Zephaniah: Beware the Day of the Lord

These devotions were written in December 2004 and January 2005.  Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.

1 - 2 - 3  -- [Devotions Archive]

Clean Sweep

Thursday, December 30, 2004 / Read Zephaniah 1:1-3

A few days ago, I wrote about the initial reports of the tsunami that hit southern Asia on December 26.  Today, the gravity of that event has increased greatly as the death toll has climbed to around 80,000.  Probably, by the time you read this, the numbers will have risen even higher.

I can’t help, as I read these opening lines of Zephaniah’s rather dismal prophecy, thinking about that part of the world.  I can’t keep my mind from seeing the images of the wall of water crashing into the land and sweeping entire villages away in a matter of seconds.

That’s the sort of devastation about which Zephaniah speaks.  We can find that sort of destruction in other places as well.  You’ve undoubtedly seen the photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs put an end to World War II.  For as far as a person could see from “Ground Zero” in Hiroshima, both men and animals had been swept away.  The birds and the fish were similarly eliminated, and the people who survived had only heaps of rubble.

In that other place where we have taken to using the term “Ground Zero,” we saw the same sort of carnage.  After the World Trade Center towers fell, no one emerged alive.  Nothing usable emerged.  The whole place became simply a mountain of twisted metal and concrete, smoldering for months to come.

A few years back, I saw the path of a direct tornado strike in the hills of the Missouri Ozarks.  In the course of a few seconds, the storm cut a better fire lane through the forest than a crew of woodsmen could have managed in a month.  Enormous oaks, sixty years old and sixty feet high, were snapped off and uprooted like matchsticks.  That’s the sort of devastation that I imagine when I read these words.  It’s the sort of destruction described in the wake of the 1908 explosion in Tunguska, Siberia.  That event, most likely a meteor impact, is said to have leveled trees as far as ten miles away.  Some herdsmen, twenty miles from the explosion, were knocked into the air and rendered unconscious.  Presumably, anybody who had been within a ten-mile diameter circle around the blast would have been quickly killed.  That’s devastation.

I introduce this catalog of cataclysm to point out something amazing.  All of these events, as awful and jaw-dropping as they have been, are small change by comparison with what Zephaniah describes.  His Day of the Lord is not limited to the coasts of South Asia, cities in Japan, the south end of Manhattan island, a forest in Missouri, or a ten-mile circle in Siberia.  No, the Day of the Lord covers the entire earth.  There is no escape from the devastation.  You can’t thank your lucky stars that you were out of town on the day in question.

What does this prophecy teach us as Christians?  What useful thing can we do with this bleak forecast?  I heard a man on the Plaza today, preaching at the top of his lungs, screaming scripture at passersby.  That’s one response to the grim news that Zephaniah offers.  I’d suggest that while this guy’s message was right, his medium was ineffective.  But with these events in the future, can we afford not to proclaim the gospel of Christ?

The Threshold of Understanding

Friday, December 31, 2004 / Read Zephaniah 1:4-9

Do you ever find yourself reading the Bible and then stop on a particular verse and think, “Now that’s a strange thing to find here.”  Today’s passage has an odd stretch.  My guess is that you found it just as peculiar as I did.  Which verse do I mean?  How about this:  “I will punish all who avoid stepping on the threshold.”  Say what?  You can certainly understand God promising punishment to those who worship Baal or bow down to the stars.  It fits right in that he’d attack people who swear by Molech or turn from the true God.  All of these other things seem reasonable enough, but what on earth is wrong with not stepping on a threshold?

A day or two back, I was scanning the web for interesting information on Zephaniah.  In the course of that search, I came upon a page of somebody who thought he knew a lot more than he did.  This guy explained the “threshold verse” by claiming that in primitive cultures, the household gods were supposed to reside in the threshold.  (And all this time, I’d thought that my household gods were living in the attic!)  Obviously, our great scholar explained, you wouldn’t want to step on the threshold and thus walk on the household gods.  “This is, we can deduce with little doubt, the origin for the old custom of a bridegroom carrying his bride over the threshold.”  Now our intrepid web author had absolutely no source to cite for this information, but that didn’t stop him from drawing this and various other very confident conclusions.  If you do a Google search for “bride threshold,” you’ll easily find at least a half dozen theories for carrying the bride over the threshold, but none of them deals with household gods living in the threshold.

