By Suzanne Nicholson
December 17, 2021
A number of years ago, while attending a faculty retreat at a lakeside resort, God spoke to me through the beautiful surroundings. I was walking along a road near the lake, but the view was obscured by a large stand of evergreens. The trees were thick and luxurious, and I thought about the loveliness of God’s creation. Then I climbed a hill across from the road, and when I neared the top I turned around and discovered a breathtaking view of the massive lake, enchanting islands, the now miniature-looking stand of evergreens, and a clear-blue sky. My earlier nod to God’s design crescendoed to whole-hearted praise of our Creator God. By raising my vantage point, I could see so much more of God’s magnificent creation. During this walk I had been thinking about someone who knew Jesus but wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about Christianity as I was. God whispered to me that my friend’s belief was not as strong because he had not traveled as far along the path of faith to discover the great scenic views that God has prepared for those who love him. If my friend had climbed the same hillside, he would understand—and share—my great excitement.
When we read the prophets, we may find ourselves wondering how they can remain excited about God in the midst of their proclamations of death and destruction. The prophet Zephaniah declares in 1:14-17 that the great Day of the Lord will be bitter for the people of Judah; because they have sinned, God will bring wrath, ruin, and darkness. He prophesies during a time when the Assyrians had already decimated northern Israel a century earlier. The Babylonians will soon gain strength and threaten Judah in the south: only a few decades after Zephaniah prophesies, the Temple and all of Jerusalem will be destroyed. Although Zephaniah’s prophecy declares God’s punishment upon surrounding nations in chapter two, the prophet begins the third chapter by reiterating that God will bring judgment on his own people—on officials, prophets, judges, and the priests who have done violence to the law.
From a certain vantage point, Zephaniah’s words may leave a person less than excited to worship the God whose words the prophet proclaims. If one stops reading Zephaniah at 3:8, death and destruction seem to dominate the word of the Lord. But our call as believers—and our call especially during Advent season—is to raise our vantage point to see the rest of the story. Imagine what would happen if we only viewed God from the middle of the story: The Egyptian army has cornered the escaping Hebrew slaves against the shore of the Red Sea. A fully armored Goliath towers over the young, under-dressed David. Haman builds gallows to hang Esther’s cousin Mordecai, and he threatens to destroy all the Jewish people. The apostle Peter begins to drown in the Sea of Galilee. God’s messiah dies a criminal’s death. What kind of a God is this?
But Zephaniah and the rest of the prophets do not merely preach doom and gloom. The common refrain arises that those who repent and return to the Lord will experience restoration. In Zephaniah, God promises that those who seek refuge in the Lord—those who are humble, those who do no wrong—will pasture and lie down, and they will not be afraid (3:12-13). The reason for this hope is that the Lord has removed the judgments against the people of God and “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more” (3:15). How can we fear when the Lord is in our midst, “a warrior who gives victory” (v. 17)? This is the Lord who deals with our oppressors, saves the lame, gathers the outcasts, changes our shame into praise and renown, brings us home, and restores our fortunes (vv. 19-20)! It is no accident that we read this passage during Advent, when we remember the first coming of Christ and look ahead to his return. God promises to be in our midst, and thus he sent Jesus, Emmanuel—“God with us” (Matthew 1:23)—who removed demonic oppression (Luke 8:26-39), made the lame to walk (Matthew 9:2-8), welcomed sinners (Mark 2:15-17), restored honor (Luke 7:36-50), and promised both to prepare a home for us (John 14:1-3) and to restore our fortunes (Matthew 19:29). This is the Lord who has removed the judgments against us (Romans 5:12-21).
This Advent, as we remember the Lord’s first arrival and wait for his second coming, we can easily slip into the deception that the middle of our story—a world of racism, sexism, pandemic, church conflict, anxiety, depression, and personal tragedy—reflects the final version of our story. Perhaps we discover small victories where we nod at God’s provision. But we need to climb the hill and gain a better vantage point. Scripture reminds us that there is more to this narrative: God parted the Red Sea and allowed the Hebrews alone to pass through the waters. God empowered young David, using five smooth stones to topple a fearsome warrior. God responded to the faithful fasting of Esther and her people, defeating Haman and saving all the Jews. Jesus pulled a sinking Peter out of the Sea of Galilee. And God raised his only Son from the dead—the first-fruits of the resurrection.
When we read the fullness of God’s story, it becomes easier to find peace and experience joy amid our own chaotic circumstances. How is it that the apostle Paul, chained to a Roman soldier, can declare, “Rejoice in the Lord always! I say again, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4)? Paul recognizes that his current circumstances are not the end of his story. His vantage point focuses on the truth that the best is yet to come.
Paul had read the prophets, and he knew that the “Day of the Lord” had been fulfilled when Yahweh had brought judgment upon unrepentant Israel and the surrounding nations. But he and the other Spirit-inspired writers of the New Testament recognized a continuing meaning that led them to describe a future Day of the Lord when Christ will return and bring final judgment upon all people. It is a time when the faithful will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17, 5:9-10). When God comes again to dwell with his people, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, and God will make all things new (Revelation 21:3-5). The view from this vantage point is breathtaking. May the name of the Lord be praised!
The Rev. Dr. Suzanne Nicholson is Professor of New Testament at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, a deacon in The United Methodist Church, and Assistant Lead Editor for Firebrand magazine, a free online Wesleyan magazine. She is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Council.
East Ohio WCA is not affiliated with the East Ohio UNITED METHODIST CHURCH.
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