Bill and John loved to golf. Every chance they got, they hit the links together. They were so passionate about the game that they agreed that whoever died first would come back to the other in a dream to tell him whether people played golf in heaven.
As it happened, Bill went first. The night after his funeral, he came to John in a dream. John eagerly asked him, “Is there golf in heaven?” “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news,” Bill replied, “They do have golf up here, and you won’t believe how beautiful the courses are. The greens are perfectly manicured, and the fairways go through the most gorgeous countryside. You never hook, you never slice, and there’s never a line at the tee.”
“That’s great,” John said, “but what’s the bad news?”
“You tee off at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Have you ever had someone tell you, “I’ve got good news and bad news,” and then ask, “Which do you want first?” In my experience, if people have the option they will usually ask to get the bad news first. That’s probably because they want to get the bad news out of the way and have something good to look forward to, which eases the sting of the bad news. If they get the good news first, they are dreading the bad news so much that they cannot celebrate the good news at all. They may not even hear it.
I suspect that was in God’s mind when He gave this prophecy to Zephaniah: give them the bad news about judgement and destruction and exile first, then give them the good news of return and restoration and rejoicing that will come about later. Not because God would change His mind about their sin, but because His ultimate goal was to redeem them. He would make them His holy people so that they would be fit to return to Judah. As we read in verses 9-11:
“Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings. On that day you will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me, because I will remove from this city those who rejoice in their pride. Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill.”
God would take steps to change the makeup of His people – and that process would require the refining fire of captivity in Babylon. Most of those who went into exile had died by the time God brought the survivors and the younger generations back 50 to 70 years later. And the ones who returned to Judah were the faithful ones. From verses 12 and 13:
“But I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the LORD. The remnant of Israel will do no wrong; they will speak no lies, nor will deceit be found in their mouths. They will eat and lie down and no one will make them afraid.”
Yes, that’s three more “R” words: Redeem, Remnant, and Rest – that could have gone into the sermon title, but there wasn’t room for all of them on the sign. God would redeem the faithful remnant of His people and would give them rest in their homeland. And that would be reason to rejoice:
Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.
On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”
Did you catch that? Not only would the people of Judah rejoice when they went home, but God would also rejoice – rejoice over them with singing, because He had redeemed them. That is what God loves to do.
Here’s more from verses 18 to 20:
“At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you; I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they were put to shame.”
At that time I will gather you; at that time 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,” says the LORD.
Isaiah 35 prophesied much the same:
… and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
And the writer of Psalm 85 also sang about the restoration of God’s people:
You showed favor to your land, O LORD; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins. You set aside all your wrath and turned from your fierce anger.
As did the writer of Psalm 126, who may have been part of the exile:
When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.
You may be thinking that all of this was in the past – more than 25-hundred years past. But was it? Our New Testament lesson today comes from Hebrews 11 – nicknamed “The Faith Chapter” because it tells of many of the great heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible. But verses 13-16 tell us:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Like those heroes of faith from the centuries before Jesus’ birth, we who have come after it also feel like aliens and strangers on earth. Don’t we feel as though this world is moving out of our comfort zone? That is certainly true in terms of advances in technology – but many of us have accepted those hesitantly. What makes us feel more alienated is the core change in the way people think. My generation and those before grew up believing that words had meaning because truth was objective. That is no longer the case. We are told “Truth is what you make of it.” And we had one president who told us, “It all depends upon what your definition of ‘is’ is,” and another who tells us that something must be true because he believes it to be so.
And our values are very much out of step with the march of our culture. Just last week, a charter school in Atlanta announce that it would replace the “Pledge of Allegiance” with the “Wolf Pack Chant” – whatever that is – but backed down in the face of public outrage.
So we as Christians feel as though we don’t belong here anymore. But our passage from Hebrews tells us that we never really did – because God has a better place waiting for us. A much better one. A heavenly city where “the righteous will shine like the sun,” and where there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”
When you feel that you cannot take any more of this world, remember that the God who brought back the captives to their homeland and restored them as His holy people, will do the same for us in a better country – a heavenly one. And He will rejoice over us – because that is what God loves to do.