As you’re being seated, if you would take your Bibles and turn to Zephaniah chapter 3. If you don’t know where that book is, that’s okay. I don’t know if I’m supposed to admit this as a preacher, but in the first presbytery I sat at, I had to look in the index to find this book! Okay? So that was when I was in seminary, so don’t feel bad if you can’t find it! It’s on page 790 in your pew Bibles; 790. And just to give you a clue where we’re going in the next couple of Sundays in the evenings, we’ll be looking at 3:14-16 tonight and then next Sunday evening, Lord willing, we’ll look at what has been called “the John 3:16 of the Old Testament” – Zephaniah 3:17, which is one of my favorite Bible verses. So I’ve been thinking about these verses for a while and we’ll jump in, in chapter 3, verses 14 through 16 tonight; page 790.
Let’s pray and then we’ll hear God’s Word.
Our Father, what we just sang is our great hope tonight – that Jesus, who was once lifted up over 2,000 years ago would be lifted up tonight as the exalted, risen Savior who is the only hope for us ruined sinners. May the one who speaks decrease that Christ might increase and fill all in all. We pray for the Spirit’s power to make the Word real and living and sharper than any two-edged sword and we ask it all in Jesus’ name, amen.
Zephaniah 3, beginning at verse 14. This is God’s Word:
“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.’”
The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever, amen.
The greatest airline is Southwest Airlines, and we do not have them here anymore, I learned right when we moved here! It was our lifeline to get back from the foreign country of Pennsylvania down to South Carolina when I was up at Westminster. And they had this ad campaign a few years ago, which was one of the best I’ve seen, and the tagline of the ad campaign was, “Want to get away?” And there was this one ad where you saw this man and this woman sitting in a kind of corporate boardroom looking setting, obviously executive types, and they’re both looking straight ahead and he kind of nervously looks around and says, “You know, I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a long time, but I’ve always had feelings for you.” And she just gets very excited and looks over and grabs his arm and says, “So do I!” And he kind of looks started and turns, and you see an earpiece in, and he goes, “Hold on just a second. What was that?” And you see her face and she’s going, “Oh no!” And the tagline comes, “Want to get away?”
Guilt vs. Shame
And as I was thinking about that this week, there are these moments in our lives where we wish we had that option, don't we? Where we could just get away from whatever it is – circumstances, people, whatever it might be. Most of all, I think we want to get away from the memories and the bits of our past that cause us shame. And we need to distinguish at the outset here between guilt and shame. Shame researcher, Brene Brown – if you haven’t heard of her, it’s okay. If you get a chance, she did this talk that has like 30 million views at TED on “The Power of Vulnerability and Shame.” It is well worth watching. She’s written a lot on this subject and she distinguishes between guilt and shame this way. She says, "Guilt is failing to do something according to a standard and feeling proper psychological guilt over that – proper psychological discomfort over what you've violated." And as Christians, I don't think she is, but as Christians, we can agree with that. When we fail to live up to God's Law, we should feel guilty.
Shame is different. She says, "Shame is the intense feeling of being worthless and not being worthy of love." We can put it in three words. Shame says to us, "You don't belong." Guilt is more private. Shame, as one author put it, "has witnesses." It's a public phenomenon. It's something we've messed up and failed in front of others and it's a painful memory. It causes us discomfort when we think about it. And there are different kinds of shame, right? And there's shame that is real – the shame we ought to feel in front of God for violating His standards. But then there's shame that should not be there. The things that have been done to us – abuse, other things like that. Or situations we've been in where the overarching message to us has been, "You do not belong."
And the prophet Zephaniah is going to talk to us tonight about the end of shame. And let me set the context for you very quickly. Zephaniah is one of the twelve minor prophets. Now that name is kind of misleading. It's not because they are any lesser in God's Word or they're not as important as the other parts of God's Word. They're called minor prophets simply because their books in the Old Testament are so short. So you have the major prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. And then you've got these twelve minor prophets and Zephaniah is one of those. He's writing about 640 years or so before Jesus is born during the reign of the great reforming king of the Old Testament, Josiah. If you go back to the book of Kings and read about Josiah, he's the guy who kind of brings back worship into Israel. He does a lot of reforming work in Israel at that time.
