GLOOM AND DOOM REPORTIf there ever was a prophet of doom and gloom, it was Zephaniah. His name in Hebrew actually means “The Lord will hide.” He prophesied in Judah in the reign of the good king Josiah, a time of reform, a time of hope that things would get better. But Zephaniah did not share that hope. His message was unmitigated doom. “The Lord will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” he began, and his message goes downhill from there. To paraphrase a bumper sticker I’ve seen, “The Lord is coming and boy is he angry!” “You remember that good creation I made? It’s all going to be wiped away if you don’t straighten up and fly right!” The only hope he holds out for the humble of the land who obey God and seek righteousness is that perhaps they may be hidden on the day of the wrath of the Lord. “The Lord will hide.”
And then, suddenly and unaccountably, at the very end of his book, we come upon a song of rapturous joy. “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
The contrast is jarring, so jarring that some scholars feel that it couldn’t have been written by the same man who warned of doom and gloom only a few verses earlier. Perhaps it was written, they say, 100 years later, at the time after the exile when the captives returned from Babylon. A little balance was needed. But if you know the human psyche, your own, you know that Zephaniah himself could have written it. The sensitive spirit that can plumb the depths of despair can also, on another day, soar to the highest heights. Haven’t you found that true to your experience, that life is made up of both?
You can be down in the dumps one moment and then at the heights of ecstasy the next. It’s the human spirit. But whatever it is for Zephaniah, it is a study in joy. Israel sings to the Lord, and the Lord sings to Israel—a duet! Israel shouts and the Lord responds with loud singing. Israel exults and the Lord exults. There is an end to fear—that is said twice. An end of guilt—the Lord has taken away the judgments against you. The lame are going to be saved, the outcast will no longer be shamed; and I’m going to gather you up and bring you home! Sheer, unadulterated joy.
Why the joy? Zephaniah lets us in on the secret: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” The Lord might be hidden, but the Lord is in our midst. This same God, whom we have heard so much about, the God who seemed so remote and far away, the God whom no one had ever seen, the God who dwelt in light unapproachable...this God would be in our midst.
And when the news of the nearness of the Lord begins to unfold inside each of us, we begin to get the sense that there is no time to waste in dealing with the unfinished business of our lives. We begin to get the message that our lives count for something, that what we do for good or for ill is not insignificant. In theological language, we take part in the redemption of our time. For this is the one who, yes, comes to judge, but also comes with healing in his wings. When the Lord draws near, he intends to do us good, for the Lord loves us better than we love ourselves.
This is the One Whose heart breaks over all of our brokenness, who desires nothing more than to put us back together again. This Lord who is near stands in the midst of our quarreling—in the midst of our wars and violence and our love affair with weapons and our volleys of words, even, that are turned into weapons—and offers us a way out of such a spiral.
This is the One who laughs out loud when a new baby is born, or when for some other reason there is joy in our world. This is the One Who stands with us, too, when tragedy strikes. This is the One who is in your midst, Who watches expectantly through the night in the hospital room as the IV solution runs into the vein of someone who for us is the most important person on earth. This is the One who rejoices when we rejoice, who weeps when we weep, is in our midst.
A week ago I arrived here early one Tuesday morning in a bit of a funk, I guess you’d say. Sunday wasn’t bad, but I just felt that maybe I hadn’t made the connection between the scripture and the congregation. It’s an occupational hazard. It was a busy week ahead of me, a lot of things were on my mind. I was really concerned about our capital campaign, feeling down over the recent loss of my Dad, and generally miserable. And then on Sunday, April 22nd I was surprised by joy. In the midst of that glorious Plainfield area Children’s Choir Festival I heard a word of hope. All was right with the world because I knew we were doing some things right. God was present in the children right here in Crescent Avenue. At that point it mattered not how my sermon was that day, or what would happen tomorrow, or that I still had thank you cards that were unwritten and the bank account at a low ebb. And that day I was reminded that even the darker things could be borne, because I read to some of our grieving that week at a members funeral service: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Even on the final judgment day, God will not abandon us.
So Zephaniah, you ol’ prophet of doom and gloom, your mother named you better than she know. God hides. God hid God’s very self in the midst of this disturbing and perplexing time. Right in the midst of Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church. “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” Therefore, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem ... for I will bring you home ... and I will make you praised before all the peoples of the earth.”