In reality, however, if this brilliant web scholar had simply done a bit of digging in reliable sources, he would have discovered a quite obvious explanation for the strangeness of verse 9 (although no help on the bridal custom).  I had to look no further than my own Bible to get an answer, since a footnote following the word “threshold” in verse 9 refers me to 1 Samuel 5:5.  And at 1 Samuel 5, I find that after the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, they set it in the temple of their god Dagon.  The next morning, however, they found Dagon fallen on his face before the Ark.  After replacing the idol, they found him the next day prostrate, his head and hands broken off and lying on the threshold.  “That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold.”  Oh, so that’s it!

Unlike this presumptuous author, we should walk humbly before both our God and our God’s words.  Alexander Pope was correct when he said that “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”  Those condemned in this passage, like those who follow Islam, Buddhism, Secularism, or any other “ism” the world has to offer, know a bit and think they have understanding.  We must be careful not to cross that threshold.

The Do-Nothing Syndrome

Saturday, January 1, 2005 / Read Zephaniah 1:10-13

I have a confession to make.  When I attended William Jewell, I was a notorious scofflaw—or maybe it’d be a scoffrule.  Allow me to explain.  Every semester at the college, the administration would present a certain number of “lectureships.”  If I understand it correctly, the lectureship grew out of the days when the school required chapel attendance.  Somewhere before my time, some wise soul decided that they couldn’t very well compromise the civil liberties of their students by requiring chapel attendance.  But what to do?  They determined to present lectureships.  They’d invite some liberal professor from some liberal seminary to come in for a week and explain why God didn’t really mean any of that stuff that he said in the Bible.  Repeat that process a half dozen times during the semester and you have the lectureship series.  Students were required to attend a percentage—three-quarters, as I recall—of the lectures during the semester.  The college catalog made it quite clear that students who fail to attend the required number of lectures “may have their relationship with the college re-evaluated.”  I think I went three times in two and a half years of resident study at William Jewell.

I’d love to claim that my almost non-existent attendance at those “required” lectureships indicated my bold disapproval of the theological stance they sought to promote.  In reality, I just didn’t feel like going.  Somehow I had recognized that the vague threat in the catalog was nothing more than a threat.  Each semester, I’d receive a letter from the dean, indicating his terrible disappointment in my lack of attendance.  Each semester, he’d use the vague language from the catalog to remind me that my relationship with the college may be re-evaluated.  Beyond that, nothing ever happened.

At Southwest Baptist University, where Alyson attends, chapel attendance is required.  Alyson explains that you must attend about 75% of the twice-weekly chapels in all but one semester that you attend the school in order to graduate.  And, she assures me, this requirement is actually enforced.

So what happens at SBU?  People go to chapel!  What would I have done had I attended SBU?  I’d have gone to chapel.  You see, I wanted to graduate from William Jewell, and had I thought for a moment that attendance at those crazy lectures was actually required, I’d have been there regularly.

What William Jewell suffered from, back then, was the Do-Nothing Syndrome.  That’s the same condition that allows NBA basketball stars to carry the ball for six steps on their way to the basket.  Hey, if you know you won’t be called for traveling, why not travel?  If you know you won’t get a ticket for speeding, why not speed?  If you know that God won’t react to your sin, why not sin?

These are the people against whom Zephaniah speaks today, those who say, “The Lord will do nothing.”  In reality, however, as the people of Jerusalem learned just a few years after Zephaniah prophesied, God will do something.  While God’s actions might seem delayed, he is not falling into the Do-Nothing Syndrome.  It’s too late for the people of Jerusalem to whom Zephaniah spoke, but we can hear these same words directed at us.  God will act.

Soon and Very Soon

Monday, January 3, 2005 / Read Zephaniah 1:14-18

Time was when real people lived and shopped on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.  You could find a drugstore on one corner, and Sears filled a large building on the west end of the area.  I can remember running out of gas with a friend one night and finding a filling station right there in that hallowed retail territory.