Now one of the unique features of the book of Zephaniah is that he opens his prophecy with probably the most cosmic judgment scene of anywhere in the Old Testament. What I mean by cosmic judgment scene, it’s not like some of the prophets where God says, “Look, I’m going to come judge you, Israel, for all of your idolatry and all of your sin and all of the ways you have strayed from me.” He does do that, but it starts with cosmic judgment. Everybody is going into this deal. Nobody gets away. So this book has a lot of bad news until we get to this chapter. And kind of the governing verse that really sets the tone for all of what follows is verse 11. “On that day, you shall not be put to shame.” And we’re going to see that, “On that day” phrase again in our text tonight. And so what God is promising to do here is He says, “I’m going to remove all your shame” – in this case, proper shame – “I’m going to remove all of that and bless you like you never imagined.” That’s where we’ll go next week.
So here’s the main point of what Zephaniah is getting at. Shame ends when we worship God with no reserve for what He has done in executing no judgment on us so that we have no fear in His presence. Shame ends when we worship God with no reserve for what He has done in executing no judgment on us so that we have no fear in His presence. And those “no’s” will form our three headings. So in verse 14, No Reserve. Verse 15, No Judgment. And verse 16, No Fear.
Look with me there again at verse 14 – No Reserve. “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” As I mentioned right before this, we’ve heard nothing but bad news and then you’ve got this verse thrown right into the middle of all of this. And this verse comes as kind of a surprise. “Shout; rejoice” – language that goes beyond kind of normal, what we might even call Presbyterian-style worship. We have a hard time thinking about worship like this. Now there’s so much that I love about our tradition in terms of reformed theology and worship, but if we’re real honest with ourselves, we don’t do the joyful thing very well. Or do we? Because see, I’ve been to football games with y’all and it reminds me of going to football games with my friends back home where I had a fraternity brother in college who was the mildest mannered guy and you put him on Saturday mornings in Williams-Brice Stadium in South Carolina and he turned into an animal! He could shout and dance and clap and raise his voice like nobody's business!
How to Relate to God
And my point is this. When we watch sporting events and our team wins – I don’t need to tell you what it looked like when Ole Miss beat Alabama, or, the equal opportunity here, or when State beat Ole Miss this year. I saw a lot of rejoicing from both sides. And when that happens, all of us lose abandon. We lose our sense of propriety when our team wins. And that’s what the prophet is getting at here. The prophet is saying when that happens, when we understand what God is up to, when it comes home to us, this is the result – overarching joy; singing; rejoicing over what God has done. And here’s the question. What is it in our lives that causes us joy right now? What are we happy about? And God says, “One of the things I’m up to is taking those joys you experience,” which are good and wonderful and there’s nothing wrong with getting excited about a sports team, but He says those are pointers to a greater reality. “That’s how I want you to respond to Me. That is how I want you to relate to Me.” That’s what God is saying to them. “I want you to have that kind of joy about what I am doing in your life.”
And notice when it is that God commands them to do this. It’s not when everything is going well. These are all promises about what God is going to do. These are all things that are future. These have not happened yet. And so God says, “While you wait, in the middle of everything falling apart, Israel, rejoice!” Is that counterintuitive or what? And here’s what He says to us. He says, “What causes you the most shame? Is it something from your past? Is it something you said at a dinner party? Is it the way you behaved when you were out of town and there were witnesses? What causes you the most shame?” For Israel, it was her abandonment of God. They left Him. They walked away and said, “We’re going to go after idols.” And God says, “I am not done with you yet. And in the middle of Me dealing with your shame” – and we’ll talk about that here in a moment – He says, “While you wait, rejoice.” You and I can have joy where we are right now, tonight. That’s a wonderful promise. So we see in the first place God calls us to love Him and worship Him and enjoy Him without reserve. No reserve. Reckless abandonment in their enjoyment with God.
Then in the second place look at verse 15 at No Judgment. “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.” Why should we rejoice? The prophet says, “Because I have removed internal judgments against you and external hindrances of enjoyment of Me.” Did you see that language there? “The Lord has taken away judgments against you.” See, this is our internal sense of guilt and shame which all of us have. We know, intuitively by being made in God’s image, that we are not where we should be with Him, apart from Jesus. All of us have that kind of deep-seated anxiety. We try to mask it in different ways. We don’t know really what to do with it until God opens our eyes. We know we’re not holy. We know we should be ashamed before God. We feel that. And God says, “I’m going to take that away.”
