The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/10/96
Text: Zeph. 3 (Heb. 12:1-11)

A little boy was sitting at the table in the kitchen looking gloomy and sour: he had just been punished. Suddenly, he asked his mother, "God can do anything He wants, can't He?" To which the mother replied, "Of course." Then the boy asked rhetorically "God doesn't have any parents, does He?"

Have you ever felt that way? Probably. At some time or another, we have all felt terribly hemmed in and beaten down by our supposedly loving parents.

For those of us who have had children of our own and are concerned that they "turn out right," there is another feeling - we have loved them enough to sometimes get tough with them. We know that a child allowed to run wild is a child allowed to run amok, and we do not want that to happen. There are certain things that we insist be going to school and taking baths and eating spite of the fact that our kids might not want to do those things and in spite of the fact that they might think that we do not love them because we do not just let them do what they want and when they want to do it.

Sometimes we will even punish them to teach them that there is something that MUST be corrected. There are things that we do concerning our kids that are done because we DO love them despite the fact that they might see things from an exactly opposite perspective. Give it a name if you like; call it TOUGH LOVE, a phrase that we set from the international organization of parents who try desperately to free their children from drugs.

Now move that TOUGH LOVE concept up a step. Think of it in terms of the relationship God has with us...Heavenly Father and children. To be sure, God loves us and has proven it over and over. God is FAR more patient with us than our earthly parents; God gives us a much longer rope; God allows us much greater freedom. But if that were all there were to God's love, it would not be love at all. Because if God REALLY cares about us, if God really LOVES us, God would no more allow us to run completely wild than any good earthly parent would. As both Old and New Testament attest, "the Lord disciplines those whom he loves." ( Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6). TOUGH LOVE!

If you would like to see a brief summary of how God's tough love is worked out in human history, consider the words of the prophet from whom we read a moment ago: Zephaniah. The three chapters in the little book which bears his name provide a quick synopsis of much of what is wrong with this world, an affirmation that the wrong will not be allowed to continue indefinitely, and a picture of the love and care of a Heavenly Father who REALLY wants the children to turn out RIGHT.

See how the prophet presents what he has to say. The book of Zephaniah has been handed down to us as a series of brief oracles. He begins with a denunciation of the heathen practices that have become rampant in Judah. He blames not only the people but their leaders especially for what has happened, and he makes it plain that God is about to act to correct the situation. Then he issues a call to repentance saving "Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; PERHAPS you may be hidden (or "sheltered") on the day of the Lord's wrath"(2:3). Zephaniah then looks outward, beyond his nation's borders to the peoples that live round about them...the Philistines, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the people of the Upper Nile and the Assyrians. The prophet affirms that God is the God of the whole world, not just one small group. He lets those neighbors know that, not only are the Jews to be punished for their sins, but all the peoples of the earth will come under judgment for what THEY have done. Then Zephaniah returns his attention to the holy city, Jerusalem, points out her sins...disobedience, stupidity, unbelief... complains that she does not care whether those sins continue or not despite all the warnings, and then says that destruction is imminent. Harsh words.

The specifics. Idolatry! The people of Judah had been under the influence of the most powerful nation on earth for over 100 years...Assyria. With the leadership and encouragement of their king, the evil Manasseh, the people had begun to include the Assyrian gods in their worship practices: the Baals, the gods who supposedly controlled fertility: or Molech, to whom human child sacrifices were offered in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem; or the moon and stars in the heavens. All these had been joined to the worship of Yahweh as a way of saying to the Assyrians that the Jews should be dealt with kindly; after all, "How could we make trouble for you? We worship your gods."

Modern parallels? Not hard to find. Zephaniah's complaint was not so much that the people had stopped worshiping the Lord; they just worshiped others as well. They COMPROMISED their faith. We find the same thing today: people do not come out and blatantly reject the God they have always known: they just worship other things too...things like money and pleasure and power. Oh, they do not mind worshiping God when it is convenient, if there is nothing else to do or no place else to go. But they do not let the worship of God make any trouble for the lifestyle they have decided to follow. Sounds very familiar, doesn't it?

What is even more familiar is the reasoning behind it all. The prophet described it as coming from those "who say in their hearts, 'the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.'" (1:12b). The Lord will do NOTHING, so eat drink and be merry - there are no consequences. That kind of thinking is the result of God's patience with us, the amount of rope God gives us, and the freedom God allows us...FAR MORE patience and rope and freedom than we could ever expect from any other source (much less any parent). Because God apparently lets people get away with SO MUCH, they begin to think that they can act in any way they want with no danger of ever being called to account. But there is the rub: the message of God's Word, from beginning to end, is that an accounting WILL take place, and those who fall short will pay.

See what else Zephaniah has to say: along with idolatry, he condemns disobedience. Now, it would seem that the two would go hand in glove because the very first of the Ten Commandments is "You shall have no other gods before me." Idolatry, by definition being the worship of something that appears to be a god, disobeys that command. But there was more disobedience than that: the codes of law that ruled Zephaniah's people called for attention to social justice - caring for the helpless and needy as an integral part of any true worship relationship. Another man who was addressing the same people during the same time, Jeremiah, went on at great length about that issue: "Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal and so after other soda you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house which bears my name and say 'We are safe!" - only to go on doing all these abominations?" (Jer. 7:9,10). For all the prophets, idolatry was bad enough, but when what little worship that went on STOPPED at the temple door, it compounded the felony.