It’s not so today.  No, today such pedestrian stores as Sears and Macy’s have given way to Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany’s.  The gas station is gone, as is the drug store.  The one place that remains from those earlier days is a McDonalds, tucked away in the old Sears building, and it seems to cater more to employees of the area than to the customers.

When I drove into the parking garage in my six-month-old Toyota Corolla, I felt as if I were driving a heap.  All around me were gargantuan SUVs, gleaming with a sheen that said these vehicles would never go off the road.  Also gracing the parking garage were any number BMWs, Volvos, Mercedes, and all the other “prestige” cars you can imagine.  As I headed out to the street, I saw people wearing outfits that cost more than my twice-monthly paycheck.  I felt suddenly rather shabby looking.

Next to the parking garage, I walked past one of two churches actually within the Plaza confines.  One of those two is a Christian Science outpost.  This one, however, is Unity Temple on the Plaza, a sort of cathedral to New Age-ism.  On its door, I read a sign identifying them as a place where “diversity is praised.”  I’ve heard about “celebrating diversity,” but never “praising diversity.”

I thought about that for a moment.  When you praise diversity, what are you praising?  You’re praising people.  The message is fairly easy to decode:  “I’m okay.  You’re okay.  We’re all people, and we’re all great.”

Rounding the corner, I then encountered the street preacher I mentioned a few days back.  “Maurice’s can’t save you,” he shouted to anyone who would listen.  “Your clothes and your money can’t save you!”  Had he been reading Zephaniah?  Had he just read “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath”?  Perhaps.

Don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not saying that everybody who shops on the Plaza is some sort of hyper-secular idolater, bowing down at the altar of humanity.  For my own part that day, I parted with over a hundred dollars in the bookstore, and there wasn’t a “Christian” book in the lot.  I’m also not saying that worship of the self is restricted to the kingdom of the snooty.  No, we can find just the same attitudes at Target or Big Lots.

What I would suggest, however, is that most all of us, in our weaker moments, have a sense that something other than God can save us.  We won’t say it that way, but the idea is hiding in the backs of our minds.  Maybe it’s our friends and family, our retirement accounts, our professional competence, our sense of fashion, our church, or any of a thousand other things.  Such a thought is no less foolish than the one described today by Zephaniah.

The Day of the Lord is near, Zephaniah insists.  It’s near and coming quickly.  It behooves us to examine ourselves in the light of that fact each and every day.

Squeaky Wheel

Tuesday, January 4, 2004 / Read Zephaniah 2:1-5

Since we moved, nearly two years ago, we live within easy walking distance of an Applebee’s restaurant.  (Not that we’ve ever walked there, but it’s nice to know we could.)  There’s nothing wrong with our Applebee’s that a little bit of competence wouldn’t fix.  Let me tell you about one of our first visits.

I don’t recall what I ordered, but I remember Penny getting a Patty Melt.  Her meal arrived and she dug into it.  Within a couple of bites, she realized that something was amiss.  “I can’t cut this thing!” she said.

In my typical husband mode, I grunted in her direction and continued snarfing my own food down.

“There’s something in there,” she continued, her voice rising.

This got my attention.  I looked across the table, sacrificing my own gluttony for a moment to my bride’s temporary crisis.

She scowled at her plate, her hands and fork performing a delicate surgery on the meal in front of her.  “I don’t believe it,” she remarked as she began to pull something from her food.  “They forgot to take the wax paper off!”  Indeed, there was a layer of waxed paper with cheese melted neatly against it.  And, as she examined further, another square of paper lined the second slice of cheese.

We called the waitress over.  She seemed singularly unimpressed.  She summoned the manager.  You’d have thought that we were complaining about what direction our French fries were pointed from his response.  Although he didn’t say it in so many words, his reaction was pretty clear:  “Big deal.  Shut up and eat your waxed paper.”

I mention this event because it’s so atypical.  Only at this Applebee’s (63rd and Blue Ridge Cut-off in Kansas City, if you must know) have I seen a manager treat a genuine problem so casually.  Another time, one of my kids found a piece of plastic in their food.  His response?  “We have nothing plastic in our kitchen.”  Amazing.

