Monday, July 29, 2013

"Haggai: Starting Over" by Richard R. Crocker

Starting Over
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 28, 2013
Haggai 2:1-9

            When I first thought of doing this sermon series on the minor prophets, it was partly because I had never heard such a series. Now I know why. I have been able to muddle through Amos and Hosea, Zephaniah  and Micah, but now I have come to Haggai. I bet none of you have ever heard a sermon on Haggai. Me either. It’s a short book – only two chapters long, practically invisible as you thumb through the Bible. “What,” I thought, “can I make out of this?” But I quickly discovered that this short book was preserved in our scriptures for a reason. Despite its brevity, or perhaps because of its brevity, it has an important message, both for its time and for ours.

            This is a sermon for people who have experienced devastation. It is a sermon for people who have had to start over. There are many kinds of devastation, of course. Let me list only a few:

losing a loved one;
the ending of a friendship or marriage, particularly on bad terms;
a life-altering illness or injury, for you or a member  of your family;
unexpected unemployment;
facing up to an addiction;
the loss of your life savings in the stock market;
a house fire;
a tornado or hurricane that levels your home;
a flood that invades your home;
a war – particularly a war where you, or your loved ones, are combatants, or where your home land is invaded;
the theft or loss of something you have prized your whole life;
or, if you are in college –
the ending of a romantic relationship;
getting a D in organic chemistry;
not getting a fraternity or sorority bid that you wanted.

This is only a start – certainly not a complete list. I expect many of you have, at some time in your life, experienced devastation; perhaps some of you are in the midst of it now.

If so, Haggai is for you.

We left off last week with Micah, who prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah around 700 BC. Micah predicted the fall of Jerusalem, and, sure enough, in 586 BC, it happened. The Babylonians, the kingdom to the southeast of Judah, across the Jordan – modern Iraq, finally conquered the resistant Judeans, killing some its citizens, maiming others, and carrying the most prominent citizens into captivity in Babylon. The beloved temple, the center of worship, which many thought guaranteed the perpetual safety of Jerusalem, was totally destroyed – leveled. A remnant of Jews was left in Jerusalem, but they were poor, distraught, and bereft. Those taken into captivity were devastated as well. You remember, perhaps, that plaintiff psalm, recounting the grief and anger of exile: it’s psalm 137 – one of the most beautiful, haunting and troubling psalms in our bible

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
   Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!

The first part is haunting; the second part is troubling – troubling, but very human. The desire for revenge against those who have hurt us is very deep, and it is not easily appeased by the thought that two wrongs do not make a right.  Our rationality is sometimes overwhelmed by devastation and we only want revenge – and this psalm reflects that reality. Is such a desire right? No. Is it natural? Yes. We are struck by stories we hear of people who have undergone enormous  loss and who have been able to forgive the offenders. I think especially of the Amish community in Pennsylvania here, several years ago, a group of school children were killed by a deranged person. The community gathered to express its grief, but also its forgiveness toward the offender. As Christians, we see in them the example of Christ and the forgiveness of God. But such stories are striking because they are exceptional. The more common ones are stories of revenge. There is nothing more natural in the world than to say to someone who has caused us great loss: “may you suffer as you have made me to suffer.” 

            I think, for example – and it is only an example -  of that battle in Gettysburg which occurred 150 years ago this month, the hot July of 1863  – the greatest battle of our civil war, where 8000 soldiers were killed and almost 50,000 were wounded, maimed, or missing. It is, of course, only one of many battles in many wars, but it is one that somehow captures our imaginations and our sympathy. But I also recall the occasion 100 years ago, in 1913, fifty years after the battle, when veterans of both sides gathered at the battlefield, wearing their blue and gray uniforms, if they had them, standing at the line of Pickett’s charge, grasping hands, and weeping. It took them fifty years.