And then He goes to the external causes. He says, “I’m going to remove all your enemies. Any threat to you, Israel, I’m going to take away.” Now think about that in reference to shame. The people who have caused shame in our lives might be our enemies and they might not. The point is the same though. What God is promising here is to remove anything external to us that will cause us shame. In other words, the promise is there will be no more witnesses because there will be no more reason for shame. That’s what God is doing, because shame is basically a reality created by others.
And when God is saying this to us, He’s asking us to reflect on the fact that all of us, because of these threats to us – whether from others, from enemies, from shamers, whatever it is – He says that leads us to be chronic worriers. Don’t we worry a lot? Doesn’t shame cause us to worry? Maybe you were shamed early in life and for the rest of your life you’ve wondered, “Will I ever be accepted? Will I ever make the team? Will I ever be good enough?” And that leads to, again, anxiety. We worry if we’re safe. “Will I be harmed physically, emotionally by another human being? What will happen?” Worry, worry, worry. And here’s what God is saying. He says you can have real peace, real joy, what everybody is searching for and so few find. He says it is available, on tap, for the asking, tonight.
And notice how He puts it there. He says, “You shall never again fear evil.” Are you afraid of evil? I am. I don’t know what it is. I find myself getting more anxious the older my children get. You’ve been parents a lot longer than me; you can tell me how to deal with that! But the older my children get, the more I find I fear all the evil out there in the world and I worry for them. And yes, I repent and ask the Lord for help but it is there with me when I wake up in the mornings. And that’s what God is saying to us. The great promise is never again to fear evil. We can stop worrying and stop being afraid and experience God’s peace. We’ll come back to that at the end too.
Then notice what God says there. He says “the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.” That was the great hope of Israel, right? If you read back through the Old Testament, you start off and you read Genesis – how the human race comes about, and then it narrows down to Abraham and then God calls this people out and then they’re enslaved. And then He brings them out of slavery and they’re living outside of the bonds of Egypt. And what do they start saying? “We want a king like the nations around us!” And God says, “No you don’t, because that king is going to enslave your sons and it’s going to go poorly for you. And why do you want a king when I am your King?” And yet they go, “No, no, give us a king!” And so He gives them a king. And here we are, about four or five hundred years into Israel having a king, and let’s see how they are doing. The kingdom is split between the north and the south; there’s been multiple uprisings and rebellions. Even the man after God’s own heart failed in such a magnificent way that God cursed the rest of his house and his children in his lineage for his adultery and murder! It’s not working out well for Israel! And so this promise is, “I am coming to you. I will be your King like I always promised I would be.”
These Are Not Just Words
It reminds me of a story I read recently about a woman who was married, had a couple of kids and a great marriage by all accounts. And one day, she just up and left. She said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and walked away. Her husband was crushed and he kept calling her, with the kids on the phone, and said, “Just talk to them.” And she would just hang up. So finally he was able to track her down and find where she was and at great cost to himself – financially, emotionally, physically, everything else – he finds her and comes to her and says, “I love you. Please come back!” And she broke down in his arms. And he said, “We called you. We wrote letters. Why didn’t any of that have an impact?” She said, “Before, it was just words. Then you came.”
And that's what Israel is being promised here. These aren't just words. "The Lord, your King, will come in your midst." And Israel's longing for a king is our longing, isn't it? We live in a fractured, disjointed, disconnected age. Isn't it fascinating that with the age of the most communicative ability between our smartphones, our computers, and our iPads, we are the most disconnected relational age that's maybe ever lived. And we long to have somebody tell us where to go, how to get there, what it looks like when we get there. We long for a king. We long for somebody to tell us what to do, but because of sin, at the same time, we don't want anybody to tell us what to do. We deeply distrust authorities in our day and age, sometimes rightly. You may have been abused by somebody in authority. You may have suffered at the hands of somebody in an authority position. That's real. But in our hearts, all of us resent authorities over us. And God says, "I am a King you can trust. I will come to you. I am not like the other authorities. I will not let you down. I am the One who comes to shamed people to walk the road with them."
