What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this past Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York, a Spirit-filled church where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed Hebrew Bible passage for this past Sunday, Zephaniah 1: 7-18. I'd love to hear what you think!
So wow… pretty intense message coming out of our first reading from Zephaniah, huh? Earlier this past week I was in the office working out this Sunday’s liturgy with Tina when I went over the texts for the first time, and after reading that passage from Zephaniah, I had one of those face in palm moments… Zephaniah ain’t playing here! All that doom and gloom… “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom… I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung… ouch! Today’s passage from Zephaniah is a perfect example of one of those Biblical texts that makes a lot of confused Christians say things like, “Geesh, the way God’s portrayed in the Old Testament makes God sound pretty mean! That’s not the God I know at all, so it’s not relevant. It’s not relevant, so I’ll just skip those passages and get to all that nicer sounding stuff with Jesus in the New Testament.” Be honest, who here’s done something like that before?
Here’s the thing though… despite the way Zephaniah portrays the voice of God sounding really mean and all, despite all the scary doom and gloom, the historical context Zephaniah wrote for couldn’t better match our own, and thus, definitely has some powerful and indeed profoundly good news to proclaim to us in this time, in this place, RIGHT NOW in twenty-first century Rotterdam. Zephaniah himself says he’s writing during the time of Josiah, sort of the last big, successful king of Judah before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587 BCE. And the times Zephaniah describes are certainly much like our own… “the people rest complacently on their dregs” the text says. Folks in King Josiah’s time lived in relative prosperity, things were okay, but the text repeatedly indicates there was a certain cultural “stuckness” going on in Judah. Sure there was injustice, all manner of sins going on, but in the end, perhaps folks’ greatest sin in that time was complacency or even apathy… a “stuck culture” where thinks weren’t really good, but not that bad, kinda meh… where folks didn’t either want or didn’t think they could do much to improve the situation. Yeah, they sort of continued to worship God, but they didn’t feel like God was all that active in their everyday lives… Zephaniah tells us the people said in their hearts, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” So, the people weren’t really active, and they didn’t think God was all that active either… they were in a “stuck culture.”
That sense of complacency, of cultural stuckness is definitely something we can all relate to. You might remember a few weeks ago when in the midst of writing my sermon I reached out to some close friends, asking them the question “why are we so pessimistic?” Well, throughout the week that followed, one of my friends and I continued our conversation, and at one point he sent me a few texts that describe our situation incredibly well:
Ya know why we’re pessimists… it’s because there is nothing good left to look forward to. Going to the moon for the first time ever. Creating the interstate highway system… the American Dream. We didn’t grow up in a time of great fear that needed to be overcome, yet we’ve just succumbed to the fear anyway.
And summing it up using a slightly less kid-friendly word than I will, he said, “People don’t have the brass to achieve anymore.” I think my buddy diagnosed our stuck culture pretty well. Ya know this past weekend I saw what I think will be considered one of the best films of the decade, Interstellar. Has anyone else seen it? Yeah… it’s awesome… because outside of its entertainment value, while on one level it’s about a not-too distant future where humanity needs to leave planet Earth to survive, on another level, it has a lot to say about our own times as well… that sense of complacently, that cultural stuckness that while not always there, seems all too often to weigh deeply upon our hearts. Speaking in terms similar to my buddy, the main character Cooper diagnoses the stuck culture of his world and ours with some pretty powerful words, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt… yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on… we live in an incredibly stuck culture.