            The exiles from Judah spent about fifty years in Babylon – fifty years of servitude, and then the comforting prophecies of return were fulfilled. Cyrus, king of Persia, conquered Babylon, and one of his first acts was to allow the Jewish captives to return to their homeland. This was, to the captive Jews, both a miracle and a fulfillment of prophecy. So when they returned, finding some of their relatives still there in a devastated land, they faced the challenge of starting over. Their temple had been reduced to rubble. They thought their way of life had been reduced to rubble. Into this breach stepped the prophet Haggai.

            We know nothing about this man, except his few, very specific words. His writings are comprised of four very specific oracles, which he dates precisely. The first of them he received “in the second year of king Darius, on the sixth day.” The second one, which we read, came precisely one month and fifteen days later. The oracles instructed Haggai to speak to Zerubbabel, the Persian-appointed governor of Judah, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the Persian-appointed high priest.  These two messages, and the remaining two that followed, all concern the state of depression, confusion, and destruction that the returning exiles faced, along with the Jews who had not been in exile. The message is simple: Get busy and rebuild the temple. The temple that was destroyed, do you remember it? How can you pay attention to building your own houses but neglect rebuilding the temple? And we know that, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, whose books we also have in the Old Testament, that the returning exiles did exactly that. They went through the several years-long process of rebuilding the temple, and, by some accounts, it was a grander temple that the first. Only when the temple was built were the Jews able to regain their sense of cohesiveness and the religion that bound them together.

            Now we are dealing here with historical facts. The original temple, build during the reign of Solomon around 1000 BC, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. It had lasted around 400 years. It lay in waste for at least fifty years – maybe 100 years. It was rebuilt after the exile and was the center of Jewish religion and worship for another 500 years, until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70- AD. And, as we know, it has not been rebuilt. What is referred to as the “wailing wall” in Jerusalem today is the remaining wall of the second temple built by these returning exiles and destroyed again by the Romans. The temple wall, or wailing wall, is a source of contention because holy Muslim sites, including the Dome of the Rock, were later constructed on the temple mound. This of course makes the rebuilding of a Jewish temple extremely problematic.

            There are a couple of lessons for us in this story of rebuilding, which Haggai in some ways spear-headed and promoted. The first is simply the scale of time, and what it means for us. The first temple lasted almost five hundred years; the second also lasted five hundred years. It has now been almost 2000 years since it was destroyed. Empires rise and fall: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. None of them endures forever. We Americans pay little attention to the past; we are obsessed with the present and future. But we need to know and remember things that have happened – such as the Civil War. Our country is only 237 years old. The first European settlers arrived less than 400 years ago. We are now an empire. We do not like to think we are, but we are. And like all empires, we will have our day, and then, usually because of over-reach, the empire fades. We live in the heyday of the American Empire. If it continues to behave as an Empire, it will eventually fall – perhaps not into ruin, or insignificance, but like the British empire, as a shadow of itself. Such has been life on this earth, and such it will continue to be. Our life-times are short. We face devastation both as individuals and as nations, and, no matter what, we must start over. Sometimes we simply do not have the strength, as individuals, to do it, but we find strength in reaffirming our community. 
Second, destruction is never final. When we face devastation and loss, we may become angry, depressed, sad, hurt, despairing. This can and does certainly happen. When the loss is a material one – of money or possessions, we can at least think of rebuilding. So, for example, the homes lost in Hurricane Irene, despite the sadness, have been and are being restored. People are adjusting and starting over, with help from their neighbors and our government. But when the loss is immaterial, it is hard to know how to start over. When a loved one has died, or when a reputation has been lost, or when a symbol of our being has been destroyed, no material restoration can give us new strength. Such losses are spiritual losses, and they can only be borne by spiritual strength and comfort. Thus, when we face the death of a loved one, as we surely have and surely will, we instinctively reach out for the assurance  of eternal life – or life beyond the dimensions of time. For Christians, this is an explicit part of our faith. But even people who claim to have no religion, even those who call themselves atheists, seek some sort of ultimate meaning that allows them to face this loss and move on – start over. If there is nothing that allows us to do this, we are stuck in the saddest kind of paralysis. By no means does this mean discounting or overlooking the loss. By no means. Grief is essential to human life, but so is hope. And hope was, for the Jewish people, centered in the temple. In some ways it still is.

