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Sunday, December 12, 2021

Everlasting Father

 A sermon based on Zephaniah 3: 14-20

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin

3rd Sunday in Advent , Dec. 12th, 2021,

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Royal Names of Jesus Christ


Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

 15  The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.

The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

 16  On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

 17  The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing  18  as on a day of festival.

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

 19  I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.  20  At that time I will bring you home,

at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised

among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.  Zephaniah 3:14–20 (NRSV):


When Seminary Professor Clement Moore wrote The Night Before Christmas and read it to his family on Christmas Eve in 1822, he changed how Americans think of St. Nicholas forever.  He took an ancient, slender, compassionate, Christian bishop of Myra, who lived in about 200 AD and was compassionate toward children and made him grow into that fat and jolly man as we know him today.

While the new Saint Nick can be a wonderful joy for children to ponder at Christmastime, he still can’t compare to the one Christmas truly is all about.  Even ‘Father Christmas’, as he is called, ultimately bows before the ‘Everlasting Father’ who has inspired Him. 

Through the royal prophecy we are considering from Isaiah, Jesus gained the name ‘Everlasting Father’ because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever and has been given the name that is above all other names.  The gifts Jesus gives are forever and the costs has already been paid—no bills coming due in January.  As Isaiah 9:6 says: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father...

Literally, Everlasting Father, (Heb. Avi-ad) means the “the one who possesses or produces eternity, ”.  As John’s gospel begins, ‘In the beginning was with God and the Word was God.’ (1:1).  Jesus is God from the very beginning because, as John goes on to say,: the Word became flesh and lived among us,...full of grace and truth’ (1:14).   Beautiful, astounding, and incredible ideas, but what does this mean and matter for us to say that Jesus is the Everlasting Father?

To keep this from becoming a mere lesson in theological metaphysics, I want to turn to today’s lectionary text from the almost unknown prophet, Zephaniah.  He preached in one of the darkest moments in Israel’s political history.  This hopeful text, which comes at the conclusion of his dark prophecy, indirectly points us to what it means that God is revealed an eternal, everlasting Father who’s love never ends.



When you read the prophecy of Zephaniah from the beginning, its opening message, doesn’t sound very ‘fatherly’.  As it begins God says: I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. (1:2–7).   Keep reading and you will find a powerful, negative, overpowering images of judgement and catastrophe released upon the world in the ultimate coming of ‘the day of the Lord’.  

Now, that doesn’t sound very fatherly, does it?  Unless of course, you had a vengeful, angry, or excessively demanding father.  Unfortunately, for some, maybe even for too many, that is the painful and problematic image that comes to mind when they think of a father— angry, demanding, rigid and maybe even cruel or destructive.   The idea of God as Father, or Jesus who is ‘one with the Father’ and taught us to pray to God as ‘Our Father, who is in heaven, can bring to mind conflictive and complicated memories.  Their own relationship with an earthly father was difficult, abusive, or even maybe even absent and makes it difficult to imagine or relate to God as a loving Father.

The late Fred Craddock, who died just a few years ago, once told of going back one summer to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to take a short vacation with his wife. One night they found a quiet little restaurant where they looked forward to a private meal--just the two of them.

While they were waiting for their meal they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting guests. Craddock whispered to his wife, "I hope he doesn’t come over here." He didn’t want the man to intrude on their privacy.  But the man did come by his table.

"Where you folks from?" he asked amicably.


"Splendid state, I hear, although I’ve never been there. What do you do for a living?”

Fred Craddock welcomed that question, for whenever a stranger found out he was a preacher, they’d often excuse themselves shortly thereafter. "I teach homiletics at the graduate seminary of Phillips University."

"Oh, so you teach preachers, do you. Well, I’ve got a story I want to tell you." And with that he pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with Craddock and his wife.  Dr. Craddock groaned inwardly: Oh no, here comes another preacher story. It seems everyone has one.

The man stuck out his hand. "I’m Ben Hooper. I was born not far from here across the mountains. My mother wasn’t married when I was born so I had a hard time. When I started to school my classmates had a name for me, and it wasn’t a very nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and during lunchtime because the taunts of my playmates cut so deeply.

"What was worse was going downtown on Saturday afternoon and feeling every eye burning a hole through you. They were all wondering just who my real father was.

