Every Sunday in the preaching, we get reminded of who our glorious God is, and what He calls us to do. For aren’t we a forgetful people? Aren’t we a distractible people, easily side-tracked? We get caught up in everything else around us. We get mesmerized by our daily busyness, lost in our cares, hypnotized by our bad habits—and soon we stop hearing the message.

Put a couple temptations in front of us, and we’re ready to give up things like the pursuit of holiness. Just a couple days into our week, and we’ve forgotten to be steadfast in prayer. Or to show thankfulness to God in all things. Or to speak about Christ with our neighbour. So Sunday and every day, how good it is to have the Scriptures before us! God is letting us hear the Word that we so badly need: the reminders, the promises—and yes, also the warnings.

“Gather yourselves together, yes gather together, O undesirable nation.” The people of Judah might’ve been like straw, ready to be burned up, but God gives them a chance. God gives them fair warning. If they would pull themselves together and listen to the Word, there is hope for surviving his judgment.

It’s striking to see in our text how God’s people must repent together. This is something that we have to do as one! We probably don’t always see the value of repenting together. We wonder: “How is someone else’s sin my business?” Every human has a self-centred streak, but even as Christians, we’re not often that worried about how others are walking with God: “I’m just concerned about my own faith, my own conduct!” Isn’t that the question that we ask a hundred times per day? “How am I doing?” It’s hard to have much space for others, let alone to help carry the burden of their sins. And we certainly hesitate to admit our weaknesses to each other, lest we be seen as weak.

Yet God reminds us of the blessing of communion: “Gather together” He says, “so that together you can repent.” This is because in Zephaniah’s time, idolatry was widespread: afflicting the entire nation, from the greatest citizen to the least, from the king on his throne to the young girl drawing water at the well.

And still today, sin affects all of us; it attacks the young and old, the male and female; Satan threatens God’s flock, and also the shepherds of God’s flock. Don’t many of us struggle with the very same sins and temptations? The very same anxieties? How many of us neglect our Christian duty in the same areas of life? We sin as neighbours in our community, as fathers and mothers in our homes, as members of the church. Your sins aren’t that unique.

“So gather together,” God says to a sinful people, “so you can repent together.” And when God assembles his church like this, what’s the first thing that He desires? He desires our worship. If we’ve truly repented, then that is shown by a diligence in coming here for worship. Then we can hear the message of God’s forgiveness of Christ, the message that bind us as one.

“Gather together,” for in communion we’ll be able to mature in our faith. Think of what James writes, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other, so that you may be healed” (5:16). When God’s people faithfully assemble in worship, and when we gather in fellowship, we learn that others have the same struggles. And we learn that we have the same Saviour. We can speak about this together. We can point each other back to the promises and commands in the Word of God. Then together, we can pray for his mercy and help. And together, we can seek him.

 

2) it’s a call to seek the LORD: When God calls his people to change direction, He leaves no doubt about the way to follow. He punches in the destination, and makes the road home very clear, “Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth… Seek righteousness, seek humility” (v 3). It’s hard to miss the word to underline there: “Seek,” the LORD says. “Seek me, and seek what is right.”

We’ve said that God’s people were running off in all directions, and they were looking anywhere but up. They were seeking hope in false gods, they were seeking security in empty things, they were seeking no one but themselves. Of course, it’s often when trouble comes that God’s people seek real answers. It’s when the things that we counted on disappoint us that we finally look for reliable help. And God is always gracious to the slow of heart. With judgment getting closer, God points to the needed refuge: “Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth.”

“Seek the LORD.” This is one of the simplest ways that Scripture describes our communion with God, yet at the same time it’s one of the richest, the most profound. Seek the LORD! Search him out. Draw near to him.

A key point for understanding this is that any seeking is an intentional activity. It takes an effort. For example, it seems that children are quick to yell out, “Mom, I can’t find my gym shoes. Mom, where’s my school agenda?” And then the question always comes: “Did you look?” Because seeking anything has to be deliberate. Those boots and that diary won’t just appear magically in front of you. So too, in seeking the LORD: it takes an effort! This is what God says in Jeremiah 29, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (v 13). If we will be near to God—and if we will stay near—that means we have to approach God. It won’t happen automatically. Half-hearted seeking after God means you simply will not find him.

Let’s connect this “seeking” to our repentance, since that’s what this passage is all about. Especially in our guilt for sin, in the trouble we’ve got ourselves into, our calling is to seek the LORD. We might want to run from God in our shame. We may want to ignore him because we don’t feel worthy. But it’s especially then that we have to seek his life-preserving mercy. And for the sake of Christ, God promises that those who seek him will find him. Though He had every reason to, God didn’t leave Judah in the darkness of their shame, but He gives them a way out. He doesn’t abandon us in our guilt, either.

Recall again what Jeremiah says: In repentance, we have to seek God with all our heart. Repentance is much more than saying, “I’ve done wrong, and I’m sorry.” Repentance is also more than feeling embarrassed. That’s too easy—almost anyone can feel guilty. But when we repent from our sins, we have to acknowledge our lowliness before God. This is where it begins: casting yourself fully on the mercy of God.