            Another way of saying this is that, after devastation – whether it is a failed marriage, an addiction, a death - no matter what it is, we must rebuild our spiritual center. Just as the Jews rebuilt the temple after their exile, we also must reconstruct the center of our being after it has been destroyed. Nothing else really matters until we reconnect and reconstruct the spiritual center of our lives, where lives the faith that sustains us in all of life. Haggai’s word to the returning exiles is also a word to us – a word to remember:
Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts …. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. (Haggai 2:4-5)

            It is appropriate that we also remember the words of another prophet who spoke fifty years ago, next month, about a dream that he had for America and its people. That speech was born out of faith, coming after hundreds of years of injustice. Dr. King would not live long, but his words and his faith endure – reminding us, as Haggai did, that we must work to rebuild the spiritual center of our lives.  Amen.

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Micah - Picking and Choosing" - Richard R. Crocker

Richard R. Crocker
Picking and Choosing
Micah 6:6-16
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 21, 2013

            Those of you who were raised, as I was, in a Bible-centric culture might be familiar with the old practice called sword drills. We did them often in youth fellowship. The idea was that we each held a Bible, which was our sword, and the leader called out “attention!”, then “present swords”, at which point we held the Bible between our hands, and then the leader called out a random verse of scripture, such as “Micah 6:6”, and then said “Charge!”. The first person who could find that verse stepped forward and read it.  The person who was first most often won.

            The other practice that I sometimes heard about occurred when people wanted guidance about a problem or dilemma and sought it in the Bible. Rather than thinking about what Jesus may have said, or pondering the ten commandments, the practice was simply to open the Bible at random. cover your eyes, and point to a verse. Whatever that verse said was deemed to provide the needed guidance. This technique produced rather haphazard results.

            This way of looking at the Bible both rests upon and perpetuates a uniformly revelatory view of scripture, where very single part is seen as equally revealing the word of God, and those who read the Bible differently are often condemned for “picking and choosing.”  “You can’t pick and choose”, we are told. “You have to believe the Bible from cover to cover, every single word.”

Such a way of reading the Bible can be extremely na├»ve, unhelpful, and sometimes dangerous. Every part of the Bible is enriched when we know the context of the scripture we are reading, when we do not pick isolated verses, but when we place passages into context, compare them with other passages, and use our minds and spirits to discern the truths that such serious study reveals.  One result of reading the Bible through, from beginning to end,  as some of you have done, is that you may find it very uneven in its helpfulness. Some passages stand out as more helpful, more beautiful, truer, and more useful than other passages.  Some passages seem odd, useless, or even horrible. Christians, for example, pay little attention to the rule in Exodus and Deuteronomy (Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21), which tell us that we should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk, while Jews see this injunction as an important part of their Kosher laws. Christians and Jews alike reject the injunctions to stone criminal offenders, including Sabbath breakers (Leviticus20:2 ff and Numbers 15:35). It is impossible to read the Bible without picking and choosing.

            And nowhere is this more evident than in reading the book of Micah. I chose for our scripture reading for today a passage in Micah that is familiar to all of us.  It is perhaps one of the most familiar passages in scripture - much quoted and much loved, and probably very helpful. But you will have noted that the scripture reading did not end with those familiar words. Rather, it proceeded to the next “saying”, which I would venture to say you have rarely heard and which may not be as helpful to you. Let us consider them both.
            It would probably be helpful today if in fact you took out one of the pew Bibles and opened it to the book of Micah and followed along with some of the passages that I will mention. Now, since you were probably never trained with sword drills, you may have trouble finding the book of Micah. (Like Howard Dean, who said that his favorite book in the new testament was the book of Job, New Englanders are not known for their Biblical literacy). So I will tell you that the book of Micah begins on page 866 in your pew Bibles.
But first, let us remember: Micah prophesied in the southern kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah around 700 BC, The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom, under King Hezekiah, had also been invaded by Assyria and made a vassal state. It was a time of turmoil, confusion, anxiety and distress.
            Biblical scholars, using the tools of linguistic and historical analysis, have concluded that the book attributed to Micah actually contains sayings from a number of different writers from different time periods that were all collected into this single book (or scroll). The earliest sayings are near the beginning of the book. The passages after chapter 4 come from a variety of sourses – so  that, ironically, the some of the most well-known passages in the book may not come from Micah himself. That is really not a problem for us, is it? It’s like my house in Lebanon. We say that it was built in 1858.  But in fact, only part of it was built then; additions were made at a later time since they didn’t have indoor plumbing in 1858.  It’s still one house that we live in, and Micah is still one book, - a complex house, a complex document. Would we expect anything else?  After all, most of us know very little about how the books of the Bible were selected, put together and transmitted, do we?  Most of us know very little about architecture and how houses grew.  And most of us don’t care. We just want to have a house to inhabit and a Bible to anchor us in our faith.

