Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Introduction: Fear as the Occupational Centre of Our Lives
Brothers and sisters in Christ, fear not! This is the central message from the prophet Zephaniah this morning. But alas, this is easier said than done! It seems that nothing but fear occupies our lives these days.
In the social realm, whereas we were supposed to wear face masks in public out of love and thoughtfulness for our neighbour, it can be said we now wear them out of fear of the coronavirus, sometimes fear of being recorded and publicly shamed on social media for not wearing a mask.
In the civil realm, political pundits like to remind us that we should fear the uncertainties that climate changing is threatening, or that we should fear a rise in crime if we don’t banish all guns, or that we should fear our immigrant neighbour among us rather than greet them with the hospitality of Christ. Politicians weaponise our fears to sway us into mass hysteria so that we may give them our vote.
In the religious realm, research experts in our synod continue to show us the declining statistics of our church attendance due to COVID, an ageing church body, and our youth leaving the church; and this fills us with the fear that the church is going to die. I’ve said this before and it bears worth repeating again: if not even the gates of Hell can prevail against Christ’s church, what can mere mortal men do?
Brothers and sisters, it is amidst these fears that occupy our thoughts and spirits that the Word of the Lord through Zephaniah still proclaims to us today, “Fear not, O Zion!” Why does he proclaim such a strange statement? To understand this, we need to examine the context in which Zephaniah was prophesying to properly understand how this Word speaks to us today.
The Present Reality in the Text
The reading comes from the end of the Book of Zephaniah. A rather short book, before Zephaniah preached the Good News of salvation, he spent significant time preaching the Law to the people of Judah, which was the southern kingdom of Israel. He prophesied during the time of Jeremiah, and like his contemporary, he warned Judah—especially their “capital,” Jerusalem—that they would be destroyed and carried away into Babylonian captivity because of their rebellion against God and their wickedness that was devoid of repentance. Whereas Jeremiah tells Judah that the king of Babylon is going to bring this destruction and captivity upon them, Zephaniah tells them Yahweh is bringing this upon them. Babylon is merely an instrument of His wrath.
It is after this harsh Word from the Lord that Zephaniah begins today’s pericope with a rather strange exclamation, “Sing aloud! Shout! Rejoice and exult!” In Hebrew, these are all synonyms of an exuberant rejoicing and worship. Thus, their rejoicing is to get louder and louder and louder! These alleluias crescendo to the reasoning for their emphatic, vociferous singing: “Yahweh has taken away the judgements against you; He has cleared away your enemies!”
Yet this is also a rather strange thing to say at this time. Zephaniah prophesied of their coming judgement of destruction and captivity. It hasn’t happened yet. So, how can Zephaniah say God has removed their judgements and banished their enemies when their judgement hasn’t come yet, and the Babylonians haven’t invaded yet? It is obvious enough why prophecies speak in the future tense, but when the prophets speak of God’s forgiveness and salvation, they more often speak of them in terms of a present reality even though they haven’t happened yet.
Roughly only 10% of the Prophets’ prophecies concern future events; the remaining 90% concern God’s present reality for His people, for example here, the removal of God’s judgement against His people and the defeat of their enemies. What God’s people have yet to experience in the future is already a present reality for God. When God speaks something, it is already done.
It is also a bit strange that Zephaniah says God is in the midst of Judah because his contemporary, Jeremiah, warned them that God is going to leave the Temple. How can God be present with His people if He’s leaving the Temple? The Israelite probably wondered this as well, which is a possible reason why they didn’t take the words of their prophets seriously. They perhaps relied so much on their genealogy as God’s people that they could not believe God would ever leave His people. So, how can God still be present among them if He is leaving their Temple? It seems rather self-contradictory. As Luther paraphrases from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, “God is present in the hearts of the faithful, which He calls His temple” [LW 18:360]. Where there is faith, God is with His people.
It is from these present realities—the removal of judgements, the defeat of their enemies, and God’s real presence—that Zephaniah proclaims, “Fear not, O Zion!” These prophetic words from Zephaniah, therefore, encouraged the people to look toward the Advent of their Messiah, who came on Christmas morning. These present realities became manifested in Christ. As Isaiah had prophesied to both Israel and Judah, the Messiah would be named Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” In Christ, God was in their midst, He removed God’s judgement by forgiving their sins, and He defeated our final enemy, Death, on the cross and in His resurrection.