"When I was about 12 years old a new preacher came to our church. I would always go in late and slip out early. But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast I got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. I could feel every eye in church on me. Just about the time I got to the door I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking right at me.

"Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?’

I felt the old weight come on me with that question.   It was like a big black cloud. Now, it seemed like even the preacher was putting me down.   But as he looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition.

"Wait a minute," he said, "I know who you are. I see the family resemblance. You are a son of God. God is your Daddy"

With that he slapped me across the back and said, "Boy you’ve got a great inheritance. Now, Go and claim it, because you got a daddy.  God is your daddy.

After the story ended, the old man looked across the table at Fred Craddock and said, "That was the most important single sentence ever said to me." With that he smiled, shook the hands of Craddock and his wife, and moved on to another table to greet old friends. 

Then suddenly, Fred Craddock remembered that on two occasions the people of Tennessee had elected an illegitimate child to be their governor.  One of them was this man, Ben Hooper.

The truth that ‘God is Your Daddy, changed Ben Hooper’s life.   But this didn’t start as good news.  Did you hear? When he was leaving church, the preacher put his hand on his shoulder and asked: ‘Who’s Your Daddy, boy?  It was like a dark cloud, he said, like the preacher was putting him down, just like other people did, because he was an illegitimate child?  

Still, the promise of God as a loving father got through to Ben Hooper and it turned the disadvantages of his life into a motivating factor, giving him an edge work hard and to achieve and accomplish much. 

When you read the prophecy of Zephaniah it certainly begins like God is angry and is hovering over the earth like a dark cloud ready to pour down his wrath.  But we must understand that these were some of the darkest days of Israel’s history full of idols and false gods.  Being a jealous God, God was like a hurt Father, angry and threatening but not because he hates, but because he loves.  

For when you get to the concluding lines of this prophecy, our text for today, the whole mood and demeanor changes.   The prophet moves from speaking of destruction and judgement to speaking of transformation, cleansing and overwhelming and total joy. 

And it’s not just the people’s joy, but God is rejoicing over his people telling them that judgement is now taken away.  There will be no more destruction. They have nothing to fear.  This is now time for singing and rejoicing— no more doom and gloom.   This is a time of feasting and festivities.  The Lord is their now their warrior and gives them victory and rejoices with them.

Without any direct reference, this is what it means to have an Everlasting Father. Amid human sinfulness and rebellion, God comes---the day of the Lord comes even in judgement, but this judgment is not to destroy but to save, to protect, and to redeem God’s people from their slavery to falsehood and sinfulness.  

This is what a true, eternal Father does.  He uses his strength, power, and authority to help his children overcome their self-destructiveness and their fear.  That’s why the people are being called to ‘Sing ...shout, ...Rejoice... The Lord has taken away the judgments..., He has turned away enemies.  The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

Now, you know, exactly what was behind the angels of Christmas singing to the Shepherds ‘good news of great joy for all people.   In Jesus Christ, we don’t have to fear disaster any more.   The Lord has taken away his judgments.  He is our eternal and everlasting Father, a warrior who gives us victory over that which can destroy us.  Now, God rejoices with us and God rejoices over us with great gladness.



At the heart of Zephaniah’s message God’s day comes, but instead of judgement against us, the Lord we know as Everlasting Father renews us in his great love for us (17).  

This is what the Christian gospel is about, isn’t it?  In Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word was made flesh and lived among us, and for us.  This Jesus is one with the Father and the one to whom the Father has given all judgement.  Final judgement comes to the world in the life and death of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.   This is God’s final judgement against all that is against us, renewing us in love rather than allowing all that opposes God to destroy us.  

This judgement of love is exactly what the gospel of John is getting at in the detailed discussion of this most intimate gospel.   Right after Jesus healed the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda, asking him whether he ‘wants to get well’ (5:6), Jesus then informs that ‘the father is working and I am working’ (5:17).  After that Jesus announces that ‘just as the Father gives life, so does the Son’ (5:21) and then adds these astounding, arresting words:  

The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son (5:22).  

Did you get that?  Being one with the Everlasting Father Jesus becomes the fleshly, earthly judge who is given all judgement through his life, teachings, death and resurrection.   Now, Jesus says, Truly, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life (5:24).      


