What do we hope our worship of God produces? Do we gather expecting God to work through us or do we only hope God works for us?
The reason for our worship of God is just as vital as worship itself. Just like we learned last week from Amos (5:18-20), if our reasons for our worship are not in order, worship simply becomes a show rather than a committed way of living. It does not become a show for God either, but a show for us. At that point, we cease to become a congregation and become the audience we are concerned with pleasing, rather than pleasing our only audience in worship: God. God hates all productions in which he is given the role of “supporting actor.” God desires to be the central agent of change through whom all other resources are defined and used.
We encounter a similar detest from God for the worship of Zephaniah’s Israel. As we read we discover two primary reasons for this detest. First, we see that they are careless towards the activity of God (V12). They do not seem to care if God does anything good for them and what is worse, they do not even care if God does anything bad to them! It is one thing to question if God will bring goodness, but to not even care if God brings evil upon the community is to both profane and disregard the character of God. This downfall is because of their second characteristic, they are blinded by their wealthy self sufficiency (vv13,18). We almost get a picture similar to the complacent wealth of Tolkien’s Smaug, who spends his days unconscious, inebriated by his power atop a fortress of gold. Similarly, Zephaniah’s Israel has become like wine that has soured and formed thick dregs because of the complacency due to wealth (v12). God is literally “scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
Like the bridesmaids of Matthew’s gospel, we see God as the lamp carrying agent of change. As the light of God’s lamp pierces the shadows of Israel’s bloated opulence, God’s anger towards their wealth and apathy stokes the fires of punishment. We then see a picture of judgment that is akin to and more graphic than Jabba the Hut’s death in Star Wars. Their money bloated, lazy, power lusting people are both disemboweled and left to bleed out (V17). I am not sure which death scene would be more revolting to our people on Sunday, but it is this death that marks the day of the Lord for Zephaniah’s Israel.
Why? Because of what their worship produces.
Israel deeply believed that the center of God’s presence was the temple. By Zephaniah’s day however, the temple had become the center of Israel’s commerce that profited nicely off oppressing the poor. Their hoped for result of their worship of God was only to maintain their lavish dominance. The temple ceased to be the place where God was declared all powerful. Instead, wealth was all powerful, against which not even God could do anything good or bad. The startling truth of Zephaniah’s prophecy is that whatever the desired outcome of worship is becomes the object of worship itself.
This is why our passage begins with liturgical instructions for the congregation: “Be silent before the Sovereign Lord, for the day of the Lord is near. The Lord has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated those he has invited.” (V1) Just as we witness Jesus clearing the temple of the money changers, we see God ransack the excessive riches that have become the center of worship for Israel.
This passage brings a good opportunity to ask our congregations to contemplate in silence what they believe will be produced by their worship of God. We Christians who have been so shaped by the narrative of “I’ll Fly Away,” and “When We All Get To Heaven,” tend to imagine the ‘Day of the Lord’ as a blissful ending to our time of misery here on this earth. However, according to Zephaniah (and Jesus) what is produced by our worship of God will be what actually determines what the day of the Lord will be like for us. Do we hope that our worship of God produces an endless procession of lavish living or righteous living? Do we gather on Sundays praying that we are flooded with spiritual contentment to carry us through the week or for God’s justice to flood the world through us? Whatever we hope our worship produces will become what we worship. If we desire for God’s compassion, mercy, and justice to be the result of our worship, God must be the center of our worship. If we do not gather in worship with the express desire for God to produce light to shine through our good deeds so that the world may know the glory of God’s love, then we are sure to have the light of God’s lamp reveal what it is that we actually worship instead (Matt. 5:16, Zeph 1:12). What do we hope our worship of God produces?