No, the usual restaurant manager understands the importance of preserving their clientele.  I once had a guy at On the Border give me a meal for six free and then throw in a twenty-five dollar gift certificate just because I found the waiter a bit surly.  I’d have been pleased to get my drinks for free, but you can bet that I kept going back to that restaurant.

The squeaky wheel, it is said, gets the grease.  Sometimes, it seems, it gets more grease than it deserves.  In today’s reading, Zephaniah, after describing all manner of doom headed the way of the wicked, urges the humble of the land to seek the Lord.  He encourages them to ask for mercy, to seek righteousness and humility.  Perhaps, then, they’ll be sheltered when the time comes.

Although we can have confidence of our redemption, we should not assume that we’ll never feel the effects of God’s wrath.  We do well to seek righteousness and humility.  We do well to ask for God’s shelter from the effects of our sin.

So Few Lions

Wednesday, January 5, 2005 / Read Zephaniah 2:6-9

Newspaper editors love concise letters to the editor.  Ramble on for a thousand words, and they’ll either discard your brilliance or chop it into something manageable.  Say something coherent in a hundred words or less, and you’ll absolutely make their day.  Imagine the delight, then, that must have coursed through the op-ed page at the Los Angeles Times when, shortly after the 2004 election, they received this letter:

“So many Christian.  So few lions.”

That was the whole text of the letter.  The author’s name and town took up as much room as the letter.  This hateful letter, however, isn’t an isolated expression.  No, God’s people have been getting verbal abuse in respectable forums like this one for years.  Christians are widely considered ignorant, deluded, self-deceived, foolish, or duplicitous.  Every negative thing that can be pinned onto Christians is amplified twenty-fold.  For example, when Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart had moral failings, way back in the 1980s, they got plenty of press.  I can’t really fault the news people for covering those stories, but to hear people talk today, you’d think that it had just happened last week, as if those two episodes, serious as they were, twenty years ago, were typical of Christians.  It’d be a lot like suggesting that the misadventures of Billy Carter in the late 1970s were somehow indicative of Democrats today.

This past Christmas season, we heard a great deal about people who wanted to ban any public expression of religious celebration.  Where publicly-funded universities used to have strong Christian values, they now scarcely tolerate any expression of Christianity on their campuses.

In a recent exchange on my campus, I heard people respond to the assertion that Christian values were marginalized in higher education.  And how did those people respond?  One person simply dismissed the entire assertion as fiction.  A second muddied the waters hopelessly by falling into that tried and true technique of avoidance: questioning of definitions.    A third person launched into a firestorm of rhetorical bombast that effectively accused anyone who wanted to gain a more open Christian voice in the academy of attempting a right-wing coup.  The funny thing to me is that each of these people thought themselves to be behaving quite reasonably.  Did they see themselves as insulting and abusing Christians?  Certainly not.

As frustrating as this sort of behavior is, I recognize that it’s nothing compared to what happens in other parts of the world.  And it’s nothing compared to what Zephaniah heard, I’d imagine.  Zephaniah records God’s words:  “I have heard the insults of Moab and the taunts of the Ammonites, who insulted my people.”  Today, the Moabites and Ammonites don’t insult God’s people any longer.  Do you know why?  It’s because those nations have been blotted out of existence.  God took care of that just a few years after Zephaniah spoke.

Today, we have no need to return the insults that the secular world directs at us in kind.  We have no need because we can be confident that God hears those insults, and God will deal with them in his own way.  It’s probably not the most Christian thing I’ve ever thought, but I’m rather looking forward to that day.

I’ll Show You!

Thursday, January 6, 2005 / Read Zephaniah 2:10-15

Admit it.  You’ve said it.  You’ve taken the rebuff, reproof, or rejection of somebody at some time, and you’ve said something to the effect of “What do they know?  I’ll show them!”  Maybe you were operating in true comic-book-villain form, laughing maniacally as you raved, “You’ll be sorry!   You’ll all be sorry!”  Or maybe you just set your chin and decided that you were indeed going to put straight all the doubters in your life.

