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The Rev. David Holloway: “God Acting” (Zephaniah 3)

March 30, 2008

Another sermon in the series on the Book of Zephaniah from Jesmond Parish Church is God Acting by the Rev. David Holloway.  This message is also based on chapter 3 of that book, and Rev. Holloway talks about the coming collapse of Judah, the failure of its leadership, and then God’s acting in judgment.  Here are his thoughts about the last of these topics, God’s acting:

The Bible is clear that our God is both a God of love and of justice, of mercy and of punishment. But that punishment the modern world finds difficult to take. It wants what I call, a “Father Christmas” God and little punishment, or if any, it has be “humanitarian”. That is when you don’t punish a person for what they deserve – for that, it is said, would be revenge. Rather the only punishment you can allow is to deter or reform someone. So what do you say? Let me try to give an answer. You will have to concentrate and listen carefully.

First, I want to say that to have no concept of what a person deserves means no limit to punishment as deterrence or reform. Let me repeat that:

“to have no concept of what a person deserves means no limit to punishment as deterrence or reform.”

In fact, it removes punishment altogether from the realm of justice. Justice goes out the window. It is only as it is deserved or undeserved that a judicial sentence is just or unjust. In earlier centuries you could be hung for stealing a sheep. That may deter others. But we say it is unjust because undeserved. It is not like for like, or measure for measure. It is not fair. Equally, totalitarian States like the former Soviet Union can sentence people for a minor offence to correction and reform in mental hospitals for years. But we say that is unjust because it is undeserved and unfair, even if it works. It is not like for like.

You see, the question you ask of deterrence or reform is not “is it just?” but “is it successful?” For justice, you must have punishment being “like for like”. That is what “retributive” means. Only punishment as retribution treats a person as a responsible human being. And only when punishment is retributive does mercy have a meaning. Mercy pardons, and pardoning involves recognizing that someone is suffering a punishment they deserve. Yes, punishment should deter; it should, if at all possible, help reform. But it cannot avoid being in some measure retributive if it is going to be just. And all this is what you have in verses 6-8 – God seeking to deter, God seeking to reform, and God being retributive. In verse 6 God is seeking to deter the people of Jerusalem from acting like other nations, who have rejected God and so have suffered. He does this by threatening punishment:

“I have cut off nations; their strongholds are demolished. I have left their streets deserted, with no one passing through. Their cities are destroyed; no one will be left – no one at all.”

In verse 7 God is seeking to correct and reform his people:

“I said to the city [Jerusalem], ‘Surely you will fear me and accept correction!’ Then her dwelling would not be cut off, nor all my punishments come upon her.”

But there was no reformation. The idolatry with all its brutal violence and sexual immorality continued – and with shameless abandon. Verse 7 continues:

“they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did.”

At that point comes God’s word of ultimate judgment or retribution. God will testify and bring evidence to show that his punishment is just and fair. For God is just and fair. As we have seen in verse 5,

“morning by morning he dispenses his justice”.

So his punishment will be what is deserved. Verse 8 says:

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the LORD, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them – all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.”

Note that little word, “wait.” It’s very important:

“‘Wait for me,’ declares the Lord, ‘for the day I will stand up to testify.'”

You see, in his grace, God has given us a “waiting” period before this day of wrath and judgment. It is this period between Christ’s first and second comings. One day Jesus Christ will return, not this time as Saviour but as Judge. And God, says the Apostle Paul …

“… has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17.31).

There is hard evidence in his resurrection on that first Easter Day for Jesus being not only the divine Son of the Father (the second person of the Holy Trinity), but also for his coming again to judge the world. So one day the world will see the reality of God’s wrath. Yes, this is the reality of “hell” that Jesus spoke about. And you ought to take it from Jesus even if from no one else, for Jesus was so obviously full of love and care for people. And this is what is so vital. You can only begin to understand something of the wonder of God’s love, when you believe in this terrifying reality of the day of God’s wrath or judgment. Let me explain as I conclude. Perhaps the greatest verse in the Bible is John 3.16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

You see, the measure of God’s love is that retributively we all deserve to perish. We have all broken God’s laws and have committed an infinite number of sins, certainly sins of omission (those good things we have failed to do). But God so loved the world, including you and me, that we need not perish but find in Jesus Christ, God’s son, eternal life. God sees all of us naturally going down that broad road that leads to destruction. In his love he puts various road blocks to try to stop us driving on. There are the Bible, Christian friends, Christian Churches and above all Jesus Christ on the Cross, dying to take the punishment that you and I deserve, in our place.

If you choose to drive past (or through) all those road blocks, then you alone are responsible for the consequences. And God’s love means he will not force you, if you want to reject his love. Hell is total proof that God respects your freedom. But inevitably and quite justly, if you refuse to allow Christ to bear your punishment – the punishment you deserve – by refusing to accept his pardon (as Zephaniah and Jesus teach) you will experience God’s wrath and punishment.

The choice is yours – to believe or not to believe in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. If you have never done so yet, why not? Why not believe in Jesus Christ and accept his forgiveness and his Holy Spirit? The evidence is there. You can then be “salt and light”, helping to stop society collapsing and leadership failing. And you will escape, on the one hand, God acting in punishment and, on the other hand, you will receive new life by his Holy Spirit both for now and for eternity. You “shall not perish [says Jesus] but have eternal life”.

Quite an evangelistic message, and one that offers hope to all.  May we all know “God Acting” in our lives and hearts.  You can listen to this message here.

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