“The Peace of God”
Dec. 16, based on Zephaniah 3:15b-17, 19-20, and Philippians 4:4-7
You probably get a feeling of social peril, maybe war, when you read the Zephaniah
text. He has God saying he will “deal with your oppressors,” you “will be brought
home,” and “I will restore your fortunes” (Zeph 3:19-20). It was a time of conflict, and
the kingdom of Judah was in deep trouble.
Zephaniah prophesied in the reign of Josiah, the last reforming king of Judah, the
last king about whom the biblical authors speak with any approval. Josiah died in battle
in 609 B.C. This places Zephaniah’s prophecy right before Jeremiah’s. Jeremiah was the
last prophet to Judah during its waning days of independence, during its war with the
Babylonians, and during the early part of the Babylonian Exile.
Zephaniah is usually thought of as one of the angriest prophets. He promises severe
punishment on Judah and on the surrounding nations, too. But we did not read one of
those passages, but upbeat ending to his book. It even has a hint of Messianic prophecy,
or perhaps it’s the anticipation of a messianic age, more than of the Messiah himself. We
see this promise in v. 15, where he says “the Lord is in your midst; you shall fear disaster
no more,” and in v. 17 where he says “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty
Savior. He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.” No Messiah
is mentioned. It’s God himself who will save them.
It is a very uplifting text. “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak”
(3:16). And we saw that the final promise involved the gathering of exiles back, the
stopping of every enemy, the restoration of fortunes. “I will save the lame and gather the
outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (3:19).
That sounds like a promise from Isaiah, doesn’t it? But it’s Israel-specific; the Gentiles
are not included. All the exiled and injured and downcast Jews will be re-gathered to
their homeland, and will be uplifted rather than shamed. It is a message of hope for
suffering Jews.
This makes me think of the horrible crime committed in Newton, CT on Friday, and
the shattered hopes of the people of that town. There is no way to eliminate the loss that
parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and church members in that city
have suffered. Even the person with the staunchest faith and the strongest assurance of an
afterlife will feel the loss as a pain that may diminish with time, but will never depart.
Even in God’s good universe, it is possible to inflict terrible suffering. But the criminal
cannot deprive anyone of their chance for eternal life. He robbed some people of their
earthly life, but he cannot rob anyone (but himself) of eternal life. For the survivors and
relatives, it is their faith that will carry them through. God will go with them through
every experience, every sorrow.
Of course, the Hebrew prophets were well acquainted with sorrow, with tragedy,
and they saw more tragedy coming. And this makes their hopeful passages all the more
remarkable. This passage, which is the ending of the book of Zephaniah, seems to be a
sort of an Advent text for the Jews, the Advent of a new age, that is. Advent means
something different for Christians. We believe the Advent has happened, the new age has
begun, the Messiah and Revealer came, the Spirit was poured out, and whoever is in
Christ is in the kingdom of God. We learn about love and truth and peace from the Prince
of Peace.
We see more than the prophets could see, not because we are greater, but because
we have been given a greater revelation. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said
“among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the
least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt 11:11). He meant his followers
have received a greater revelation than John the Baptist did. He does not mean they are
greater or more courageous persons. That would hardly be possible. We have received a
greater revelation of what the Messiah is and does, and what love is and does, than even
the greatest of prophets received.
So it is no “knock” on Zephaniah when I say that we all should have a clearer idea
than Zephaniah had of who the Messiah is, what he stands for, how he embodies love,
what his Spirit is, and how he guides us. The Apostle Paul had a good idea of these
things. In this Philippians passage he says, “let your gentleness be known to everyone,”
and “The Lord is near” (Phil 4:5). He seems to mean that the Lord is near at all times,
whether he is coming soon or not. In First Thessalonians, Paul thought the Lord was
coming soon. Here in Philippians he probably no longer thinks that, so he is able to make
the more awesome and important statement, “The Lord is near”—near to all, and near at
all times—to those who are “in Christ.”
What does this phrase “in Christ” mean? He uses it dozens of times in his letters. It
has several meanings, and I’m going to organize them by sets of meanings. First “in
Christ” means abiding in Christ, belonging to Christ, having Christ’s spirit within, and
being led by Christ. Something close to this meaning shows up in v. 6: “Do not worry
about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your
requests be made known to God.” And the strength derived from this experience shows
up in his immortal statement in chapter 4: “I can do all things through him who
strengthens me” (4:13).
But “in Christ” also has a more mystical or participatory meaning, because it means
being connected to the Messiah, suffering as he suffered, and some day arising as he
arose, with a new, spiritual body, being “conformed to the body of his glory,” as he says
in this letter (3:21). It was this participatory meaning, this notion of actually replicating
the Messiah’s experience, that was hard for people to understand, and the idea was soon
lost. Paul was mostly misunderstood, even by those who considered themselves his loyal
followers. Do not feel alone if you have difficulty understanding Paul; even Second Peter
says Paul wrote “some things” that are “hard one to understand” (2 Pet 3:16).
Finally Paul’s phrase “in Christ” has a communal meaning: being bonded with all
the other people who are in Christ, being part of the body of Christ. In the passage that
follows our quote, he urges the church to think on whatever is honorable, whatever is
just, whatever is excellent (4:8). He tells them that “my God will fully satisfy every need
of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19). It’s not entirely clear
what “according to” means in this sentence. It seems to mean God will satisfy our needs
out of the abundant riches of love that are embodied in Christ Jesus.
In the final verse of today’s reading, Paul promises that “the peace of God, which
surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7)
How can I describe what that is like? I experience it from time to time. Maybe you have,
as well. It comes with a feeling of trust and warmth, a kind of surety that can’t be
described. Even in this tragic week when another terrible disaster has struck an American
neighborhood, we can —and we need to—feel the surety that is offered by faith.
We need to keep practicing love toward one another, whether there has been a
recent tragedy or not. The love of God does not change, although it may change tactics,
when faced with different circumstances. The love of God is not changed by anything
that happens. And our dedication to the will of God needs to be unchangeable by any
events that happen around us, good or bad.
This is parental love, like the love of God. Parental love is not changed by things
that happen. The offer is not withdrawn, the forgiveness is never withdrawn, although
people can withdraw themselves, can harden their hearts against the offer to join the
family of God. All are welcome, all who are willing to join as a little child, with no
special privileges, no promises of power or vengeance. Just simply come in.
And pity those who decline such a generous offer. They can cause us sorrow, but
they cannot separate us—they cannot separate anyone—from the love of God.