At the heart of the movie Rudy is that underdog’s sense of “I’ll show them!”  Rudy dreamed of attending Notre Dame, but his grades were mediocre and he wasn’t big enough to play football for the munchkins.  But what did Rudy show us?  He showed us that if you stick to your guns, if you set a goal for yourself, if you want something badly enough, then you’ll get to suit up for a game at South Bend, and you’ll get to play a couple of plays in the last game of your senior season, and you’ll get to sack the quarterback as the clock runs out.  Wow!

The problem with the “I’ll show you!” mentality, with all due respect to Rudy, is that it doesn’t always work out.  A few years back, my office mate and I both had a student named Crystal.  An older-than-average freshman, Crystal wanted nothing more than to be an elementary school teacher.  She landed in Carmaletta’s Writing Strategies class, two steps below Composition I.  In other words, this would-be teacher, came to college with writing skills worse than the typical eighth grader.  Crystal worked exceptionally hard that first semester and limped through the strategies class, finding her way to my Introduction to Writing class (one step below Comp I) the next semester.  By taking advantage of every opportunity to revise her work, by taking me up on every offer of extra credit, by spending hours in the Writing Center and my office, Crystal managed to earn a C for the semester.  It was when Crystal reached Comp I that the wheels came off.  She wanted it badly enough.  She worked hard enough.  She stuck to her guns every hour of every day, but her mind just wasn’t up to the challenge.

When I worked for the Boy Scouts, I remember a guy mouthing the old cliché:  You can do anything you want if you want it badly enough.  What rubbish!  Do you suppose that John Kerry failed to become president this year because he just didn’t want it badly enough?  Did Mr. Bush just want it worse?  Did Howard Dean’s “want-to” fail him last winter?  Or maybe the truth is that we can’t always do whatever we want to.  Perhaps we can’t always show those people who bring us down.

Zephaniah couldn’t show the wicked people of his day.  His running-mate Jeremiah couldn’t do it either, but both of them worked for the Living God, who could indeed show everybody.  Zephaniah’s promise sounds strangely worded:  “The Lord will be awesome to them.”  That’s “awesome” as in full of awe.  He make their jaws drop!  A less refined translation might render it, “The Lord will show them!”

“It is mine to avenge,” God says in Deuteronomy 32:35.  As tempting as we might find it to “show” the doubters of this world, we must acknowledge that the only one capable of truly showing them something worth showing is our awesome God.

I Scream, You Scream

Friday, January 7, 2005 / Read Zephaniah 3:1-5

Yesterday, I mentioned a former student, Crystal.  Today, I’d like to share with you some information about a couple of other former students.  I’ll call them Ben and Jerry.  In reality, I could tell their story a dozen different times with a dozen different pairs of students, but Ben and Jerry happened to come into the class friends and have remained joined in my mind ever since.

On the first day of every semester, I ask students to write a brief essay on some simple topic.  That semester, the question was this:  “If you woke up in the night and found your house on fire, what one thing would you take out with you?”  The purpose of this little diagnostic writing is simple.  I’m trying to identify the students who have no hope of surviving the course so that I can try to convince them to transfer into the next course down.  I’m also trying to figure out the various strengths and weaknesses of the class.  Ben wrote a fairly typical essay.  In fact, his work might have been a bit above average.  It’s the sort of essay that I look at and think, “Yeah, you ought to be able to earn a B in this class without too much trouble.  Maybe you can get an A.” 

Jerry, on the other hand, handed in a disaster.  His sentences rambled around, hopelessly searching for a nonexistent thesis.  The grammar, punctuation, and spelling were abysmal.  Clearly, here was a person who would have to work exceptionally hard to pass the course.  I advised Jerry to transfer into Introduction to Writing.  He declined, as was his right.  I then tightened my shoelaces and prepared for a very long semester with this young man.