Dear people, this is the beautiful, joy-filled message Christmas sings:

“He rules the world with truth and grace,

and makes the nations prove, the glories of His righteousness. 

And wonders of his love, wonders of his love and wonders, wonders of his love’.  

Listen close to this verse, Issac Watts is exactly right.  In Jesus Christ, the Father isn’t removing all judgment and destruction from the world, but he has given all judgement to the Son, so that through the truth, righteous love becomes the judgment by which we are redeemed and renewed.

The impressive PBS Masterpiece series, Mercy Street, which is based memoirs and letters of actual doctors and female nurse volunteers at Mansion House Hospital located in Alexandria Virginia during the Civil War.   This was a real, make-shift Union military hospital set up in what was still  occupied, confederate territory.

At the center of this story are wounded soldiers on both sides, who were injured, maimed, cared for, and dying in this hospital.  The judgment coming down on them all made no distinction.   But what you also observe, is how in that tragic war, ‘his truth keeps marching on’.  As the tide of war continues to turn toward what is right and against what is wrong, the nation is proving the glories of his righteousness.  The truth that marches on does not remove the costs of war and wrong,  but this is a truth of renewing love that must not resist that Christ’s judgment is just.   As the Battle Song of the Republic goes, and those diaries suggested:  God is sifting out the hearts Before His judgement seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him; Be jubilant, my feet;  Our God is marching on.
         That terrible time in American history should have taught us, once and for all, that the judgment of the Eternal Father has become the judgment of the true spirit of Jesus Christ.  When we go with Christ’s Spirit and hear his voice, the dead are raised to life and we do not come under judgment, but when we reject the truth of Christ, especially the truth that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, truth will march again in judgement and death.

It was the prophet Zephaniah, even way back then, who said: ‘The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory...  In verse 19, the says, the Lord, whom we know as the Everlasting Father of all, and for all people, in Jesus Christ, who will fully and finally deal with the oppressors,… will save the lame, and will gather the outcast, and change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.   Christ comes to renew us in love, but you must not end up on the wrong side of this God who comes to love and judges where life and the future will go. 



This brings us to the final image of the Everlasting Fatherhood of God, revealed to us once and for all, in the life of Jesus Christ.   For, as Zephaniah foresees, one day, the Lord will ‘bring’ his people ‘home, and gather’ them, making them known and praised among all peoples of the earth...’   (20).   

That’s a very big promise, isn’t it?  It’s the kind of promise only an Everlasting, eternal Father of unending love and undying hope can give and fulfill.    

 In the world of foster children and adoption, there are many difficult stories; some that end with hope and fulfillment, but others than don’t turn out so well, because the scars of what happens to these children can’t be overcome so easily.  But in the midst of the stories of the orphans and displaced children, comes the great hope of finding their one, true, ‘forever family’. 

That’s what Zephaniah envisions, a Father who one day, through the difficult and dark days that can come to us as human beings, is willing to accept us, to adopt us, and bring us home.    

I’ll never forget, the day we adopted our daughter.  First, we had to bring her home, only for a day or so.  Then we had to give her back, at least until final decisions and evaluations could be made.  When we met the social worker in the parking lot of a shopping center, I broke down.  I could not help but cry.  Something in me said, this child, like every child, and ever human too, deserves to have a home, where they never have to leave.   We all deserve, need, and even long for, that ‘forever family’ and that forever love.

This is what Jesus came to be---the Everlasting Father for us all.   Jesus and the Father are one, who says to us, like he said to his disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms”.   Jesus also tells us about the lost son, where God is the Father, waiting for the child to come home.  The Father is always ready to ‘bring’ or ‘give’ his child home.  But finally, it is in the book of Revelation, where Jesus comes to the worst of all churches of the Revelation.   Jesus isn’t a waiting father, but Jesus goes and stands at the door of the human heart and knocks.  Jesus not only the Everlasting Father who helps us overcome our fears, or renews with his love, but Jesus as the Everlasting Father, is the Father who will not stop waiting and will not stop knocking on the door of the heart, until every child opens the door and comes home (Rev. 3: 20).   It is this kind of fatherly, everlasting, and unending love and care that comes into the world through Jesus Christ, that makes Christmas what Christmas is supposed to be. Amen.

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