            So, if you look in Micah, chapter 6, beginning with verse 6 –  the passage that was read – you see the words that have become a watchword for what constitutes true worship – words that cut to the essence of worship rather than the periphery. “What does the Lord require of us?” Does God require that we bring burnt offerings? Does God require offerings of calves or rams or oil? – Remember that these were some of the offerings customarily made at the temple in Jerusalem. Would God even require that we give up our firstborn child – a practice that was not unknown in the middle east at that time – and a practice that is reflected in the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. NO – we are told. God doesn’t requires any of these things. Rather, God has told us very simply, that what is required is simply that we do justice, love kindness (or mercy), and that we walk humbly with God. You will note that these words make no mention of religious ritual. What is required is an attitude of humility as well as actions of justice and kindness. Most of us feel comforted and reassured by these words – challenged also to examine our lives, but mainly comforted and encouraged. But then look at  the verses that follow immediately upon this passage.

It is helpful to read them again. They are directed at the city of Jerusalem:

9 The voice of the Lord cries to the city
   (it is sound wisdom to fear your name):
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
10   Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked,
   and the scant measure that is accursed?
11 Can I tolerate wicked scales
   and a bag of dishonest weights?
12 Your wealthy are full of violence;
   your inhabitants speak lies,
   with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
13 Therefore I have begun to strike you down,
   making you desolate because of your sins.
14 You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
   and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you;
you shall put away, but not save,
   and what you save, I will hand over to the sword.
15 You shall sow, but not reap;
   you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil;
   you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.
16 For you have kept the statutes of Omri
   and all the works of the house of Ahab,
   and you have followed their counsels.
Therefore I will make you a desolation, and your inhabitants an object of hissing;
   so you shall bear the scorn of my people.

These words are not as familiar to us, are they? Why? because they are not as comforting, or because they are not as helpful? Perhaps because the earlier words are universal, applicable to all times and places, whereas the latter passage is aimed directly at Jerusalem. Micah is famous for having prophesied the fall of Jerusalem, which did indeed happen in 586 BC, when the Babylonians invaded, laid the city waste, destroyed the temple, and took the most prominent of its citizens into captivity into Babylonia. Certainly the words of this prophecy are accurate in anticipating and describing the devastation of that event – so accurate, in fact, that some scholars see them as having been written after the fact. Certainly they were preserved after the fact. But sometimes prophecies like this are seen as applying not only to that time period, but to all. Consider, for example, those who see this prophecy as applying not only to Jerusalem, but to New York City. Does it accurately describe the greed and dishonesty of Wall Street and the financial industry? Does it tell us of the certain doom that will happen unless we repent? Some people think so. Their interpretation of biblical prophecy allows them to do so. I think we may well see these as words of warning to any society in which greed becomes rampant, and when the poor are ignored. That is a proper use of prophecy, but thinking that the events of 9/11 were prophesied in the book of Micah is probably a stretch.

Let us look at one other very famous part of the book of Micah – the prophecy contained in chapter 5, beginning with verse 2. You have all heard it, I am sure.

2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
   who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
   from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
   when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
   to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
   in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
   to the ends of the earth;
5 and he shall be the one of peace.