And that leads to our last verse here, verse 16. No Fear – our third heading. “On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.’” What is “that day”? We read about that all the time in the Old Testament, “on that day; on that day.” I think here specifically it has a reference. Think about it like this. If you stand and look at mountains from a side view, they look like peaks like this – up and down. If you stand on one of them, they all look like one mountaintop. That’s how Zechariah is looking at the coming of Jesus in the future. So the coming of Jesus is like that first mountaintop closest to him; the first coming of Jesus. The second coming of Jesus is like that mountaintop in the distance. And he puts them both together as he looks down the corridors of time. And he says, “There’s a day coming when all of this is going to end” and that day began at the first coming of Jesus. He inaugurated the kingdom. He brought God near. He came to us. It was no longer words; it was presence. It was Jesus, who is God with us. And then it looks forward to that day that we are all waiting for here. That day when all of this that is in promise form now will become reality. When faith will give way to sight and we will see everything with our own eyes that the prophet is showing us right now in pictures and in shadows. That great day, when everything that causes us to be removed from God, to be ashamed in His presence, to be ashamed in the presence of others will be gone, gone gone. He says, “On that day, it will be said, ‘Fear not.’”
Do Not Despair
And notice how he puts it. “Let not your hands grow weak.” One commentator explains it this way. He says, “The hands that fall limp describe in Scripture a despair over circumstances that renders a person unable to function.” A despair over circumstances that renders a person unable to function. Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever looked at your life, maybe looked at the shame in your life, and said, “I don’t even want to get out of bed this morning”? God knows about that. He says that’s what it’s like to have weak hands. And He says, “Do not let your hands grow weak.” Why? Because of what He’s going to do on that day. Do you know what Jesus’ favorite “Thou shalt not” was? We could think of many things. I think sometimes we get this so wrong when we think about Jesus as kind of a killjoy who was always and forever saying, “Thou shalt not.” He had plenty to say about that. But His favorite “Thou shalt not” was, “Thou shalt not fear. Do not be afraid.” That’s what He said not to do more than anything else, in fulfillment of this verse. And God says, “When despair comes, when you don’t feel like getting up, when you’re crushed by your circumstances,” He says, “Don’t despair. There is a day coming when there will be no more despair. Think on that. Live out of that.” We’ll come back to that in just a moment.
So what does this mean? I've said we'll come back to all this in just a moment. Here's that moment. What does all this mean? How do we see Jesus here? I think there are so many ways. What we cannot miss is that God has kept His promise to us here in the coming of Christ. We can begin to focus on Him instead of the story and the narrative that shame is telling us. We can begin to focus on His life, His perfect life. His life that led Him to the cross ultimately but a life of love and compassion and patience and gentleness with shamed people like us. If you wonder if anybody understands your shame, it's Him. And if you wonder if God loves you, if you feel worthless, if you feel like you don't belong, Jesus says, "You do belong. You belong to Me. I've come for you." He comes to us and then Jesus is the one who, more specifically, removes our fear. How could God make these promises? “You'll never, never again be afraid." Because what we need to fear the most, Jesus has taken in our place. He's the King in our midst that was promised, right? He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. He was born the King of the Jews. Even Herod heard about it, the pagan ruler. But He is a King who shows up and does not look like other kings. He is a King who shows up in weakness, in suffering, and ultimately He dies naked and ashamed.
Why? Because ever since the first couple in the garden was naked and ashamed, all of us have felt that shame. All of us have caused that shame in someone else’s life. And it took the second and greater Adam, Jesus, to go into our shame, to take our nakedness as it were upon Himself and die on that cross to “bear our shame and scoffing rude.” That’s why we can have no fear. The greatest fear we ought ever to have is the fear of God’s judgment that all of us rightly deserve, that Israel rightly deserved. And when God promises, “I’m going to make a way for that never to again be a fear for you,” that is fulfilled in Christ, in His first coming.
Shame does not die easily though, does it? You can’t wish it away. We can’t just think happy thoughts. We need to know that someone is with us in the middle of it. And again, that comes back to Jesus. He delights to welcome people with a lot of shame. Right or wrong shame. He delights to welcome idolaters, self-righteous people; people who’ve blown it again and again and again and keep doing it. He says, “Come to Me. I’m the one who welcomes people like that. You are not alone and you never will be.” That’s why we can never again be afraid.
