Sermon for Twenty-fourth Sunday of Pentecost, 2017 (Proper 28A)
Text: Zephaniah 1:7–16
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the days of the prophet Samuel, a generation before God united the twelve tribes of Israel under the rule of Saul, the Israelites were at war with the Philistines. The conflict between these nations endured from the time of Samson to the time of David. But when Eli was still high priest, there was a battle that was fought between the Israelites and the Philistines where the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the camp of Israel’s army so that God would support them in battle. The only problem was that the reason God had not been fighting with the Israelites was not that they had forgotten His Ark in previous battles, but because they had forgotten His covenant.
Israel is routed and the Ark is captured by the Philistines. As part of their victory celebration, they take the Lord’s Ark to Ashdod and placed it in the temple of their god Dagon. No doubt the Philistines thought that their god had defeated the God of Israel and they were bringing him the spoils of war. However, the next morning when they went into the temple their idol was lying prostrate on the floor before the Ark of the Lord. They set the statue upright again, but the next day not only has the idol fallen again, but this time his head and hands, his intellect and his power, are cut off and lying on the threshold of the temple. A plague strikes the people and the Philistines panic, eventually sending the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel. From these events it became customary for the priests and worshippers of Dagon to avoid stepping on the threshold at Dagon’s temple.
Fast forward some 500 years and the Philistines have long since been put aside as Israel’s chief rivals. But Zephaniah is sent to preach to the people of Judah and He must warn that the Lord’s judgment is going to fall again. Five hundred years before, God used the followers of Dagon to punish their forefather’s infidelity, but showed Himself to be the master of Dagon. Now Zephaniah must give the people the Lord’s warning, “I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire. On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.”
Why have the people of Israel adopted the five hundred year old practice of those who worship a god whom their God so clearly defeated? Why must Zephaniah rebuke the people for worshipping Dagon when Dagon cannot stand in the presence of Yahweh? Therefore the day of the Lord is a day to be feared for all who leap over the threshold. And Zephaniah says that the day of the Lord is near. The Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated His guests. Judah is the sacrifice and she is to be given up to the Lord’s holiness and the Gentiles are invited to the feast. Babylon will rejoice and feast on the day when the Lord’s judgment comes against Judah.
On the day of the Lord all that Judah has going for her will be brought to nothing. Cries and wailing will be heard in the street. The inhabitant of Mortar, the business district, will wail as the traders and money changers are cut off. The Lord will come to Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who expect the Lord to do neither good or evil.
In a generation Nebuchadnezzar would come from Babylon and be the Lord’s instrument to punish Judah for her unfaithfulness. Jerusalem would lie in ruins and the people would be killed or carried into exile. The Day of the Lord was indeed near in Zephaniah’s time. But there is more for us to learn from His prophecy.
The ancient church, who understood the language and thought of the Sacred Scriptures far better than our ears and hearts and minds are naturally inclined to receive it, viewed the New Testament and specifically the life of Christ as a recapitulation of the Old Testament—a repetition and fulfillment of history. Irenaeus is especially gifted in this regard. In his book titled The Apostolic Preaching, he details how the apostles took the text of the Old Testament and showed how Christ was the fulfillment of all that had been written. Thus where Adam was tempted in paradise and fell, Christ, the New Adam, is tempted in the wilderness and is blameless. Hosea says of Israel, out of Egypt I have called my son; but Matthew says that these words speak of Christ who was taken to Egypt by Joseph while Herod sought His death. Likewise the book of Hebrews demonstrates how the ritual of Leviticus is fulfilled in Christ’s priesthood and sacrifice.
Jesus is the New David who comes in the Name of the Lord and restores David’s Kingdom, not as an earthly Kingdom but as the Kingdom of Heaven. The entire Old Testament prophesies of Christ even in those texts we do not think of as prophecies. Or in the case of our Old Testament lesson from Zephaniah, even in the case of Prophecies that already seem to have been fulfilled.
Listen to our text again, but keep in mind the events of Holy Week as you hear the Words recorded by Zephaniah:
Be silent before the Lord God!
For the day of the Lord is near;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice
and consecrated his guests.
Is Jesus not the Lord’s Sacrifice for His people? Isn’t Jesus the high priest who offers up Himself, who comes not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many? When the Greeks tell Phillip that they want to see Jesus, and Phillip and Andrew tell Jesus, doesn’t Jesus tell them that when He is lifted up from the earth He will draw all people to Himself? Is He not lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness? By that same act, He who offers up His own life consecrates His people who are drawn to the cross as God’s means of salvation.
Zephaniah goes on:
And on the day of the Lord's sacrifice—
“I will punish the officials and the king's sons
and all who array themselves in foreign attire.