Where have you heard this before? From the Gospel of Matthew, of course; we hear it every Christmas – where it is quoted as a prophecy about the birth of the Messiah. When the wise men are seeking Jesus, they ask King Herod where he shall be born. Herod seeks advice from the biblical scholars, and  they quote this prophecy. Obviously, it seems to us to refer to Jesus, the prince of peace, our messiah. It’s right there in the Bible, isn’t it? And certainly the writer of Matthew’s gospel, and Christians ever since have thought of it that way. Many now see it as referring not only to the birth of Jesus, but also to the second coming of Christ.

While Christians are free to view the prophecy this way, it is unlikely that Micah intended the prophecy to be fulfilled 600 or 2600 years after he spoke it. Rather, he (or one of his followers) was speaking a word of hope to a discouraged people – a word that indicated that not all was lost, and that, just as King David was selected by the prophet Samuel in a very unlikely setting in the little town of Bethlehem, there would be another great king yet to come.  We Christians of course hope that Jesus’ birth will usher in a reign of world-wide peace. At the moment, though, after 2000 years, it hasn’t happened. I wonder why? Well, if Christians really acknowledged Jesus as the prince of peace and as their Lord and Master, and if they refused to make war in his name, there would be a lot less war, wouldn’t there?

This brings us back to the problem of picking and choosing when we are reading the bible. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe we should see every single word, every single letter of scripture as fully revelatory, and any problems or contradictions this method produces are due to our lack of understanding. At the other end are those who believe that we should pay attention only to those words and verses that we happen to agree with. Studying the prophets teaches us a different way. Some of their words and images are limited to a time and place which is merely historical. What was deemed acceptable human practice 3000 years ago is not deemed acceptable today. But, at the same time, we should not see our era, and our sensibilities, as the epitome of perfection. In some important ways, we have not advanced at all. I dare say that greed is more fully rampant and more deeply ingrained in our society than it was in the Jerusalem of Micah’s and Amos’s time. Their insistence that greed, violence, and disregard for the poor would lead to the destruction of society was true then, and it’s true now.

            No doubt Micah was right. For all time, for all people, in answering the question, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” the answer is simple -. The Lord does not require our material offerings. What the Lord requires is that we do justice, love mercy (and kindness), and that we walk, every day, in humility before our God.

            Those words are as applicable to us today as they were 2600 years ago. These words grab us. In a way, we don’t pick and choose them; they pick and choose us. Now it’s up to us to live by them. Amen.

Monday, July 15, 2013

"Zephaniah: The Problem with the Prophets" - Richard R. Crocker

Richard R. Crocker
Zephaniah: The Problem with the Prophets
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 14, 2013
Zephaniah 1:10-16

          Today, in the third of our series on the minor prophets, we consider Zephaniah. Zephaniah brings us face to face with certain problems that most of us have with these prophets – problems that we have acknowledged in the earlier two sermons but not really addressed. The first problem is that we often do not like what they have to say. The second problem is that their messages, delivered in the name of God, often seem to some of us to contradict the God we know and worship in Jesus Christ.  And the third problem is that they require us to read the Bible with a degree of sophistication that goes against the way that many of us were taught to read the Bible. Today we will try to deal with these problems head on.

          But first a little background. The book of Zephaniah is very short – only three chapters. If you haven’t read it, you can do so in about ten minutes. Unlike Amos and Hosea, Zephaniah prophesied in the southern kingdom, the kingdom of Judah sometime around 630 BC, during the reign of the good king Josiah, after the northern Kingdom had fallen to the Assyrians, and Judah had been reduced to a vassal state, paying tribute to Assyria. In the opening verses of the book, Zephaniah traces his ancestry back to Hezekiah, which was the name of a previous king of Judah – so, in fact, Zephaniah may be a royal descendant – but this is uncertain.

          What is certain about Zephaniah is his message. In three short chapters, he proclaims doom, gloom, and resume. Aside from the strained  rhymes, this three word summary is actually pretty accurate – not only for Zephaniah’s prophecies, but for many of the prophetic messages we have heard before.

