This morning I want to share something with you, that Kate shared with me recently—something from her studies. It’s a kind of framework for thinking theologically, thinking about what God is up to in the world. More simply, it’s four words that help explain how things are. The words are ought, is, can, will. Doesn’t get a whole lot less technical than that, does it? One of the reasons I really like this framework is because it reminds us that thinking about God isn’t the special domain of the highly educated; you don’t have to know fancy theological words that nobody else knows in order to say something meaningful about who and how God is. Ought, is, can, and will, will keep us faithful. Like any general framework, I’m sure there are weaknesses. But thinking in these simple terms can get us well on the way to knowing God more deeply, and help us figure out how to work that knowledge into our lives.
Ought, is pretty straightforward. It has to do with the way things ought to be, the way the world is supposed to be, the way it was created to be. We may not be able to perfectly agree on the way things ought to be, but most people, if we pause to pay a bit of attention, are pretty aware that things are not so. As Christians, we have a vision of how things ought to be. The Bible gives us a glimpse of the world thriving and alive with the glory of God, a world that is very good. It lasts all of a page and a half or so, before things go sideways, but it’s there! The first two chapters of Genesis, the first word in Scripture, show us a world created in God’s delight. We see life where there was no life, and chaos fashioned into beauty. We see plants and animals flourishing, ecosystems knit together by God’s loving word. We see God in the dirt, shaping people—people with purpose: men and women meant to show the world what God is like, caring and nourishing, protecting and delighting in all that God had made. We see a world in which the divine and the material are intimate and intertwined. It’s beautiful. It’s very good.
For a Biblical imagination, this is how things ought to be. This is how the universe is created to be: teeming with life, overflowing with love, filled with delight; purposeful without being reduced to usefulness or economic value; humans in partnership to share the work, to care for each other, to tend to creation. The last verse of Genesis chapter 2 says that the humans were naked and not ashamed. I think that’s more than a detail about freewheeling fashion choices. It’s an image of human freedom, of equality (clothes pretty quickly become status symbols); it’s a reminder that bodies are not meant to be objectified, but that they matter in reflecting God’s glory in the world. It’s a reminder that in the way things ought to be, shame and anxiety have no power. Perhaps this offhanded mention about Adam and Eve’s nakedness is a reminder that the things we say and think and believe and hope about God can be lived physically: that stuff gets worked into muscles and tendons, is brought to life in hands and feet—we dare imagine in every part of us.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of attention to see that the way things ought to be is not the way that they are. What is meant to be is not what is: our second word. What is tends to be one of the main concerns of the Biblical prophets, like the ones we’ve been spending time with throughout this Advent season. Jeremiah, Malachi, and today Zephaniah are all deeply aware that the world is made for more than what they’re actually seeing. They look around and they see people stifled instead of flourishing, they see massive social inequality—the rich parading around in extravagance, the poor reduced to rags; they see people not in partnership but competition and worse. The headlines declare not the glory of the Lord, but the next military power. Violence and greed, arrogance and indifference are rampant. In the Genesis story, humans are given a kind of priestly responsibility to represent God to the world and the world before God. But pretty quickly that work was professionalized, and the ones tasked with it give the distinct impression that God is not loving and generous, gracious and good, but vengeful and greedy, arrogant and indifferent. The prophets’ harshest judgment always seems to be for the particularly and professionally religious.
Listen to what Zephaniah has to say about the situation he’s witnessing (3:1-4): Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city (Jerusalem)! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God. The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law. Even if we grant that the prophets tend to be unusually intense sorts, if we let Zephaniah do the pointing, it doesn’t take long for us to see that our worlds might be 2500 years apart, but they don’t seem to be all that different.
Our news cycles are full of instances of oppression and inequality; we know about leaders who refuse correction and plow blindly ahead; we know that we don’t put nearly as much trust in the Lord as we do in fighter jets and the stock market; we have seen how things sacred are made profane, and profane things made sacred; we know that greed regularly undermines creation care, leaving communities soiled, defiled, and oppressed. The prophets we seem most inclined to listen to are not the teenagers demanding social reforms, and climate action, but the leaders who assure us that our private happiness and prosperity is more important than anything, or anyone else—a way that is becoming more and more obviously reckless and faithless.
Suffice it to say, prophets don’t get invited to a lot of Christmas parties. But they make awfully good Advent guides. If we’ll let them, they make us deeply aware that the ought and isness of things are marvellously out of whack. Their passion can cut through our comforts and our indifferences; it can topple the protections we’ve put up to shield us from judgment and relieve us from the hard truth of our own participation in the way things are. There’s an unsettling sort of honesty when the prophet says that all the prophets have missed the mark. Zephaniah’s own desire for something more can create a yearning in our hearts for another way; his intensity can overcome senses that are numb to the glory of God. He wants more for us than what is, more for the world: more of God, more intimacy, more justice, more humanity, more joy. He wants more fullness of life than the sin-dulled ways of the world can provide.
It’s that passion and desire that moves us, maybe a little sluggishly, maybe a little unwillingly, maybe eagerly, through what is. Anyone can do ought and is. The trouble is, if that’s all we do, we’re left hopeless and cynical. Zephaniah spends most of his little book railing against the way things are, holding up the fabric of what is to the light of God’s glory so that all the holes and stains are uncomfortably, impolitely, visible. But because the ultimate focus is God’s glory, his most devoted attention is to God—who and how God was, is, and will be—the mess of things is not the most important thing. Anyone can point out that everything is not as it should be. But attention to God, in the company of the prophets, reminds us that no matter what we are still people in the presence of the God who makes chaos into beauty. No matter what, we are still a people in the presence of the One who is making all things new. And so we move from ought and is, into a whole new set of possibilities—into can and will.