The strangest thing happened, however.  Throughout the semester, as I commented on his papers, Jerry read my comments carefully.  Not only that, but he worked to actually understand what I was saying.  And to top things off, he went so far as to try to do the things that I’d suggest.  The pattern established itself almost immediately.  On the day after I’d hand a paper back, he’d show up in my office door.  “You said that I needed to work on transitions.  I worked on them.  Is this what you had in mind?”  He’d hand me a new draft that he had dutifully revised.  And over time, amazingly, Jerry started to do pretty competent work.

Ben, on the other hand, wouldn’t listen to anything I said.  He knew that he was a “really good writer.”  Some teacher back in junior high had apparently told him he was a “really good writer” and he had believed that teacher.  Since he was a “really good writer,” nobody had anything of value to tell him, and so he plodded through the rest of his academic career irritated that the remainder of his teachers failed to recognize him as the “really good writer” that he clearly was.  Not surprisingly, Ben failed to improve over the semester.  Rather than earning that easy B he should have gotten, he bumbled to a C.  It’s enough to make you scream.

Jerry, on the first hand, improved sufficiently that he not only didn’t fail, but he earned a quite respectable C for the course.

I think of these two—Ben especially—when I read Zephaniah’s criticism of the person who obeys no one and “accepts no correction.”  Although we aren’t filled with all the wickedness that this passage describes, we can all sometimes see ourselves in this description of resistance.  God will correct us, directly or through others, if we’ll open ourselves to that correction, and that correction can give us a treat far better than ice cream.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that.)

Wait for Me

Saturday, January 8, 2005 / Read Zephaniah 3:6-8

I’m not the world’s most patient person.  I’m probably not in the top billion.  Tonight, just after dinner, the kids pestered and cajoled us about playing a game.  My first reaction was to say “no.”  After all, didn’t I have important things to do rather than play a board game with my kids?  Didn’t I have things like  . . . well, you know, important stuff?  In reality, I had nothing essential to do, certainly nothing that could be construed as more important than spending time with my kids.  If I hadn’t sat at the table to play that game, I’d have probably been watching some nonsense on the TV or looking up things I couldn’t afford to buy on eBay.

Now it’s not that I don’t love my kids or that I resent playing a game with them.  It’s just this patience problem that I have.  Tonight, four of us—Olivia, Tom, Penny, and me—sat around the table and played Life.  That isn’t the slowest possible game.  We’re not talking a game of Monopoly proportions.  You don’t have conquer the entire world like you do in Risk.  No, Life moves along at a reasonable clip.  You never move backwards.  Barring everyone rolling ones all the time, the game will get finished inside an hour.  But I just struggle with the pace at which my kids get things done.  I get impatient with them as they figure out how to cobble together $65,000 in play money.  I stew over having to remind them when it’s their turn.

Tonight, I shifted and stirred in my seat.  I got grumpy when Penny had to get up to change Sydney’s diaper.  I groused when the telephone rang.  And most of all, I grumbled when the game seemed to be going against me.  After taking the college route at the game’s beginning, I became a professional athlete.  (Yeah, that sounds like me.)  And my salary was $20,000.  What kind of professional athlete is that?  I hit all the various landmines available along the trail.  A tornado hit my house—a $40,000 house—and did $125,000 in damage.  That’s some interesting stuff.  Did I have insurance?  Of course not.  And then each time the kids stalled out making change or figuring out their move or finding their piece on the board, I got more and more agitated.  After all, I might have had some junk email that had accumulated over the past couple of hours.  You have to keep that stuff deleted, you know!

In the end, the weirdest thing happened.  Despite my grousing and complaining, I won the game.  I didn’t think I was winning, but I did.  My kids, much to their credit, didn’t complain a bit.  They just seemed pleased that we’d played the game with them.

“Wait for me,” God says in Zephaniah’s verses today.  God’s big on asking people to wait.  The people of Israel had to wait for hundreds of years in Egypt.  They waited for the Messiah.  Now we’re waiting for the Messiah to return.  God answers our prayers, but sometimes he wants us to wait.  For those of us who are accustomed to getting things done, to making things happen, “Wait for me” can be the hardest commandment.  Maybe that’s why God gave me kids: to give me practice with waiting.

