“Catch me if you can…” (Zephaniah 2)

It’s bizarre, really—the way that pride can so blind a man.  I’m not just talking about the guy who insists that “I’m just big-boned” (as if anyone’s buying it).  I’m talking about any of us who allow our self-importance to shield us from reality.  In just the past week, Reuter’s published a story about a Texas man who posted his reckless motorcycle antics in a Facebook video titled—get this—“catch me if you can.”  Sadly, the Texas state police “can” and did—arresting the man in connection with several outstanding warrants.

Maybe we’re not so brazen, or at least so public.  Maybe we think we’ve “gotten away with it” because no one caught us in the “harmless white lie.”  Maybe we’ve gotten really good at hiding our internet browser history.  Maybe we assume that if even society approves extramarital sex, then God certainly can’t make it a big deal.

Can He?

A CALL TO REPENTANCE (2:1-3)

As we saw yesterday, the message of Zephaniah is simple: judgment precedes blessing.  The bulk of Zephaniah 1-2 is devoted to explaining the judgment that would be poured out.  Listen to the way God (through Zephaniah) describes His people:

Gather together, yes, gather, O shameless nation,  2 before the decree takes effect–before the day passes away like chaff– before there comes upon you the burning anger of the LORD, before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the LORD.  3 Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD.  (Zephaniah 2:1-3)

They are “shameless,” he says.  There was an era when “shame” was built into our legal system.  Remember the “stocks?”  Chances are you have a family photo (or three) of yourself posing in these outdoor contraptions from a family vacation to colonial Williamsburg.  The point was simple: the shame of being publicly identified as a criminal was a deterrent against crime.

More recently, some judges are handing out unusual “shaming” sentences, in which criminals are sentenced to holding signs by the interstate with a description of their crime.  Such a “regress” has prompted many in the social sciences to question the value of such tactics.

In the film The Manchurian Candidate (the original, not the remake), the lead character is brainwashed in a government program to become the perfect soldier—dutiful, obedient, and willing to carry out any order with no regard for morals or consequences.  “If you can eliminate shame,” the doctors say, “you can get a man to do anything.”

I don’t know if pride and shame are mutually exclusive, but I think we tend to feel one or the other more strongly.  When we are proud, we lack shame.  The danger—for Israel as well as for us—is that pride can teach us to smile at behaviors that should move us to shameful tears.  And that’s what God is saying to Israel, calling them steadily to repentance.

JUDGMENT ON NEIGHBORS (2:4-15)

The Israelites were not uniquely targeted, however.  God reminds His people that He is the God of all nations.  The next major section describes God’s judgment on Israel’s immediate neighbors:

  • Philistia (2:4-7)

4 For Gaza shall be deserted, and Ashkelon shall become a desolation; Ashdod’s people shall be driven out at noon, and Ekron shall be uprooted.  5 Woe to you inhabitants of the seacoast, you nation of the Cherethites! The word of the LORD is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines; and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left.  6 And you, O seacoast, shall be pastures, with meadows for shepherds and folds for flocks.  7 The seacoast shall become the possession of the remnant of the house of Judah, on which they shall graze, and in the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For the LORD their God will be mindful of them and restore their fortunes. 

  • Moab and Amnon (2:8-11)

8 “I have heard the taunts of Moab and the revilings of the Ammonites, how they have taunted my people and made boasts against their territory.  9 Therefore, as I live,” declares the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Ammonites like Gomorrah, a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever. The remnant of my people shall plunder them, and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.”  10 This shall be their lot in return for their pride, because they taunted and boasted against the people of the LORD of hosts.  11 The LORD will be awesome against them; for he will famish all the gods of the earth, and to him shall bow down, each in its place, all the lands of the nations. 

  • Ethiopia (2:12)

12 You also, O Cushites, shall be slain by my sword. 

  • Assyria (2:15)

13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, and he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry waste like the desert.  14 Herds shall lie down in her midst, all kinds of beasts; even the owl and the hedgehog shall lodge in her capitals; a voice shall hoot in the window; devastation will be on the threshold; for her cedar work will be laid bare.  15 This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, “I am, and there is no one else.” What a desolation she has become, a lair for wild beasts! Everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes his fist. 

PRIDE, SHAME, AND THE GOSPEL

When defining the gospel, I often defer to pastor Tim Keller, who so famously summarizes it this way: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”  The gospel replaces pride with humility—because I am a sinner.  But the gospel also replaces shame with confidence—because I am a redeemed sinner.

Regardless of whether you struggle with habitual sin or feelings of inadequacy, the gospel has one cure: Jesus Christ.  The task of the Christian life is—to borrow a phrase from Luther—learning to “preach the gospel to yourself.”  In so doing, we replace the cycle of pride and shame with the abiding peace and joy that comes through forgiveness and transformation.

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