This is why Zephaniah says “the meek of the earth” must seek the LORD. Literally he says, “the poor of the land” seek him. “Poor” is such a good way to describe those who depend entirely on God. We don’t want to be poor, but we need to be: when we see that we’re stuck in deep spiritual poverty; that without God, we have nothing; that we’re only dry stubble on the ground. Only in that awareness can you expect God to show his mercy.

We find these words of Zephaniah echoed by our Saviour in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matt 5:5-8). That’s the character of all true children of God, in every time and place. This is every true disciple of Christ: they are poor in spirit, filled with a hunger and thirst for God, and they seek him as God! It’s then that his blessing comes.

“Seek the LORD, you… who have upheld justice” (2:3). Here is one more feature of true repentance. It’s call replacement—true repentance means replacing our sin and wickedness with something better. For Judah, this meant smashing the idols, tearing down the altars, and then starting to uphold justice in the land.

For us, repentance means smashing our idols, tearing down whatever stands between us and God. Destroy your sin, then build something new. Stop going to those parties, and find new friends if you have to. Stop watching things online all day, and devote yourself to his Word. Put a different kind of speaking into your mouth, a different kind of thinking into your mind. The prophet sums up with a final call, “Seek righteousness, seek humility” (2:3). Instead of letting yourself be drawn to evil, seek what is right. Instead of turning to the ways of human pride, seek the path of true lowliness before God.

Another street corner prophet from a few decades before Zephaniah, put it so well. God’s word through Amos was not much different, it was still about seeking. God said in Amos 5:4, “Seek me and live” (5:4). That remains true today: If you turn any other way, you’ll die. If you follow a path that’s right to you but not to God, you’ll only meet destruction. Hold onto worldly things, and you will end up empty-handed. But seek God in Christ, and live. Seek God, and receive the blessings of his grace. Seek God, and you’ll have shelter for the last day.

 

3) it’s a call to find shelter: Looming in the background of everything we’ve said this morning is the reality of God’s judgment. Zephaniah’s prophecy is marked by this fearful prospect, from the very first words, “I will cut off man from the face of the land” (1:3). After announcing that theme, God gives specific oracles of judgment. First against Judah, but not only Judah; if you read on in chapter 2 in between services today, you will hear God bringing judgment against Philistia, against Moab and Ammon, against Cush, against Assyria. All peoples are God’s creation, so all will be held accountable. But God reserves the harshest words for his own people. From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected!

“Gather yourselves together… before the decree is issued” (2:1-2). If someone hadn’t been paying attention, he might ask, “What decree is going to be issued?” But just like that self-appointed prophet who warns that “The end is near,” no one has to ask what Zephaniah means. Everyone knows. Everyone knows that this world won’t remain forever, but that God will judge.

For God has appointed a time. That decreed day is coming, and it’ll “[pass] like chaff” (v 2). We mentioned that image before—an image of our frailty. The chaff is light and the chaff is worthless, carried off by the lightest breeze.Psalm 1 said that’s what the wicked are like, “like chaff that the wind blows away” (v 4). There’s no way they can last in God’s judgment. And hear how the prophet makes it very personal: he says that we all have to be ready, “before the LORD’s fierce anger comes upon you” (v 2). Don’t just look at the nations, and consider them the chaff to be burned. Don’t just look at your unbelieving neighbours, and think about how one day they’re going to get it. We’re good at doing that—we think of how God’s Word applies to other people: “Boy, are they in for a surprise!” No, the prophet says, “Repent, before the appointed time arrives…” “before the day of the LORD’s anger comes upon you” (v 2).

Because what will that day be like? Look back to 1:14-15, “The great day of the Lord is near; it is near and hastens quickly. The noise of the day of the Lord is bitter; there the mighty men shall cry out. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

That’s a troubling forecast. On the horizon there’s judgment; it’s like a quickly approaching thunderstorm in the heat of summer. But God isn’t trying to scare his people. He just wants us to know the truth. He wants us to know that there’s a day for justice. Because of who God is, He will definitely punish human sin.

That day came. It did for the people of Judah, when the Babylonians came, they saw, and they conquered. All of Judah’s wealth and all their gods couldn’t save them, because they had ignored that prophet on the street-corner. But Zephaniah’s message lives on. His words still fall onto the ears of God’s people. For we know that God’s not done with judging. From the Scripture we know that another day of wrath approaches. We know that it’s coming, and it’s soon. Jesus told us so!

Yet in wrath, God remembers mercy. That’s the last word in our text: “Seek the LORD… It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD’s anger” (v 3). Whenever there’s a great disaster approaching, what do people want to do? They want to hide! When people in mid-west America hear the tornado siren, they go down into the storm shelters. During an earthquake, children in Japan hide under their desks. In times of war, people flee to neighbouring countries. They’re all hiding, they’re trying to escape, seeking shelter.

Where do we hide? Where do you hide? The prophet says, “Seek the LORD… It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD’s anger” (v 3). If we seek the LORD and his Son as our Saviour, God will shelter us. If we rest in him, He will guard us, now and forever. As Paul once wrote, “Our lives are hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory!” (Col 3:3). We can hide in him.

When the end draws near, and judgment comes, in Christ alone our hearts have peace. Rest in him, for He’s a rock of refuge and a mighty fortress. So seek shelter in God today. Only if we have sought the LORD—and seek him with all your heart. Only if we’ve repented from our sins, and we have found our refuge in God, can we say: “The end is near? Good! Let it come. Because my life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2016, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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