          Doom. The first chapter of Zephaniah’s message is overwhelming doom. Beginning with verse two, he says (speaking for God): “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.” His message is one of utter destruction. Why? Because of idolatry and false worship: the people of Judah have worshipped Baal; they worshipped Milcom (the god of the Ammonites) and worshipped the astrological gods of the Assyrians. The king’s sons have “dress(ed) themselves in foreign attire, and some of them have “leap(ed) over the threshold.”

But in addition to these idolatrous acts, the people have practiced violence and fraud and have been indifferent to the God of Israel. And for this, utter destruction is promised.

Now this seems pretty extreme to us, doesn’t it? Utter destruction for leaping over the threshold? Maybe for fraud, maybe for worshipping Baal with ritual prostitution, but for dressing in foreign attire and leaping over the threshold?

Now we need to confront the problems of this passage directly. Granted, we know that these words were spoken (and written) 2600 years ago. But they are part of our holy book. They are words spoken on behalf of the God we worship, claimed as being the words of God.  Do they mean anything at all to those of us who hear them today – or are they only of quaint historical interest?

Do we believe that our God threatens any nation – or humanity itself – with utter destruction because of false worship? Will God actually destroy a whole people because some of them have leaped over the threshold? What does leaping over the threshold mean, anyway?

Here we confront a very basic problem. This God does not seem very likable. More important, this God does not seem to be the God with whom Abraham argued. You remember how God threatened to destroy the city of Sodom, but Abraham argued with him – you remember how: Abraham asked God; would you destroy a whole city if there were as few as a hundred righteous people in it? And God says no. And Abraham argues with him further, reducing the number each time, and finally asks: would you destroy the city if there were only ten righteous people in it, and God said, No – I will not destroy it even for ten righteous people. Is this the same God who says he will destroy all humanity? What happened to the story of Noah and the rainbow – the promise that God would never again destroy the earth?

And then, of course, we face the fact that this God does not seem the same as the God we know in Jesus Christ – the one in whom God offers salvation to the whole world.

So how are we to understand these words of Zephaniah? Is he just being dramatic? Is he exaggerating? Or is he speaking an important truth that we need to hear, even though the language makes us cringe with  discomfort? How do we discover the God of love, whom we know in Jesus Christ, in the words of Zephaniah?

Let us grant the words of the prophets are frequently dramatic- designed to get and hold our attention. But can they be therefore dismissed as irrelevant? Can they be reduced to words that are more pleasant, less drastic, and perhaps more forgiving? Only by the most strenuous effort. We must start out by facing the fact that these words are very hard to hear and understand; they were hard to hear and understand then, and they are hard to hear and understand now.

But, as Christians, we believe that those words both hide and reveal the same God we know in Jesus, the one in whom we put our trust. Jesus also is reported to have spoken some harsh words – words that are also prophetic and hard to hear – words like “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword;” and “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;” (Matthew 25:41) and “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off;” (Matthew 5:30) and “if you eye offends you, pluck it out” (Matthew 5:29). The problem is not  that we cannot envision a God who loves us; most of us can, since we have heard the gospel – and the story of the rainbow -  preached to us since childhood. But we have a much harder time (those of us in the liberal tradition, anyway) picturing and understanding a God who judges us.

In the Presbyterian tradition, worship services begin, after a hymn of praise, with a prayer of confession, in which the congregation acknowledges its collective and individual sin and asks for forgiveness. One of my colleagues (the same one I mentioned last week, whose church is a union church of several denominations), after trying to introduce the prayer of confession into the morning worship service, reported a conversation with a parishioner – a conversation that is probably more common than not, in which the parishioner objected to this confessional prayer, saying: “Why should I say a prayer like this? I don’t have anything to apologize to God for.” My feeling, when I heard this was, “This church definitely needs to be more Presbyterian.” Such words remind me of Zephaniah’s, when he said: “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.” (Zephaniah 1:12)

So often, we say that we believe in God, but we don’t expect God to do anything.

