A Bold Witness

Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20 / Luke 7:27-28
Date: Advent III + 12/13/15

If last Sunday we needed to look very carefully to find the good news of the Gospel at all with the Baptist thundering at us “you brood of vipers” calling us to repentance, this Sunday, “Rejoice Sunday,” blasts the bright light and great goal of God’s plan of salvation before us. Jesus speaks words of praise for John the Baptist. St. Paul calls us with the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. So the third part of the sermon of the prophet Zephaniah was chosen because it speaks of the great victory of God’s plan that awaits us, saying, “Sing aloud,” “shout,” “rejoice and exult with all your heart.” No wonder the third blue Advent candle turned rose! We need to hear these bold words especially today, for it seems every time we turn around or turn on the radio or TV these days it looks like everything is falling apart and we’re losing. God’s word says, “No. Do not despair. Fear not. Let not your hands grow weak for the Lord your God is in your midst.”

The word of the Lord through the prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah. His name means “he whom Yahweh hides.” He is hidden so well that nothing further than what is written in his prophecy is known about his life. He’s a nearly invisible prophet. He traces his family back to his great-great-grandfather Hezekiah who was probably a celebrated king. Other than that nothing is said about him and he launches into his three-part sermon. He begins with the threat of judgment, proceeds to an exhortation to repentance and ends with a promise of salvation not only for the remnant of Israel but even for the whole creation.

The coming final judgment of the world by God is announced. But these days it seems the more you announce it the duller or harder hearts become. Who can take this seriously after all if the majority of the popular opinion poll these days reject the entire notion of a God much less judgement of us by Him? After the tragic terror attack in San Bernardino more than a week ago the cover of The New York Daily News read in large letters, “God Isn’t Fixing This.” So increases the public taunting of God and mocking of His believers, saying, asking for God’s help is not only silly but even detrimental. Instead of praying, they say, we should “do something.” As we prayed in today’s psalm, “You make us an object of contention for our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves” (Ps 80:6) To the religiously uninformed the confusing claims of so many different groups, churches, mosques, temples just proves to them that there are so many different gods that there must not be a god at all.

So it was in Zephaniah’s time in the late 600s b.c.  His description of the moral depravity in Jerusalem sounds like today. People turned away from the true God to worship idols. He speaks of the wicked treatment of the Bible, the Torah, saying, Jerusalem’s “prophets are fickle, treacherous men; her priests profane what is holy; they do violence to the law” (3:4). So we have seen even in our own circles some pastors and people who are either carried away by opposing winds of doctrine or practice, or stumble into shameful sinful acts. The same goes for our leaders or rulers in secular government. When God’s word of judgment sounds the prophet says of the church and of the nation, “She listens to no voice; she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the Lord; she does not draw near to her God” (3:2).

Zephaniah’s call to repentance in view of the coming judgment however still needs to be heard today and maybe even more urgently. “Gather together…before there comes upon you the burning anger of the Lord, before there comes upon you the day of the anger of the Lord. Seek the Lord…seek righteousness; seek humility,” and then as Zephaniah’s name implies he says, “perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord,” that is, delivered, saved. And that word “perhaps” implies faith or unbelief which is the issue. This is the message that people need to hear even if they think they don’t want it. It is the invitation of the Gospel of salvation through the forgiveness of sin by God’s grace.

So the third and last part of the prophet’s sermon speaks of God’s glorious salvation and grace.

God’s invitation to joy and life originates in His unending love of His creation as the prophet says, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love.” Just like a parent demonstrates love to a child by disciplining him, so God doesn’t ignore His creation, leave it on its own to do its own thing and work its own way out of trouble, but determined from the beginning to save it. He disciplined His people with laws and sometimes harsh judgments. But it was always to lead and guide us to His Gospel, His love.

The greatest good news is in the words, “The Lord your God is in your midst.” Even so we are preparing to celebrate this “with us” God, this Immanuel at Christmas. In Jesus our God comes to be in our midst, to gather us together. He begins to call and gather us through the voice of John the Baptist; not just a novelty, reed shaken by the wind or a man dressed in soft clothing but a prophet and more than a prophet. He is the promised messenger, Elijah if you will. We come or are brought to God by the baptism of repentance.

Then we learn what our baptism means as we are gathered also around Torah, around God’s Word. We no longer “mourn for the festival.” It is still going on. We rejoice to continue to worship and receive the gifts of God in the Divine Service, God in our midst, present for us where He promises to be, in His holy word and sacraments in the fellowship of the baptized. It is there, here that we hear of our Savior, born of the virgin Mary; who, for us men and for our salvation, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried, descended into hell and rose from the dead on the third day. Every Sunday, every eighth day of every week we “festival,” we celebrate the resurrection and our new life, the restoring of our fortunes. In the forgiveness of our sins we sing aloud, shout and rejoice and exult with all our heart that the Lord’s judgment against us has been taken away, satisfied by the sacrificial death of the body and blood of His Son, our Lord.

So, can we rejoice even when it seems everything around us is falling apart or at odds with our faith? We can and we will because, as St. Paul says, “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces…hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:3, 5).

So rejoice in the Lord always, sing aloud, rejoice and exult with all your heart and fear not for “the Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love.”