Again, there is not much difficulty in seeing a parallel with our own time. Far too often, genuine worship, the kind of the worship that makes a conscious effort at sharing the presence of God with a lost and hungry world, just never seems to make it past the church steps. The benevolence giving of so many churches for missions proves that there is only little care for the physical or spiritual feeding of those outside their own communities. But even worse, the care and concern we should show for those who are in need of physical and spiritual help right around us just never seems to happen. We do not help physically because that would involve a sacrifice of time or money; and we do not help spiritually because we are not really convinced that the world NEEDS the salvation that only Jesus Christ can bring. What too many Christians have...both physical and looked upon as precious treasure that must not be shared with anyone. The prophets would have gagged!

Another problem that Zephaniah pointed out to his nation was their stupidity. He let them know that they were under condemnation for refusing to accept correction. He and Jeremiah and even King Josiah had let them know what their God expected of them but they refused to give anything but the most casual attention. Sure, they went along with some of the liturgical reforms that had been instituted by the king...but they had no choice; after all, he was the KING! The details made no difference to them; this sort of reform had happened before, but it would pass as soon as Josiah did. The shame of it was that they were right. But in Zephaniah's view, that did not make them any less stupid. Their sins had been pointed out to them over and over again, but they refused to change their ways. For that refusal, they were under the condemnation of God and would eventually have to pay the price.

Not much different today. Over and over, the prophets of God have warned this nation that we have strayed. Our idolatry of money and pleasure and power has been pointed out to us, but the warnings are ignored. Our national debates in this political year are inordinately focused on the lengths to which we can go in ignoring the needs of the disadvantaged among us. But the scary fact is this - if God is the fair and just God that we claim, God will have no choice but to judge us by the same standards used for other superpowers through the centuries, those that are now just footnotes in history, yet we continue on without a blink. Zephaniah would say that is nothing short of stupid.

But of all the problems the prophet was called upon to condemn, the most basic was unbelief. The only reason the people felt they could afford to worship other gods, the only reason they had no compunction to make worship a part of their lives, the only reason they felt no need to accept any correction was that THEY DID NOT BELIEVE GOD COULD OR WOULD DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT! It was the attitude that came into perfect focus with the statement, "The Lord will not do good nor will he do harm"... nothing. (1:12b)

To Zephaniah, it was clear that what a person or a nation believes about God will largely determine their conduct. If God is seen as a kindly old grandfather in the sky who will simply wink at things done wrong, then there is no reason for anyone to make any change. If God is seen as impotent in the face of the all the other gods that can be worshiped, there is no reason to make any change. If God is seen as not being there at all, there is certainly no reason for anyone to make any change. But Zephaniah knew that none of these pictures was accurate, and so he was called to preach what he knew to be the truth. There WILL come a day...

The sad fact is that those ideas about God...the grandfather god, the impotent god, the nonexistent god...are shared by millions of people today. And that is precisely why we face many of the problems we do. If people REALLY believed that someday they would have to answer for worshiping things they should not, do you think they would continue to do it? If people really believed that God cares VERY MUCH about our caring for those in need among us, would we still have the social problems we have today? If people really believed that God is just and fair, would they take the chances they do about incurring divine anger for their own INjustice and Unfairness? Of course not! And that all adds up to the sin of UNBELIEF.

To be sure, Zephaniah was hard with his condemnation of the sins he saw all around him. He was led by the Spirit of God to announce the judgment that would soon come, the Day of the Lord...the DIES IRAE, DIES ILLA - Day of Wrath and Day of Mourning - one of the most famous of the medieval hymns which was written based on this prophecy. The picture of a God of justice, most certainly, but hardly the picture of a God of love. But that was not all.

Fortunately, Zephaniah had more to say than just words of condemnation; he had a message of consolation too...a message for the remnant who would be faithful in following the leading of their Lord. It was a message of love...TOUGH love, but love nonetheless. Yes, there does come a time of correction, because loving parents know that such times are necessary. But that is followed by a time of restoration, because parents who TRULY love, look forward to that more than anything.

Zephaniah is often overlooked in the prophetic writings. His poetry is only average; he can sound a bit strident. But to overlook him is to miss one of the most poignant and appealing images of God presented in all of scripture. In the last few verses of his book, Zephaniah shows that God loves us with the tenderness of a MOTHER. That's right, God as a loving MOM. He does not come right out and call God our Heavenly Mother, but the picture is there. Listen again to what he says: 3:13, "They will pasture (or eat) and lie down and no one shall make them afraid." It sounds like those times when Momma would come into our darkened bedroom to comfort us in the midst of the thunder and lightning that had terrified us and awakened us from our sleep. Or 3:17, "[God] will rejoice over you with gladness; He will renew you (or "quiet" you) with his love; He will exult over you with...singing." Who sings to kids? Moms, mostly...and there is a comfort in her voice that is beyond comprehension. Or 3:18, "I will remove disaster from you." Who was the one whose arms could be counted upon to enfold us when we were sad? Who made her apron available for the drying of our childish tears?" Mom. Or 3:20, "At that time I will bring you home...I will make you renowned ("honored") and praised..." Mom is the one who searched the neighborhood to call us home. And Mom is the one who gave the inordinate praise for every little accomplishment. Zephaniah has given us a most precious picture of the love of God. TOUGH LOVE...but love nonetheless.

That love became evident in a special way some 600 years after Zephaniah's time. It came in the form of a little child, born in the most humble surroundings, raised in a carpenter's home in the little desert town of Nazareth, who taught of a coming kingdom where justice and righteousness would prevail, and who was crucified for his efforts. Jesus died that we might live. And that is the toughest love of all.


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