9 On that day I will punish
everyone who leaps over the threshold,
and those who fill their master's[c] house
with violence and fraud.
The events of Holy Week as recorded by the four evangelists recount the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the rulers of the people, the officials and the king’s sons. Time and time again Jesus defeats their arguments, he exposes their false worship, and denounces them before the people. He asks to see the coin used to pay Caesar and the Pharisees produce a denarius with Caesar’s image and inscription demonstrating that they allied with foreigners. Their hearts are arrayed in foreign attire. Their hearts are not set on God’s Word, but on greed, violence, and selfish ambition. And Jesus promises that their generation will not pass away without Jerusalem once again being destroyed and His death seals that promise, for Jerusalem will be destroyed because she did not know the hour of her visitation.
Then Zephaniah denounces the traders:
On that day,” declares the Lord,
“a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate,
a wail from the Second Quarter,
a loud crash from the hills.
11 Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar!
For all the traders[d] are no more;
all who weigh out silver are cut off.
Jesus condemns greed throughout His earthly ministry, but nowhere do we see his hatred of this injustice more clearly than on Palm Sunday when the temple is cleared in preparation for His sacrifice. The merchants and money changers are driven out of God’s house. The den of robbers is restored to a house of prayer. And those who measured out thirty pieces of silver receive it back only to purchase a graveyard. Those chief priests and the temple they abused to establish their wealth and power is taken from them when the Romans come before this generation has passed away.
Neither Zephaniah nor Jesus will allow anyone to stay on the sidelines in this conflict. There is no waiting it out for now to hitch yourself to the winning side later.
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the men
who are complacent,[e]
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do ill.’
13 Their goods shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine from them.”
Like the man with a single talent, we cannot wait passively for Jesus to come to Jerusalem. We either cry, “Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Or we let the rocks cry out in our place, but woe to those who neither enter the Kingdom of Heaven nor allow others to go in. Like the wicked tenants who would not bear the fruit of repentance, the complacent will have the vineyard taken from them and delivered to others.
The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter;
the mighty man cries aloud there.
15 A day of wrath is that day,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.
The Day of the Lord is a terrifying day for those who will not receive Him in faith. But be warned. The Day of the Lord that came upon Jerusalem in the generation of Zephaniah, and again in Holy Week will comes upon you, just as surely as it did on God’s people of old.
For Scripture ends with the promises that Christ is coming soon, but those words at the end of Revelation do not negate the words spoken to the church in Laodicea earlier in the same book: “I know your works: you are neither cold not hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:15–17; ESV).
The Day of the Lord is coming when Jesus comes again and all nations are gathered before Him. And how that Day of the Lord’s visitation is received by you is connected to how the Day of the Lord’s visitation when Christ is crucified is received by you. For those who see God’s wrath against them measured out against Christ and recognize that His sacrifice alone is what consecrates them, the Day of Judgment has already occurred and Christ will come again only to bring them into paradise.
But you were not at the foot of the cross. You did not experience the darkness as He hung in agony crying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!”
The Day of the Lord’s visitation that should most concern you is not the final day of this earth, but today—the day when the Lord visits you in His Word. Today is the day of the Lord’s judgment. Today the Word of god denounces your sin, your complacency, your desire for riches, your idolatry in any and every form that it takes. Today is the day to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, because the axe is already laid at the root of the tree. Those branches that bear no fruit are being cut off even today and piled high ready for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For God’s Word will not tolerate complacency nor rival.
The worshippers of Dagon in both Philistia and Judah became like him. As his hands and head were cut off so is their power and reason overcome by God’s judgment. We also suffer the same fate as our gods. Wealth cannot endure nor can it preserve your life.
But you have confessed your sin, you have cried out to the Lord for mercy, and He has heard you. You have confessed the Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection, not merely as an event in history, but as the basis of your faith, your hope. Today the Holy Cross of Jesus has drawn you to the Crucified One, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—the same Name placed upon you in Baptism when you were buried with Christ through baptism into death.
Your sin has earned wrath, but that wrath has already been received by Christ. God’s Word is the two edged sword that slays the sinner, dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and discerning thoughts and intentions of the heart. When the law stings and you feel a part of you die, that is your sin being cut from you in order to be placed on Jesus. But God does not leave you empty. Christ has taken what is yours and borne the punishment. He also gives you what is His. He comes with His mercy, salvation, life, even His body and blood, and He fills you with it all. Thus your hearts will soon burst out crying, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.”
There is nothing to fear as the world groans around us waiting for the day of Christ’s return, because your judgment has already been administered and only your inheritance remains to be given. This inheritance is yours because you share in the life and sonship of the God you worship, the God who bore all sin and wrath on the cross, yet lives and reigns to all eternity.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria