Our God has power AND expectations


Sermon for November 15th, 2020


Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and I will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

“The Lord will not do good,

nor will he do harm.”

The prophet Zephaniah makes a startling claim in the scriptures this morning. Zephaniah is talking about “The Day of the Lord.” The day of the Lord is the day when we see God’s power. The day of the Lord is the day when God is victorious. It is a day to be longed for, and it is a day to be feared, because the day of the Lord will bring with it truth and consequences. When Christians talk about the day of the Lord, we are usually talking about Jesus’s second coming or judgement day, the last day, the final battle,  or as Paul says: “the day of the Lord which will come as the thief in the night,” but the prophets were talking about that future day of the Lord before Jesus came. 

The prophet Zephaniah is talking about that future day of judgement when we see God face to face, when God reveals who he really is and when God reveals who we really are, and Zephaniah says something really shocking:

He says: At that time God will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and He will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

“The Lord will not do good,

nor will he do harm.”

God is going to search out his Holy City, and who is God looking for? Is God looking for the people that sincerely tried and failed? No. Is God looking for people that made honest mistakes about what was right and wrong? No. Who is God looking for? God is looking for the people that just don’t care. The complacent. Those who are satisfied with the dregs. 

Do you know what the dregs are? The dregs are the bit that is left over when all the good stuff is gone. The dregs are that last bit of coffee that sits there cold in the cup; the dregs are that last bit of wine in the bottle that is all sediment. That is what the dregs are. Some people think that we should eat the best and give to God the rest. Because what difference does it make? Does God really care what we do? Think about what it means to say that “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” What does it mean to say that? What is so offensive about that that would make God want to turn Jerusalem upside down just to set some people straight?

 Well, If you say “the Lord will do no good, nor will he do harm” you are essentially saying that you think God is neutral. To say that, is to say that God is just this impersonal force that shows no partiality to right or wrong; that right and wrong don’t really exist. And if you say that, then you are basically saying that it doesn’t matter matter what we do in this world, because God doesn’t care and isn’t going to do anything about it. Those are the people, Zephaniah says, that God is looking for. Even if they don’t say it out loud, but in their hearts believe that God doesn’t care, well, they are going to be in for a rude awakening. God is going to show the world that he is NOT neutral.

You know, historically, throughout time, there have been two very popular ways that humans have thought about God or the Gods or the higher power in the universe: 

Some people have talked about the Gods as if they were just like human beings. Think about the Greeks or the Romans or the Hindu gods or pagan Gods. These Gods behave just like human beings; maybe they have more power, but their emotions and passions and behaviors are largely the same. The Greek gods were petty and vain and abusive and manipulative. Their actions do not reflect any greater morality or ideas about right and wrong. These Gods were just about appeasing desires. 

Other people have talked about God as if God was just this neutral, disinterested force. This is often the God of the philosophers. This God is an impersonal higher power that creates, but doesn’t really care. This God is immovable and unknowable. This God is a force without a face. There have always been people in the world that thought about God this way; it isn’t a modern innovation.

But these two ways of looking at God, despite their historic popularity, are not the way that the Jews looked at God. For the Jewish people, God is neither of these things. God isn’t just a more powerful human being, nor is God some impersonal, immovable force. The God of the Jews is an all-powerful God of righteousness. For the Jews, the creator of the universe is also the author of the moral law. Their God is not just a force, but a judge. Right and wrong fundamentally exist in this God’s world. So does truth. This God has more than power, this God has expectations. 

Do you want to know what kind of God you worship…ask yourself this question: does God expect something of me? Does God expect something of me? Does it matter what I do with what God has given me? Because if you don’t think it matters, if you think God is indifferent, then I’m not sure we are worshipping the same God. Because the God of the Hebrews and the God of Jesus is anything but indifferent. Think about Jesus’s story today. The master entrusts each of his slaves with some of his property, some of them try to make something of it, to varying degrees of success, and one does nothing. The master isn’t mad that the slave with one talent didn’t do as well as the slave with five; that’s not an issue he did what he could with what he had…but the slave that didn’t even try…that’s another story. Now this slave tries to make excuses saying that he thought the master was harsh and unforgiving. Nonsense! That is a lie and the master knows it, and the master calls him out for it. If he really thought that he would have tried even harder. No, that’s not what that slave really thought at all. He thought that it didn’t really matter what he did with what the master gave him, so he just couldn’t be bothered. The problem is not that he tried and failed…he didn’t try at all.

Certainly, as Christians, we believe that our God is forgiving and merciful, but being forgiving is NOT the same thing as being neutral. Mercy is not the same thing as indifference. The prophets and our Lord remind us that our God has power AND expectations.