That belief, of course, can be a reaction to those who believe that God does everything, whether it involves helping us with a parking place or helping us pass a test for which we have not prepared, or inflicting illnesses on us or destroying cities with tornadoes and hurricanes. Once perhaps people believed that everything that happened was an act of God; some of us may still believe that, but now, many of us see no room at all for acts of God – only the acts of chance produced at random in a vast and impersonal universe. Unlike Zephaniah, we do not want to see anything as God’s blessing or God’s punishment.

Certainly we do not believe, do we, that God caused Hurricane Katrina to destroy New Orleans, or Hurricane Irene to wreak havoc in Vermont, or super storm Sandy to destroy whole sections of New York city and New Jersey? Do we, or do we not? Certainly some Christians believe that such events are punishments for wickedness; most of us, however, have a hard time believing  that. Well, then, if God didn’t cause it, who did? No one, we say; it just happened.

What the prophets are trying to say is that the way people live has consequences. Beneath our too easy embrace of tolerance sometimes lies the assumption that nothing really matters. The prophets remind us that things matter very much. Where we put our heart, our allegiance, our hope matters very much. And from that we can say: the kind of God we worship matters very much. Not the God we say we worship, but the God we really worship.

And prophets remind us that we may say we worship the God of Israel but our behavior proves otherwise. Whether our words are compromised by partaking in rituals that we know are disgraceful, or whether our professions of faith in God are compromised by our worship of things we can make and buy, prophets call us to account and remind us that our worship has consequences. Not every disaster, of course, is directly attributable to our actions – but some are. We are properly horrified to think that God would destroy a city, but let us remember: who has destroyed cities in our lifetimes? Certainly, there have been tsunamis for which we have no explanation at all, but we do have an explanation for the monstrous destruction of Hiroshima – and Sarajevo and Baghdad? We do have an explanation for the destruction of the World Trade Center and for the bombing of Baghdad. Who did that? People. What we do matters; what we believe to be true matters, where we put our hearts matters.

I said earlier that Zephaniah, like many of the prophets we are reading, proclaims doom, then gloom, then resume. The doom is painted as absolute, but it frequently softens to simply being a period of gloom, when what had been depended upon for wealth or safety no longer provides wealth or comfort or safety. When security falls away, be it our finances or our health or our family stability, we experience gloom. But gloom is rarely the final word, certainly not in Zephaniah. In the third and last chapter, Zephaniah’s words become more comforting. After chastisement and failure there is hope and comfort – not because people become fundamentally better, but because they have learned humility. Here is what he says:

Therefore, wait for me, says the Lord,
for the day when I arise as a witness.
For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
all the heat of my anger,
for the fire of my passion
all the earth shall be consumed. (Zephaniah3:8)

But then, the tone changes:

At that time I will change the speech of the people
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call on the name of the Lord
and serve him with one accord.
On that day you shall not be put to shame
because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me,
for then I will remove from your midst
your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain.
For I will leave in the midst of you
a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord – the remnant of Israel;
they shall do no wrong and utter no lies,
nor shall a deceitful tongue
be found in their mouths.
They will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid. (Zephaniah 3:9-13)

Doom, gloom, resume. What dooms us is our unaccountable pride. The gloom that follows is painful. This is a continual theme in all of scripture. What results is a new humility. It is a mistake to read the Bible unhistorically. Indeed, it is dangerous to do so; it is dangerous to infer from prophets like Zephaniah any precise predictions about  specific events of our time.  But, as extreme as the prophetic language may be, it is still valuable for us. We too have been through destruction. Our pride has been, and will continue to be, our downfall, resulting in suffering and destruction for many. From all of this, we – by which I mean all of us – may learn a proper sense of humility. We are not God. Our knowledge will always be incomplete, and sometimes simply wrong. In such a world, humility is appropriate, even though it is not popular. It is dangerous and arrogant to proclaim that any disaster is God’s doing, But it is also ignorant not to see God’s presence with us even in those situations and circumstances that overwhelm us. Doom, gloom, resume – having learned not to trust our own goodness, but  the goodness of God. We don’t always like this message, but there it is. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.