In Nashville, if you are out raking the leaves or cutting the grass at noon on the first Saturday of the month, you’ll hear the sound of the city’s warning sirens being tested. It doesn’t happen often enough for most of us to be expecting it, but I imagine most folks figure it out fairly quickly, without too much drama. “Drama” is a loaded word: in my neighborhood, people probably remember a March night in 2020 when that warning sounded for real. I know that you all in Cookeville will remember that same day and that same terrible tornado. Back then, the wail of the siren got us up and got us going: an urgent alarm that made us conscious of the danger that was drawing near.
Our first reading today contains a similar warning cry: “the day of the Lord” that the prophet Zephaniah announces. “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand” (Zeph. 1:7). The phrase stands in the tradition of the call to arms, since the “day of the Lord” was the cry that assembled the armies of ancient Israel in time of danger. The “day of the Lord” was sounded when the enemies of the People were at hand and the crisis was near. Like our warning siren, the “day of the Lord” was the clarion call. Now, in other words, was the time for the troops to come to the colors, to sharpen the sword and prepare for battle. Now was the time to get moving and to take action.
When the prophets of Israel took over the notion of the “day of the Lord” from the military planners, they did so to forecast a time when God would intervene directly and decisively in the crisis. After all, it was “the day of the Lord” when God could be expected to act. If Israel’s enemies were surrounding them, God himself would bring the victory. The People could not rely upon their own strength. As the enemy gathered, only God was trustworthy in the face of the crisis. As another prophet put it, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).
According to the prophets, God’s direct and decisive intervention would also be final and conclusive. “The day of the Lord” would usher in the last battle, the “mother of all battles.” “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud…” (Zeph. 1:14). God would smash heads and take names, rendering fierce judgment on the People’s enemies. “Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, because of the violence done to the people of Judah” (Joel 3:19), as another prophecy puts it. This final battle would be the prelude to establishing a kingdom of justice and peace that would last forever.
All well and good: yet the prophets also turned God’s searching judgment elsewhere, not only outward but inward. It’s not only Israel’s enemies who are up for judgment, but Israel itself. “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people…” (Zeph. 1:12), Zephaniah says. “The day of the Lord” includes the People of God, who are also judged. God’s judgment has become universal. “For a full and terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (Zeph. 1:18).
So what is “the day of the Lord” for us, as we hear the prophet’s words this morning? Like those who hear the warning siren sounding in the distance, we’re called to action. We’re looking for God to establish the kingdom of justice and peace. Like the slaves in our Gospel today, we need to put our gifts to use and to prepare for the return of the Master. There’s work to do! As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “the night comes when no one can work” (Jo. 9:4).
We’re also on the verge of the season of Advent, and the contemplation of Christ’s coming again as Judge at the end of time. We’re all in need of forgiveness. Now is the time. The work of repentance cannot be outsourced to our enemies, as if there’s nothing we need to be bothered about! The warning cry is meant for us.
At the same time, let’s not lose sight of the prophetic insight that if God’s judgment is universal, so is the promised kingdom of justice and peace. Our confirmands this morning are leading the way, as they and all of us recommit ourselves to the Christian way of life, to resisting evil and sin, and repenting and returning to the Lord. God’s grace is present for all of us in light of our universal need. Even now, “the day of the Lord” is sounding in our ears.