No Need to Pretend Anymore
This is one of the ways we can fight shame and worry when we realize Jesus removes all the fear in our lives. And when He does that, He makes us into a people who other people don't need to be afraid around. That's one of the issues we struggle with as Christians in the church, isn't it? We pretend a lot. And the problem with pretending is that you get good at it. But God knows our hearts, doesn't He? And He says, "You don't need to pretend anymore." Nobody in here needs to be afraid of letting everybody else know you've blown it. Okay? All of us have. Weekly! All the time! And every time I do, every time I see it in somebody else's life as a pastor, I am reminded of the greatness of His grace and His patience for sinners and failures like everybody looking at me and like the man standing talking before you. All of us, all of us, all of us have blown it. And God says, "I have put My Son to shame in your place so that you will never have to face that." And when we get that, when it sinks down deep in our hearts, we become people who others do not need to be afraid around. And that's the death of shame, when we have that kind of culture.
So how does Jesus, in our midst, end our shame? Shame exercises authority over us, doesn’t it? It’s terrible. Think about it this way. How many things did you do this week that were motivated by shame? You had a past memory and it influenced a decision you made. You said, “I’m not going to do that because I remember how that feels and I’m going to do this instead because I don’t want to go back to that instant.” It exercises authority over us and we live deeply frustrated, anxious lives. And what Jesus does is He comes and says, “I am the one who brings that day into the present.” How will shame die in our lives? When we more and more realize that the resurrection of Christ was but the first episode of one event. Go with me here on this. The resurrection of Christ was the first episode of one event, one world-shattering, world-changing event, which we are living in the middle of. And so when He comes back and we are raised from the dead, that’s just the second episode of that event that began at Calvary 2,000 years ago. And as we live waiting for that, this is what Paul meant when he said, “Our outer man is wasting away, but our inner man is being renewed day by day.” With what? The resurrection power of the Holy Spirit.
So what does Jesus do to end our shame? He says, “You have been raised with Me! You are not who you were. You are not defined by what that shame is in your past. You are now defined as someone who is inside of him or her bursting forth with resurrection life which one day the whole cosmos is going to see.” The power of the resurrection of Christ is not just a miracle we celebrate on Easter. It is a daily reality that we are to appropriate by faith in order to live for Christ and kill anything that takes our enjoyment away from Him. Put very simply, because preachers love to multiply words, live out of the future in the present right now. That is one of the main ways Jesus will deal with your shame. He says, “I have defined you in the future as a resurrected being” and that is a present reality by faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit so that you can change and I can change. That’s where we live. That’s the story Jesus tells us. The true story.
Another Story Must Begin
And so here’s the question for all of us this week. Who are we going to listen to? Shame in the past, other voices telling us one narrative, or God, Jesus, telling us another story? Who will we listen to? Whoever we listen to will determine how we live. It reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite plays, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. There’s this incredible scene where the ex-convict, Jean Valjean receives forgiveness from the bishop. He had stolen, the bishop had taken him in, he steals the silver of the bishop. The cops come and they’re ready to take Jean Valjean away and the bishop says, “No, no, no. I actually let him borrow it.” And Valjean asks him, “Why?” And he says, “I forgive you.” And Valjean is so overcome with the bishop’s forgiveness he sings this beautiful song, “What have I done?” And the point of the song is, he’s going to lead a new life. And the last view lines of that song capture what I think Zephaniah is trying to tell us tonight. They go this way. “I am reaching, but I fall, and the night is closing in. And I stare into the void of the whirlpool of my sin. I’ll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin.”
That’s the message of the cross. To all of us and all our shame, another story must begin. And here’s the good news. It has begun, 2,000 years ago. We can say with Valjean, “That old us is nothing now because another story has begun in Christ.” The end of that story is resurrection – past and future. And the end of that story, therefore, is the end of shame. Let’s pray.
Father, tonight we feel it so keenly. We feel our shame and we need another story to take its place. And we rejoice that as we listen to Your Word, we are not hearing the musings of some ancient near-eastern mystic. We are hearing Your words which have redefined us, given us new life, and therefore has given us a true story by which we can live for the rest of our lives. Make that a reality for us this week we pray, in Jesus’ name, amen.
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