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Main Street Community Church, Frodsham

Loving God
Loving Frodsham

Advent 1: Zephaniah 3 verses 14 to 20

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Today is the first in a series of thinking about Advent, and that’s traditionally the period, leading up to Christmas when we remember Jesus’ coming as a baby and also the promises that he made about the time he was going to come again at the end of time. Most people today probably associate Advent with Advent calendars and children being excited? I’m sure yours are out there wanting to open one of those little doors every day.

What is there for me to talk about today? We all know Christmas is coming, and most of us have been there before many, many times, some even more than others. What is there new to say about it? And then the second coming of Jesus is almost certainly many, many years away in the future. We know Saint Paul criticized the Thessalonians for acting as if it was imminent.

Is this a priority for us here and now? I’ve probably thought a bit like that in the past, but that’s missing the point of Advent. Advent is about the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Sometimes it’s called the kingdom of heaven. Jesus announced that it had already arrived. It’s not like after the second coming. What did he mean? I thought it was an example when William the Conqueror killed Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

He was from then on King of England, but he didn’t control England. First, he had to be crowned at Westminster Abbey, and then it took several years before his rule was finally established everywhere. God’s kingdom has got sort of similar stages. Jesus’ birth, his death and resurrection and then his coming again when his rule is firmly established. We see that God’s kingdom is arriving or it’s in the Advent phase now.

What should that mean for us? I thought, we rarely say the Lord’s Prayer at Main Street, but we did last week, t hank you. If you think, one of the phrases in that, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s not a request for something to happen at Jesus’ Second Coming, is it? We don’t need to ask. It’s going to happen anyway. It’s a request for our world to be become and be becoming more like the Kingdom of Heaven now.

Can we have this next slide? There we are. Let’s go back to the beginning. It’s God’s rescue plan. We can look at stage one. We always get reminded of this with Martyn Payne at Christmas Journey, I do. I’ve listened to his talk on that about, I don’t know, how many hundreds of times, and it’s always new. Anyway, what we’ve got, we’ve got the creation, and then things went wrong almost immediately with the fall. That’s when God had to put into his rescue plan, stage one.

We’ve already talked about he raised up the family of Abraham to reconnect with the world. This grew to be a nation under Moses, and then a kingdom of their own, reaching to its height under David and Solomon. Then, things went wrong. The kingdom split into two and people were worshipping other gods at times. Also, there were foreign empires threatening the land. God raised up prophets at this time to tell the people the consequences of their behaviour, and what a glorious future did await them if only they were faithful to him.

Let’s have a look at the next slide. There we have the prophets who came at this time. There were some other ones, like Moses and Elijah, but they didn’t write books or have books with their names on, so I haven’t included them. We’ve got the four main ones there, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. We’ve been in the times of Ezekiel already today. They’re the ones who wrote big books.

Then, we’ve got those 12 smaller ones with the Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk. We remember Habakkuk, we used to get him a lot with Dennis. Then, we’ve got this one, Zephaniah. Put it in red for you. Then, afterwards, is Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. There may be small books but they’ve all got gems in them. Zephaniah, as I say, is the one that the reading came from that I was asked to talk about.

If we look at the next one, we can see Zephaniah. That’s his prophecy. I’ll read to you now the passage that we had for today which comes from Zephaniah 3, the end of it. It’s the climax to his prophecy. It’s the really nice bit, because a lot of these prophecies have threats, and “This is going to happen if you do that,” and to the other nations as well. They’re going to get into trouble as well. They always end up with a nice bit at the end.

Sing, Daughter Zion;
  shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
  Daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away your punishment,
  he has turned back your enemy.
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;
  never again will you fear any harm.
On that day
  they will say to Jerusalem,
‘‘Do not fear, Zion;
  do not let your hands hang limp.
The Lord your God is with you,
  the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
  in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
  but will rejoice over you with singing.’

‘I will remove from you
  all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
  which is a burden and reproach for you.
At that time I will deal
  with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
  I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honour
  in every land where they have suffered shame.
At that time I will gather you;
  at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honour and praise
  among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
  before your very eyes,’
says the Lord.