But luckily, it’s into just this sort of situation, a culture of complacency, a stuck culture that Zephaniah proclaims strong, profound and indeed, incredibly good news. Sure, he uses some pretty harsh words, but he uses all the spilling out of blood like dust and flesh like dung for an important reason… to wake us up. My sisters and brothers, you’ve heard the gospel proclaimed to you week after week, year after year in ways that could be summed up, “God loves you no matter what,” “God forgives you, no matter what” or maybe “God saves you, no matter what.” Now, in Christ, we are promised those things are absolutely true, and they absolutely are, and being reminded of such things is as important as ever. Absolutely. But in our time, in our incredibly stuck culture, the gospel message God cries out to us in the words of Zephaniah echoing across the millennia is one that is perhaps even more powerful… in Christ, God is calling you into a life of incredible meaning. In Christ, God is calling you and you and you into a life of incredible meaning. On an individual level, in your families, when you help your children or grandchildren doing their homework, even if the way they teach math nowadays makes absolutely no sense, what you do matters. What you do has incredible meaning in Christ. When you go and visit a homebound loved one or help out a fellow coworker, even in a small way, what you do matters. What you do can’t get you to heaven or get you right with God, because God already takes care of that for us, but still, what you do has incredible meaning in Christ.
On a larger scale, as a society, God is calling us to lives of incredible meaning as well. This past week as I watched coverage of the annual Veterans’ Day ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington, and especially as I heard about Gerald’s flight to DC where he was honored as a veteran of the Second World War, I’ve been haunted by the incredible bravery of our women and men who’ve served in our armed forces… and I know we have a number of them in our congregation. Please stand up or raise your hand if you’re a veteran. Thank you for all you’ve done, for all you’ve sacrificed in service to your country. Now while we prayerfully hope that doing something like defeating the scourge of Hitler never has to happen again, we should also know that we’re still called to dream and solve difficult problems and do incredible things in our time, RIGHT NOW, despite leaders in both of our major political parties and other leaders in our stuck culture neglecting to ask us as a nation to do much of anything… ending hunger, caring for people who are homeless or undocumented, curing cancer, all these things are possible with a collective societal effort. Living lives of incredible meaning, doing things that matter, both on an individual level and as a wider society, isn’t something to be relegated to the past, whether it be two thousand years ago or sometime back in the good ol’ days, whenever those were… God is confronting us with the profoundly good news that we’re called to lives of incredible meaning RIGHT NOW.
And of course, God confronts us with the profoundly good news that we’re called to a life of incredible meaning as a congregation as well. Now let me first say, when you sing in the choir, or help care for our property or teach our children in Sunday school, that already has incredible meaning in Christ. On top of that though, you might recall I spoke last week about a question that the Spirit has certainly put on my heart, and I know on many of yours… “Given all the growth we’ve experienced here at Messiah, what might God be calling us to in that growth?” There was also a homework assignment, if you remember… to brainstorm, to think about needs in our local community, here in Rotterdam and the greater Schenectady area. I apologize, as I know my sermons have been going a bit long lately, I promise to reign it in after my vacation haha, but just take a minute to turn to one of your neighbors and talk about what things you came up with, what some needs are here in our local community…
… We might not be called to build cutting edge low income housing or feed every hungry person in Schenectady as a congregation alone, but whatever needs you talked about, we’re certainly confronted with the profoundly good news that we’re called in Christ to in partnership with others, work on at least a few of those things. As we enter into a busy Advent season as Messiah Lutheran Church, as a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ, I pray the conversations you had keep going, that ideas keep bubbling up. Once we get past Christmas, say in early January, I already heard from a few of you that it’d be a good idea to have a bit of brainstorm session together as a community, to discern what we might be called to do.
Even if the things we come up with seem small, my sisters and brothers, with every hungry mouth fed or family with a warm place to sleep or harmful public policy changed through our efforts, treating our neighbors as Christ is something that always matters. And furthermore, perhaps in doing these things we can proclaim to folks in the ridiculously stuck culture we find ourselves living in that they are called to lives of incredible meaning, that they can and indeed often are doing things that matter as well. For as Zephaniah proclaims, both to the people of his stuck culture and to ours, in this time, in this place, RIGHT NOW in twenty-first century Rotterdam, God is constantly breaking into our lives, stirring things up, making things happen. In Christ, our God has promised to do just that, and yes, as always our God is a good who keeps promises. Amen.
Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.