The Present Reality in the World
So far, then, this prophetic Word speaks to us, too. For Christ’s saving work of forgiveness on the cross and His defeat of Death in His resurrection are made real for us as well. As Jesus said to His disciples just before His ascension, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” [Matthew 28:20]. Yet we ask the same question for ourselves as the Israelites also likely asked: how can Jesus be in our midst when He is ascended at the right hand of the Father? There are two answers to this question, and it might sound like a cliché when I say it, but it doesn’t make it any less true: Jesus is with us in His Word and Sacraments to the end of the age.
First, where the Word is proclaimed and gives faith [Romans 10:14-17], Christ is present among His people. As Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them” [Matthew 18:20]. Therefore, wherever Christians are gathered in faith and worship, there is Christ’s church and, furthermore, there is Christ among His people. We understand not how this is made possible since we cannot physically see Him; we merely believe His Word of promise—that the same Word that spoke and created the entire universe is the same Word that Jesus speaks when He says He is with us in His Word and Sacraments.
Second, then, where there is the proper administration of the Sacraments, Christ is present among His people. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh [John 1:1, 14]. Therefore, wherever the Word is present and wherever the Sacraments are present that are made efficacious by the power of Christ’s Word, there is Christ. In John 20[:21-23], Christ gave His apostles—and the pastors they would ordain—authority to forgive sins through the breath of His Holy Spirit. Therefore, in Absolution, Christ is here. Jesus commanded His disciples to make more disciples in Baptism and teaching [Matthew 28:18-19]. Therefore, wherever there is Baptism and the teaching of His Word, Christ is here. As we confess in the Small Catechism, “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water.”
Lastly, Jesus promised He is present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper when He said, “This is My body, this is My blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” [Matthew 26:26-28]. Therefore, wherever there is the Eucharist, Christ is here. Again, as we confess in the Small Catechism, “Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ …Whoever believes [or has faith in] these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.'”
So, how do you know Christ is with you? Simply look toward Him in faith. Look at the cross and see the removal of your judgements and the defeat of your final enemy, Death. Because you believe Christ has done this for you, this forgiveness and this victory have been given to you by faith. Remember also that the words of forgiveness that Pastor Bakker and I speak to you in Absolution is Christ Himself speaking to you, for it is the Word of the Word made flesh. Remember also your Baptism where Christ, by the power of His Word, has given you His spirit as the guarantee of your salvation, has cleansed you from all your sins, and has welcomed you into the family of God. Lastly, come to the Table where Christ Himself meets you in His body and blood to grant you forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
As Zephaniah calls God’s people to do, we sang loudly and rejoice of these present realities in stanza 3 of the sermon hymn: “See, the Lamb, so long expected, / Comes with pardon down from heav’n. / Let us haste, with tears of sorrow, / One and all, to be forgiv’n.”
The Future Reality for All God’s People
But it is not enough to speak on just these present realities; we must also speak on the future realities. On Christmas, we will celebrate the First Advent that the Israelites were looking toward. Yet we must also look toward His Second Advent when Christ ushers in the kingdom of God and casts the devil, his demons, unbelievers, and death itself into the fiery pit of Hell. In verses 17-20, Zephaniah gives the Israelites the sure hope that God will not cast them off forever but will receive God’s grace in their coming Saviour, Jesus Christ.
He repeats that God is in their midst. Just as the people are to sing loudly and rejoice in the Lord, so God will rejoice and sing loudly over His people. It will be a joyous reunion and celebration, which should make us think of the joy shared between bride and groom at a wedding feast. This is the joy St. John prophesies in Revelation concerning the fall of Babylon, which is symbolic for the fall of economic and political power, which will commence the marriage feast of Christ the bridegroom and His bride the church. Just as Zephaniah calls the Israelites to rejoice and comforts them with the rejoicing and exulting of the Lord, St. John similarly writes, “‘Let us rejoice and exult and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His Bride has made herself ready!'” [Revelation 19:7].
Yet with all this loud rejoicing that is to come, there is also a paradoxical silence, “He will quiet you by His love.” That is, in this loud festival celebration, there will be peace and quiet in our hearts, which is also true for us now, not just in the future. For while the wicked scream at God when they suffer evil, we kneel before Him in peaceful humility and quietness, trusting in His promise that He is coming to do these things of which Zephaniah speaks. So, let us return to his prophecy in verse eighteen.