I want to actually jump over can for the moment, and think about will for a sec. Because that’s kind of what Zephaniah does. The last section of his sermon (what we heard today) is this stunning vision of how things will be. The wonder of it overwhelms the disaster of the earlier parts. If we didn’t know the God we’re dealing with here, it would have to be written off as too good to be true. The city that was soiled, defiled, and oppressive is now shimmering with beauty, dancing with joy, light as a feather. Reflexes grown sluggish are now strong and quick, senses sin-dulled are suddenly sharp and alert.
And we have this intertwining of the human and divine that recalls that Genesis glimpse of the way things are meant to be. The people sing praises to God; they are caught up in the wonder of God, made whole by the soothing love of God; but Zephaniah has this vision not just of the people singing, but of God singing and dancing with them, God caught up in the celebration. The Lord your God is in your midst…he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing! We’re reminded again, as we’ve seen so many times before, that ours is not a God content to stay distant and disinterested. This God, the One who made the heavens and the earth, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, is the One who insists on being our God, God with us and for us, God making all things—even us—new.
Zephaniah’s vision ends with a new community gathered in God’s presence and showing the world what God is like—a people whose fortunes are restored. Is doesn’t win. Even ought gives way, to what will be. God’s plan for us and for all things is not a slight improvement of the way things are, but a whole new thing. We’re not going back to the Garden; we’re being gathered into God’s holy city, the commonwealth of heaven—a new heaven and new earth, a new Jerusalem, bursting up along the River of Life, eating from the abundance of Life’s Tree, the nations healed by its leaves, is the way St. John will see it, in the Revelation.
Listen to what God says to and through the prophet: I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame, and gather the outcast, and I will change shame in to praise. Shame into praise. If we’re listening we can’t help but hear the echo of Genesis, that glimpse of humanity unashamed, free. This is how it’s going to be, Zephaniah says. And it may seem like a pipe dream. It may seem hopelessly naïve. It may seem impossibly distant. But Zephaniah invites us in anyways. This is the last thing he wants to say. The mess of things isn’t doesn’t get the final attention. God will get the world God wants. Our eyes are not clouded by what is; they’re opened by what will be.
And we need that, if we’ll do can very well. Ought, is, can, will. Can is where the rubber hits the road. This is where we start to work what we know about God—what God has done, is doing, and will do—into everything we are. This is where the bold and beautiful questions need to be asked, where limp hands and feeble knees are strengthened for good work. Zephaniah doesn’t just give us this remarkable vision so that his sermon will end on a high note. It’s a call to action. It’s an invitation to embody the new possibility we’re hoping for, the world our hearts are waiting for. If we take what Zephaniah and his colleagues say seriously—that God is even now bringing about conditions of hope, peace, joy, and love beyond our asking or imagining—then the call is to start to bring that possibility to life, start living as though it’s true. We’re to look weird enough now, that when God gets the world God wants we’ll fit right in. We’re not stuck with is. To say otherwise is to put our trust in something other than the Living God.
How do we work what Zephaniah show us into our lives? How can we let this vision of wholeness and wellness, of joy and life, of abundance and praise get mixed into the ins and outs, the ups and the downs of our everyday life? What if we pause to pray for 15 minutes at lunch—to give thanks, to remember that whatever we’re doing, God is as close as our next breath, that God created work as a holy thing, so whatever we’re getting up to can show the world something about who and how God is?
Where do you need Zephaniah’s promise of weak hands made strong, or a deeper confidence in the fact that God is on your side, willing your best, that God delights to sing over you with gladness. Can you imagine God singing over you with gladness? Could you pause a few times a day to let that image wash over you, let it shape the way you move through the world? How would it change our relationships if we let the truth that God also wants to sing with delight over our friends and coworkers, our families and neighbors, even the ones we don’t much care for? What would change if we let the joy and wonder, the hope of Zephaniah’s vision be the lens through which we see the world?
As a church, what would it look like to embody this more and more, this deep sense of being gathered into God’s presence as a sign and symbol of God’s grace and love? We do that, of course. But what would it look like to go deeper? Where do we need to ask what our trust is really in? Do we expect God to act? Are we resigned to the way things are, to what is—to secularization, to the loss of religious prestige and power and influence, to a world that seems to be indifferent to what we’re doing here—or do we believe that God has put us here, in this time and place, in order to bring to life what will be, the first fruits of a new creation, as Paul puts it? Are we eager to believe that we can do that, be that?
If Zephaniah is right, then it seems to me that being the Church in and for the sake of the world should be a riot. It’s singing in the face of injustice, dancing in the face of brokenness. It’s people far off, gathered to an extravagant banquet: a table prepared in the presence of our enemies, cups overflowing. It’s shame turned to praise. What does it mean to be a people in the world ready to let God work that kind of transformation in us and through us? Let’s not let these questions just be rhetorical.
Because the promise is that we can do this stuff, and more. There’s no prescription—this is not a step-by-step guide to being God’s people for the sake of the world. But Zephaniah invites us to pray this out, and to be ready to let God do what God wants to do in us and through us. He invites us to step aside from the way things are, from what is and to peek around the corner, perhaps to creep to the manger and peer over the edge, and to allow the wonder of what will be, what is coming into the world, to start coming to life in our lives—here and now, and forever.
May it be so.