The Umble Uriah

Monday, January 10, 2005 / Read Zephaniah 3:9-13

I read Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield when I was in eighth grade.  Eighth grade is not the place to look among boys if you’re looking for humility.  My recollection of that year is of a bunch of well-dressed thugs constantly attempting to get the upper hand on one another.  We tormented each other in the gym and locker room.  We stole each others’ locker combinations.  We called each other names that would make a sailor blush.  No, no humility there.

One of the characters in David Copperfield is a law clerk, who is working constantly to learn the law and improve himself.  He is the humble Uriah Heep.  We know Heep to be humble because he constantly reminds us of it.  Actually he calls himself “umble.”  In a telling exposition of his place in the world, Uriah Heep explains himself:

“I am well aware that I am the umblest person going,” said Uriah Heep, modestly; “My mother is likewise a very umble person. We live in an umble abode, Master Copperfield, but have much to be thankful for. My father's former calling was umble. He was a sexton.”

“Humble,” of course, can mean a couple of different things.  In one sense it means lowly, as in Heep’s “umble abode.”  But in another sense, the one that Heep sought to evoke, it refers to one’s self image.  A humble person does not think too highly of himself.  He knows his place.

In the end, of course, we learn that Uriah Heep is anything but humble in this second sense.  While he starts out the novel as a most lowly clerk working for a prosperous lawyer, he eventually manipulates matters to such a degree that he nearly ruins his employer, David, and David’s aunt.  Whatever humility Heep possessed was quite false.

Copperfield, on the other hand, is a meek man.  He thinks neither too highly of himself nor too lowly.  He keeps what power he holds under control—except for when he bit his awful stepfather.  I’m told there are only two characters in the Bible referred to as meek:  Jesus and Moses.  Both men held great power and both kept it under control.

Today, Zephaniah, in a rare moment of positive thinking, describes a world in which the truly humble and the meek are all that remains, as the arrogant and malicious have been swept away.  Since we can’t have any impact on when this great Day of the Lord comes to pass, many of Zephaniah’s words might seem only to be curiosities, but these words today can provide us with a pattern for sanctification.  Just as God will ultimately sweep away all the lies and hatred from the world, we should seek to eradicate those same things from within our own lives, saving God the trouble later.  Who among us can claim to be uniformly meek and humble, trusting only in the name of the Lord?  Not me.

Like Uriah Heep, we should strive to improve ourselves, but unlike him, we must make improve in the direction of God.  We should work to gain more power than we possess today, but we must also cultivate the ability to control that power.

Your Problem Now

Tuesday, January 11, 2005 / Read Zephaniah 3:14-17

I had planned it and prepared it.  I’d made an open secret of it, so nobody involved—which amounted to all of four people within earshot—seemed surprised when I actually said it.  The date was June 30, 2002.  The occasion, Emily’s wedding.  I walked my oldest girl out of our house, down the steps to the deck, and then across the lawn to where the rest of the wedding party waited.  There stood the minister and the groom, Christian, under the little pergola that Penny and I had built just before learning that we’d be hosting a wedding that summer.

The minister asked the requisite question, “Who brings this woman?” or whatever it is.  I answered in whatever manner that I was supposed to.  Frankly, I was incredibly proud of myself for keeping a dry eye, so I didn’t pay too much attention.  I’ve been known to tear up at a dead butterfly, so this wasn’t a picnic for me.  I think my answer was “Her mother and I.”  With that said, I kissed Emily and then leaned over toward Christian.  No, I didn’t kiss him.  I just whispered a brief sentence, the one I’d been concocting in my mind for Emily’s husband since she was in junior high.

“She’s your problem now,” I whispered.  With that, I headed to my seat beside Penny.

Of all the foolish things I’ve ever said—and there have been some profoundly foolish things in my mouth over the years—this one has to be the top of the pile.  As I write these words, Emily is the mother of my two grandchildren.  And where are those kids staying tonight?  Here.  Who do Christian and Emily turn to when they’re short of cash or need a ride or want advice?  Me.  “She’s your problem now”?  Foolishness.

