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Mr. Ian Garrett: “God Reigning” (Zephaniah 1-2)

March 28, 2008

The preachers of Jesmond Parish Church in the United Kingdom have a series of sermons on the Book of Zephaniah now underway, and one of these is God Reigning by Mr. Ian Garrett. This sermon is based on Zephaniah 1-2 and its subject is the matter of spiritual complacency, which is certainly a snare that can trap any of us. As Mr. Garrett says, this is

because relationship with God is a dynamic thing where commitment needs to be constantly renewed, and where complacency is always possible – the complacency that says that whether I pray or not doesn’t really matter; whether I sin or not doesn’t really matter; whether people hear the gospel or not doesn’t really matter – and so on. So whether we need the Lord to get us out of complacency tonight or keep us out of it, we need this part of his Word…

So spiritual complacency says, ‘God will do nothing good or bad – i.e., there are no serious blessings to be had from being committed to him, and no serious consequences of ignoring him. So why bother? That’s what much of the world is saying: ‘We’re enjoying life without God. And he hasn’t struck us down. So why bother?’ To which Zephaniah says, ‘Bother because although God allows people the freedom to treat him as unimportant or even non-existent, he won’t allow it forever. Because a day of judgement is coming when God will reassert his right to be recognised as God, whether we like it or not. And Zephaniah is all about the reality of that day, our readiness for it, and the reasons for taking it with absolute seriousness. So tonight is about the ‘three r’s’ of judgement day: REALITY, READINESS and REASONS.

This is what he says about readiness:

 What we’ve heard so far is not what we like to hear. It’s like when I go driving out into Northumberland for a walk and you go past those road-signs saying, ‘7 fatal accidents in 3 years.’ And a bit further and there it is again, ‘7 fatal accidents in 3 years.’ And I think, ‘Are they trying to spoil my day?’ And the answer is: no, they’re trying to safeguard it from my own carelessness – Zephaniah would say ‘complacency’. It’s a loving warning. And so it is whenever the prophets, and supremely the Lord Jesus, speak of judgement. They want us to be ready for it, to be on the right side of God, before time runs out. And that’s Zephaniah’s next move. So look down to chapter 2 verse 1:

1“Gather together, gather together,
O shameful nation,
2 before the appointed time arrives
and that day sweeps on like chaff,
before the fierce anger of the LORD comes upon you,
before the day of the LORD’s wrath comes upon you.
3 Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land,
you who do what he commands.
Seek righteousness, seek humility;
perhaps you will be sheltered
on the day of the LORD’s anger.”

Now in verse 1 he addresses the ‘shameful nation’ – i.e., everyone in Jerusalem and Judah, however far away they were from God. So the door of repentance – of turning to God – is open to everyone – then and now. But then in verse 3 he addresses the ‘humble of the land, you who do what he commands’ – i.e., those who’ve been trying to be faithful to the Lord. And what’s striking is that he prescribes the same medicine for both groups. I.e.,, whether you need to get ready by turning to the Lord for the first time, or to stay ready by keeping yourself turned to the Lord, the prescription is the same: ‘Seek the Lord, seek righteousness, seek humility.’

So what does it mean to seek the Lord? Well, Isaiah put it like this:

“Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him [i.e., pray] while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55.6-7)

So in the first place, it means praying, and admitting to the Lord that in the light of his judgement we need forgiving. Now it may be you’ve never done that, to begin relationship with God. You’ve never come to him and brought your whole past to him and said, ‘I realise that so far I’ve not given you your rightful place in my life. And I need to be forgiven and given a new start in life in relationship with you.’ If you’ve never prayed like that, can I encourage you to pick up a copy of this booklet Why Jesus?, which explains how to seek God for the first time, and includes a prayer to help you do that. It’s on the Welcome Desk at the back or through on the tables in student supper.

But to already-believing people, this is saying: keep seeking God in prayer: keep asking his forgiveness. But not just that – keep telling him you want to please him – i.e., renew that commitment of your heart to him – and keep asking him to work in you by his Spirit to enable you to live it out. Because the person who just wants his sins forgiven isn’t actually seeking the Lord at all. He’s seeking a clear conscience, which if that’s as far as it goes, is simply another form of self-seeking. The person who’s really seeking the Lord doesn’t just want to be forgiven his sin; he wants to stop sinning (although he won’t this side of heaven). And if you want a model of praying like that, go to Psalm 51, where David has adultery and murder on his conscience, and prays:

1 “Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions…
[But he doesn’t just want to be forgiven his sin. So he goes on:]
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51.1,10)

But the prayer above all that’s tailor-made to help us seek the Lord is the Lord’s Prayer. ‘Your will be done’ – that’s renewing the commitment of our hearts ‘Forgive us our sins’ – that’s admitting we haven’t lived it out. And ‘Lead us not into temptation’ – that’ asking his help as we try to live it out again. So do use the Lord’s Prayer as a guideline for your personal praying. Seek the Lord.

But then in chapter 2, verse 3, seek righteousness – i.e., carefully try to live right. Because that’s the only evidence that our seeking of the Lord is genuine. Because when we pray, ‘We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins,’ God knows we mean it only if he sees us – albeit imperfectly – resisting sin. And when we pray ‘Your will be done’, he knows we mean it only if he sees us – albeit imperfectly – doing it. That’s what John the Baptist said in our Gospel reading, isn’t it?

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Luke 3.8)

I.e., if it gets no further than our hearts and prayers, it’s not real.

But Zephaniah also says, chapter 2, verse 3, seek humility. Because we’ll never seek the Lord and seek righteousness perfectly, this side of heaven. So we’ll never be in a position to say proudly, ‘I can now face God’s judgement safely because I’m good enough.’ No, the message of Zephaniah and the rest of the Bible is, ‘You’re not good enough and can’t make yourself good enough. But you can be made ready, by turning to God and being forgiven and changed by God.’ And that forgiveness comes to us through Jesus’ death on the cross, as we’ll be remembering later with bread and wine.

So that’s readiness. Not good-enough-ness – which is impossible. But readiness – which, thanks to Jesus dying for us on the cross, is possible.

This is a very good sermon–please read the whole thing, or listen to it here.

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