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Zephaniah 3:14-20

My son used to watch a tv show on PBS called Odd Squad. In one of the Christmas episodes, the kids found out one of their friends was on Santa’s naughty list. In order to be on Santa’s nice list, according to the episode, your good deeds have to outnumber the bad. So the kids pulled up a tally of the friend’s deeds and found that she needed five more good deeds to tip the scales in her favor. They spend the episode pursuing good deeds in order to get her off the naughty list. This show is a great example of how hard it is to be a kid under the watchful eye of Santa. He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good…you know the rest. Christmas is a stressful time to be a kid, imagining Santa somewhere keeping track of every move you make, and the stakes are high. No one wants a stocking full of coal.

For some people, God has a reputation of being like aspect of Santa- watching all the time, hoping to catch you when you make a mistake. God is the ultimate scorekeeper, adding a tick mark every time we mess up. And God is making sure your nice deeds outnumber the bad. The stakes are high. In this image, eternity is at stake.

But this isn’t the God we encounter in Zephaniah. The book of Zephaniah begins with judgement (1:10-16), railing on the people for their worship of other gods. The gods they worshipped required them to create high places, in order that they might ascend to the height where the gods resided and might meet them (1:5). The prophet describes an idolatrous people, characterized by injustice and under judgement by their enemies. Zephaniah 1:12 records the words of the Lord who describes the people as “entrenched in sin” and they deserved punishment (NET).

The book of Zephaniah ends not with the verdict that Israel has landed on the ultimate naughty list, but with the good news that their sins are removed and they’ll be judged no longer. After naming their many sins and wanderings, the book of Zephaniah closes with reminding Israel that the Lord God is not like the idols and gods they worshipped. The Lord God is not a long way off, high up in the heavens in an unattainable place. They serve the Lord God who has come to them. And Zephaniah shares: “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst,” and is a God who has “taken away the judgements against you,” (3:15).

With their king in their midst, Zephaniah proclaims, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak,” (3:16). In the Jewish culture, hands represent power and strength. To let them “fall limp” (NASB) is to allow discouragement to take over. The NET translates this as “Your hands must not be paralyzed from panic.” But they will find now that their power is not in their own hands but in the Lord’s. It is not by their power that the victory will come, but by their God and king who is a mighty warrior, fighting on their behalf (3:17). With God as their king, they need not wring their hands in hopelessness. Their hope has come!

Verse 17 continues, “He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing,” (CEB). We would expect a mighty king to rejoice over his own work, or require others to offer him the praise. But our God rejoices over us. I imagine God as a parent rocking an infant to sleep. Just as a parent sings over a crying child to soothe them, so God sings over us and calms with love. This is our God. A God who fights on our behalf as a mighty warrior, a God who is in charge so we need not be afraid. But also a God who cradles us to comfort us, a God who loves and rejoices over us. A God who is proud to call us God’s own.

The text goes on to declare that no one is beyond the salvation and reach of the Lord. “And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise,”. No inability will prevent the people of God from coming home to Zion. For those who have been cast aside, God will seek them out. They will be restored to their people, without mention of what may have lead them to leave in the first place. And God says, “I will change their shame into praise.”

May this passage be a powerful reminder for the people of God of the love of God. A love expressed by the God who is Emmanuel- God with us in our midst. A God who fights on our behalf, sings over us, calms us, goes after the hurt and lost, and does not allow shame to stand in the way of love.