God is big. God is really, really big. God is bigger and stronger and greater and more powerful than anything we can possibly imagine. I mean, take the biggest, strongest, greatest, most powerful thing you can think of, take it times ten, and you’re still nowhere close to God. God is so big and so vast and so everything that you and I are really not capable of getting our minds around just how big God is.
That’s an awesome thing in a lot of ways, and yet in some ways it’s kind of a problem. The reason it’s a problem is that you and I worship God. Or at least, we try to, to the best of our ability. But to worship someone, you have to be able to understand them, at least to some extent. After all, how can we worship someone we cannot understand?
And so we try to understand God. And yet, in a lot of ways, we just cannot do it. God is just too big, just too much, really, for us to ever understand.
And that’s one of the things we’ve run into as we’ve done this sermon series on the Minor Prophets, a sermon series we’ve been calling “Who Are These Guys?” And it’s something we run into as we look at the prophet Zephaniah. Today, we read two sections of Zephaniah. We read from the first chapter and the last chapter. And the two readings seem to say two completely opposite things.
The first part of Zephaniah prophesies destruction. Destruction of pretty much everyone and everything. God says, “I will sweep away both people and animals. I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea…I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all Jerusalem…Be silent before the Sovereign Lord, for the day of the Lord is near.”
There’s more of that sort of thing in Zephaniah. Later we read, “The day of the Lord is bitter…That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness…I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind…Their blood will be poured out like dust…the whole earth will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.”
That’s the first part of Zephaniah. But then later, in the last part of Zephaniah, we read something entirely different. We read, “Sing, Daughter Zion: shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem. The Lord has taken away your punishment…the Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.” And we also read, “The Lord you God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you…he will rejoice over you with singing.”
And as we read both of these things in the book of Zephaniah, we get confused. Because Zephaniah is not a very long book. As we read it, it seems like we go from “God’s going to wipe everyone out and there’ll be nothing left” to “rejoice because God is here to save you” really quickly. Basically, we go from one to the other in the turn of a page.
And that’s why I say that God is too big for us to really understand, or even really to describe. We try. We say all kinds of things to try to explain or describe God. We say, “God is love”. We say, “God is peace”. We say “God is fair”. We say “God is just”. We say “God is righteous”. We say all these things, so many things, really that at first glance they seem to contradict each other.
And that can be a problem for us. We say “God is love”, but then we say, “Really? Then how come God allows so many bad things to happen?” We say, “God is just”, but then we say “Really? Then how come God lets so many bad people do so well. We say, “God is fair”, but then we say, “Really? Then how come some wonderful people are taken from us at young ages and some of the worst people in the world live such a long time?”
From our perspective, there are all these contradictions about God. I’m not saying that they are contradictions, but it can seem like it to us. There are just so many things we don’t understand. It’s not that the things we say about God are untrue. They’re all true. And there are a lot of other things we say about God that are true, too. But we try to take all those things and put them all together and look at what we have, and sometimes it seems like we still are not even anywhere close to having a picture of God that’s even coherent, much less one that’s understandable to us.
That’s where faith comes into it, of course. But you know, even that can sometimes be just kind of a pat, all-encompassing answer that really does not explain or satisfy us. I mean, yes, faith is important, obviously. But faith in what? We get that we cannot completely understand God, but we feel like we need to be able to get some kind of handle on who God is if we’re going to worship God. So what do we do?
Here’s where I think Zephaniah and the other Minor Prophets can help us. As we read Zephaniah, about eighty percent of the book is death and destruction and disaster and doom and desolation. There are only three chapters in the book, but the entire first chapter is like that. The entire second chapter is like that. The start of the third chapter is like that. We go from Chapter One, verse two, in which God says, “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth” to Chapter Three, verse eight, in which God says, “The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.”
But that eighty percent of the book is not the most important part. It is important, no question, but it’s not the most important. Because then comes the last twenty percent of the book. Chapter Three, verses nine through twenty. In verse nine, God says “I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder” and in verse twenty, God says, “I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes.” And everything in between is similar.
Now, that comes nowhere close to giving us a complete understanding of God. But we’re told that everything in the Bible is there for reasons. And I also think things appear in the Bible in the order they do for reasons. There are reasons why, after all this death and destruction and disaster and doom and desolation, these last twelve verses show up. And I may not know all of them, but I’m pretty sure I at least know one.
God wants us to know that there are some bad things that are going to happen. In fact, there are some really bad things that are going to happen. And we’re not going to be able to stop them. And God’s not going to stop them, either. Bad things are going to happen. Period.
But that’s not right. It’s not “bad things are going to happen. Period.” It’s bad things are going to happen, comma. And after the comma comes a “but”. Bad things are going to happen, but the bad things are not going to last forever. That’s why this last part is in the book of Zephaniah. To make sure we know that, no matter how bad things get, there is still hope. There is always hope, for you and for me and for the whole world. God never leaves us without hope.
Because that’s who God is. God is all those other things, too, and God is a lot more things that we have not talked about yet, but God is also hope. God is always hope. God always has been hope. God always will be hope. You know why we say, “Where there’s life, there’s hope”? We say it because where there’s God, there’s hope, and where there’s God, there’s life. As long as we have God, we have life, and as long as we have God, we have hope. God will never leave us without hope.
God will always be way too big for us to understand. Maybe in heaven we understand. Even in heaven, though, I suspect that we really don’t understand. I suspect it’s more that in heaven we experience God, and when we experience God we don’t have to understand.
But I don’t know. What I do know is that no matter what happens, God will be there, and God will give us hope. Bad things will happen, but the bad things will not last forever. No matter how bad things get, there is still hope. There is hope for you, and for me, and for the whole world. Because, whatever else God is, God is always hope.