A month or so back, I waxed absolutely rhapsodic about the joys of turning in grades.  There is something marvelous about effecting closure on something.  It’s wonderful to be able to say, “I don’t have to worry about that anymore!”  The sad fact of our existence, however, is that we rarely get to stop worrying about anything.  In reality, those things that were ever truly worth us worrying about in the first place tend to stay with us and proliferate.  Not only have I not been able to stop worrying about Emily, but now I get to worry about Christian.  Now I get to worry about Sydney.  Now I get to worry about Ira.  The worries won’t stop.  Emily will never stop being my problem, although hopefully the nature of that problem will continue to change in coming years.

I’m reminded of these things today because of Zephaniah’s words about Jerusalem.  When have the Jews ever been able to stop worrying about Jerusalem?  They thought, perhaps that their worries were over in the days of Solomon, but instead, the worries were just delayed.  They’ve seen exile and conquest.  They’ve seen a long dispersal around the world.  Perhaps in 1967, they thought that their centuries of worrying had ended, but no.  When will the worries end?  They’ll only end when God puts an end to them.

The same goes for my problems—whether they be my temptation toward sin, my children, my finances, or my health.  Those problems might seem to subside, but they won’t go away until God quashes them.  What a day that will be, when my Savior leans over to me and says, “They’re my problems now.”

Says Who?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005 / Read Zephaniah 3:18-20

Kids are different these days than they were during my childhood.  Now don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not saying that we were all angels, because we certainly weren’t.  The guys with whom I ran back in the day caused plenty of mischief and mayhem.  In that regard, the average kid isn’t really all that different.  But there is one notable way in which kids seem to have changed—for the worse, I’m pretty sure.  Let’s take a look at beginning Boy Scouts, boys of 11 and 12, for an example.

When I was in those first years of Scouts, I witnessed and perpetrated plenty of stuff that didn’t exactly bring joy to the hearts of the leaders.  But when those leaders spoke, by and large, I listened.  So did my best friends.  In fact, during the years of my youth, the average suburban kid held adults as authority figures.  When Mr. Christina or Mr. Shaw or Mr. Miller or Mr. Anybody told us to go to bed, we went to bed.  When they told us to stop eating, we stopped eating.  When they told us to be quiet, we were quiet.  Now, of course, we’d creep out of our tents, sneak food, and whisper into the wee hours, but we would never have thought to look at these various Misters and defy them.

Around my twentieth year, I helped out with my old Scout troop for a while.  The boys who’d been brand new when I was an older scout were now leading the show.  Things remained the same.  The boys still listened, however resentfully, to Mr. Coffman and Mr. Vest and even young Mr. Browning.  They at least made a show of respect.

Around my thirtieth year, I volunteered to help with a troop at my old church.  I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere during that decade in between, things changed.  The Misters seemed to have all gone away, replaced by Ralph, Jim, and Mark.  That wouldn’t have troubled me a bit by itself, but the overall attitude of disrespect did bother me.  How do you deal with kids who simply stare at you as if you were the lowest of the low.  When we told them to go to bed, stop eating, or be quiet, they’d glare at us with the insolence of cats.  Their entire attitude screamed, “Says who?”

I wish it were only those kids, in that Independence scout troop who had changed, but I’ve discovered that defiant kids have become the rule rather than the exception during my lifetime.  I can’t say when, exactly, the transformation took place, nor can I blame any particular cause for this change, but the change has happened.  I’ve seen it in schools, scouts, and church.  Adults will talk to kids, and the kids look back with an attitude that asks, “Says who?”

How do you deal with such kids?  My strategy is to convince them that I am someone worthy of their attention, someone they must heed.  That tends to work out pretty well.

Three times in the pages of Zephaniah we see God establishing his own authority by following up a pronouncement with the words “says the Lord.”  As we read this prophecy and the remainder of the Bible, we need to keep constantly in mind the idea that this book isn’t simply the words of man.  These are the words that the Lord says.  We can disregard them, but we do so at our own peril.

Tune My Heart is primarily an aid to the devotional life of its author, Mark Browning, who holds the copyright for this material.  It is provided online in hopes that some will find it edifying.  All contents, unless otherwise noted, may be redistributed freely provided that you give credit for its origin and do not charge anything.