Their Babylonian captivity would have disrupted their usual festival celebrations such as the Passover, and so they would mourn the loss of these celebrations. God, however, would gather them together to end this mourning as these festivals would recommence. In fact, it would be Nehemiah who would lead the people back into these regular festivities. The suffering of their reproach speaks to the heavy burden of their captivity, which God would also relieve. Jeremiah prophesied that after 70 years in captivity, God would return them—they would no longer suffer their reproach for rebelling against God. Not because they’ve done anything to deserve this, because they certainly haven’t, but simply because God is gracious and merciful.
We ourselves had a small taste of this grieving during COVID quarantines. When COVID first hit, we mourned not only the loss of observing the Sabbath every Sunday but also the loss of our usual church festivities, even our family festivities. Our homes became our own captivities, and we yearned a return to when things were “normal.” Yet just as God was faithful to these exiled Israelites, so He has been faithful in our own, minuscule exiles. For here we are gathered today, and our usual festivities are gradually returning, one of which includes the Christmas programme later this morning.
More than this, God’s people look to the day when He will deal with our oppressors, save the lame, and gather the outcast. Once “that time” came, as Zephaniah says, the Israelites saw this being accomplished in Christ before their very eyes. They saw Jesus saving the lame and gathering the outcast! Today’s Gospel reading actually speaks to this.
In Luke 7:22, Jesus tells John the Baptiser’s disciples, “God and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,” and so on. And yet, the Israelites did not believe this Jesus was their promised Messiah. In fact, they mocked Him for gathering the outcast! As Jesus says in verse 35, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at Him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” Tax collectors and people whom the Jews labeled as sinners were social outcasts, and Jesus gathered these people and others like them to Himself.
We see this prophecy being fulfilled before our eyes, too. The lame walk into the church whether that be on crutches, walkers, or wheelchairs and come before Christ; and for those who remain in captivity at home, their pastors bring Christ to them just as Christ came to the lame in His day. Social outcasts are also welcomed into Christ’s church. People of every social status walk through the doors—those who are wealthy, those who are poor, sick, healthy, young, old, immigrant, and so on. Therefore, whenever you feel that your sin ostracises you from everyone else, know that the Lord loves you and welcomes you despite your sin.
Furthermore, not only will God gather the outcast, but at the same time He will also gather His people who became outcasts. The Israelites experienced this gathering after their Babylonian captivity. And when they ostracised the Jewish Samaritans, the Lord brought them in, too. As Luther puts it, “It is as if He were saying: ‘You have suffered the Babylonian captivity and have been afflicted in various ways. However, I will redeem you—not only from this captivity but much more also from death, Satan, and hell'” [LW 18:364]. The Lord promised through Zephaniah, “I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your eyes.” They saw this in Christ but did not believe, and yet, Christ also promised, “Blessed are the lowly, for they shall inherit the earth” [Matthew 5:5].
Thus, God not only brought His people back from Babylonian captivity, but even more, in Christ He has brought His people back from captivity to sin, death, and the devil. Death was nailed to Christ on the cross, He crushed the head of the serpent, He descended into Hell and proclaimed His victory over Hell and death, and He subverted death in His resurrection. Because Christ rose victorious over sin, death, and the devil, your sins remain dead in the tomb.
Therefore, fear not, O Zion! For Christ has removed your judgements! For the judgement you deserve fell upon Christ on the cross! For He has banished your final enemy, Death. Therefore, He has said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” [John 11:25-26]. “But we still die,” you might say. Yes, but it is one thing to see death and another thing entirely to taste death. As St. Paul paraphrases from the prophet Hosea, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55; Hosea 13:14].
Therefore, as David writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” [Psalm 27:1]. Fear not, O Zion! For death has lost its sting, and the devil is a toothless lion. In His own death and resurrection, Christ has removed the venomous sting of the serpent’s bite and has extracted his vile teeth. Therefore, fear not! For death has no sting and shall be for you like a restful sleep, from which you shall awake upon the dawn of Christ’s Advent when He returns in glory to cast that dragon, Satan, and his children of disobedience into Hell while you walk through the gates of the New Zion in the new heavens and the new earth. Let the world, therefore, submerge their consciences in fear while we cast these fears at the cross of Jesus where they have died, and praise Him loudly with peaceful and content hearts, then fall asleep in stingless death, and await the waking of our Lord’s Advent.
Until His Advent, we pray as we sang in the sermon hymn: “So, when next He comes in glory / And the world is wrapped in fear, / He will shield us with His mercy / And with words of love draw near.” Amen.
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 18: Minor Prophets I: Hosea-Malachi. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999.