(NIV)

There’s what Zephaniah’s whole prophecy was about. He, again, as I said, told them to repent of their idolatrous ways, and if not, there’d be destruction and captivity. What else was he saying? This is in some of the other prophets as well. After 70 years, they would return to the promised land. Then, you get this from the Book of Daniel. “After 70 times, seven years, 70 weeks of years, the Messiah will come as King.” That’s 490 years. It’s quite accurate. Then, of course, many years after that would be the end of the age.

If we look at the next slide, we can see one verse in particular, as I read. “The Lord has taken away your punishment. He has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you. Never again will you fear any harm.” Now, that obviously refers to Jesus, bearing the punishment for our sins on the cross. For us, that has already happened, but it was in the future Zephaniah. He also says that, “The Lord is with us,” which has echoes of a name given to Jesus at birth. We even sung about it today. Emmanuel, God with us.

There’s another title there for the Lord. It’s the King of Israel, which reminds us what Pilate had put on the cross. King of the Jews. Zephaniah’s message was that there was both good and bad coming, both in the near and in the far, far future. There was a last chance for Judah and Israel to return to God from their idolatrous ways before God allowed the country to be conquered by Babylonians.

There was a turning back with King Josiah. That was the king when Zephaniah was preaching. You had King Josiah’s reform, but it didn’t last really very long, and then we know Jerusalem was captured and destroyed by the Babylonians. As we’ve seen, he says greater blessings are going to come much later when Jesus was going to come. Zephaniah also spoke, as well as Jesus coming, obviously, there will be a full establishment of the kingdom in the far distant future. We could see that there as well when everything’s going to be put right forever.

Now, we can speculate on what the future will be like and who will be sheep and who will be goats-- We heard that last week-- And what will be the rewards and the punishments. I don’t think that’s very helpful, really, because we’ll all end up getting confused. I think we just want to remember what Sue Spilman used to tell us., a ll we need to know is Jesus wins. That’s the only important thing to know.

We can go on to the next slide. Have we got it already? Good. You must have anticipated. That’s God’s rescue plan, stage two. We can see the various stages of that, with, first of all, John the Baptist. Then, Jesus with his atoning death. We’ve had loads of that with communion and everything else, so I don’t need to say more because we know it all. That’s also when Jesus becomes king, and then establishes, if you like, on earth the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, because as I said, God’s kingdom’s already here.

I was just thinking about the thief on the cross. He asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Jesus told him he’d be with him in paradise that day. Obviously Jesus wasn’t going to take him into his kingdom at the Second Coming way in the future. It was there and then. He went to it after the cross. I say, all those wonderful promises that we heard in that passage from Zephaniah, they’re here now, not way off into the future.

If we look at the next slide, you could say, “Why is the Second Coming not happening now if it’s all so wonderful?” There is a view today that God’s not very active in the world. The atheistic view is that there isn’t even a God at all and we can explain everything with science and there’s no great mystery left. I think there can be a tendency, even among Christians, to think that we have to wait until the Second Coming before God judges the world and puts everything right. I heard a sermon at my son’s, David’s, Church a few weeks ago, which is very interesting.

The preacher spoke on a passage in 2 Thessalonians, and that’s the one I’ve put up there. You see what it says, “The day will not come” – That’s talking about the Second Coming – “until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed.” Then, he goes on to say, “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work in the world, but the one who holds it back will continue to do so until he is taken out of the way.”

Now, again, that’s one of these things that we don’t understand fully, but we can get the message. Paul’s saying that things will be bad, but they’re going to get even worse when the one who’s holding it back steps out of the way. Now, we don’t know who the one is, whether it’s the church, Jesus, angels, goodness knows, or, some human person. We don’t know, but we know it’s happening.

God is obviously very active in holding evil back in the world. God’s also active in enriching our lives and blessing our actions when we work for him. There’d be no point in praying otherwise with this. I’m just saying God is active, but there’s these two forces, both there. And t hen you say, ”Why doesn’t Jesus come back and put a stop to it all, now?“

The kingdom is still growing in the world as it is, and it’s not ready for harvest yet. Remember the tares and the wheat. Good and evil are not sufficiently separated and God wants the biggest crop he can get. We’re too closely involved in the world, probably, to see the whole picture. There may be a lot of evil in the world, and a lot we’d like to stop, but there’s also a lot of good in the world.

I’ve never heard anybody praying, any of us anyway, praying, “Oh, how long, O Lord? Put a stop to it.” I mean, asking Jesus to come back now. I think we’re happy with the present situation. Also, of course, there are many new people being born everyday whom the gospel can be preached. God wants the maximum number in heaven. Now, I have been criticised sometimes for saying how church attendances are falling in this country and the future of worshipping congregations doesn’t look very rosy.

I’m not saying that God has given up on the kingdom and the kingdom is shrinking. It’s just that we may have to adapt to doing things in a different way. Or if not us, at least our children will. I read recently in the latest magazine from Scripture Union, they recognize this, and that many young people can no longer get to church on a Sunday morning. There are far too many other competing activities. The National Director of the Scripture Union has just stepped down. He has been replaced by somebody else.

He wants to start helping churches create new paradigms for church for the next generation. Of course, that’s what Martyn Payne does too. I was going to say, if we’d have the next slide, we can see that happening here, with all our much wider number of activities we’ve got for fellowship. We’ve got a wider fellowship. Sunday sandwiches, even today, Thursday coffee, Friday break, Friendship Group, etcetera, and probably others I’ve forgotten to mention. The kingdom’s being built, I think, very much with events like that.

Another change I’ve seen in my lifetime is much greater working together with Christians from other churches. When I was young, one’s particular denominational identity seemed, to me, quite a lot. I used to think the members of other denominations were okay, but they hadn’t got it quite right. That was the difference between the denominations. For me, that feeling is almost entirely gone now, if not completely. I’m not quite sure what denomination I like to call myself and put on forms. I think that’s probably true for quite a lot of us. I think this change is a significant step in the growing of the kingdom, bringing us together.

Then, the third thing you see up there, we’ve got a lot more contact also nowadays with Christians in other countries. Look about how much we learn at all the different Missions of the Month. I was just thinking, we may be wrecking the planet a bit from all that global warming perspective, with all that travelling around. We’re also warming relationships with Christians around the globe. That’s much more kingdom building. There has always be a tension between good and bad in everything we do that God certainly doesn’t want us to do nothing.

Then, if we look at the next one. That’s right, Jesus was a prophet as well. Some of the things he spoke about. He spoke about his sacrifice that was going to come and how he would be king. He always implied that there was still time for anybody to turn to his way. He said that, really, you get the implication that nobody’s predestined to hell, yet, if they’re still alive. Jesus also warned of more immediate dangers. He said Jerusalem will be destroyed and the temple wrecked in the lifetime of his hearers, if the nation didn’t repent.

That’s exactly what happened 40 years later, isn’t it? Israel as a nation state ceased to exist and there was God allowing judgement to fall on His people. There were the false messiahs as well. In AD130, they had a big rebellion again with a false messiah, someone called [unintelligible ? Kosiba] , and it all came to nothing. I was just thinking though, in the story of Jonah, God said a similar fate awaited Nineveh, didn’t it? It would be destroyed. The people listened to Jonah’s preaching. He’s quite sharp. They repented and the judgement didn’t happen. These judgements that God talks about aren’t inevitable.

I was thinking, if we have next one, some of the possible fates for our future, things that could happen within our lifetime or our children’s lifetime.

Any of these could be a terrible thing happening for us, and it’s the church that’s really there to stop it happening.

What can we do more immediately to help build up the kingdom, to do it more effectively? I thought well, maybe we could give a bit more. Gareth told us a few weeks ago we certainly need it for the church. I was just thinking for missions of the month. We’re saying today how BRF need money, all of them could do with a lot more. We’re not giving until it hurts yet, are we? Most of us aren’t.

Can we spend more time in prayer together? I wondered. Many of us are retired, and we do have more free time and we could do that. The early church did that as it says in Acts, “After they did all these things, the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Maybe we could be seeing that. What are our priorities? Anyway, I’m coming to conclusion now, these are the matters we need to think about. Maybe there’s some ideas there for Sunday morning topics and Bible studies.

I want to leave on a positive note, what can we look forward to if we faithfully keep building the kingdom? Can we have the next, last, slide. Well, there’s one to encourage us. What Jesus said to the faithful servant in the parable of the talents, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you’ve been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.”

Then I was going to leave with another of those verses I read to you from Zephaniah that I think is one to encourage us, “The Lord your God is with you, the mighty warrior who saves, He will take great delight in you. In His love He will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” We don’t often think of God singing, but obviously he does. He’s probably singing along with us when we’re singing here. Thank you.

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Scripture quotations marked NIV are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.