Sermon for December 16, 2018, Third Sunday in Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20 (Third Sunday in Advent—Series C)

“The Lord is in Your Midst”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

December 16, 2018


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our text is the Old Testament lesson for today recorded in Zephaniah 3:

14Shout for joy, O Daughter Zion; shout out, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O Daughter Jerusalem! 15Yahweh has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemy. The King of Israel, Yahweh, is in your midst. You will not fear evil again. 16In that day it will be said to Jerusalem, “Fear not, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17Yahweh your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save. He will exult over you with joy; he will quiet you with his love. He will rejoice over you with loud singing. 18Those who are grieved over the appointed festivals—I took them from you—they became a burden and a reproach against you. 19Behold! I will deal with all who oppressed you at that time and I will save the lame and the scattered I will gather together and I will bring their shame to honor and make them famous in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you in and at the time I will gather you together because I will make you famous and honored among all the peoples of the earth when I return your fortunes to good before your eyes,” says Yahweh.

          How easily we shrug off the holiness of God! How eager we are to forget how much God hates sin! This can be seen in many Christian churches where God’s holiness is simply ignored in their preaching and teaching. “Sin” itself isn’t even touched on, and if it is, it is described in terms that make it of little consequence to the person sitting in the pews. In a March 2018 survey conducted by Lifeway Research/Christianity Today, 67% of Americans confessed to being a sinner. (Which is higher than I would have expected.) However, the rest either didn’t see themselves as sinners (8%), didn’t think sin exists (10%), or preferred not to answer the question (15%). 5% of the self-confessed sinners didn’t mind being one!

          And that is how easy it is to shrug off God’s holiness and forget that He hates sin and that sin is a big, huge problem for us! Sin is a Biblical reality. The Scriptures are quite clear that all people who are descended from Adam and Eve according to the flesh are sinful. They are corrupt and evil by nature, always thinking, desiring, speaking, and acting contrary to God’s holy, perfect will. The Word of God in Romans 5 says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12 ESV). And in Romans 3, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23 ESV). We all inherit an inborn wicked disposition and inward impurity of heart, an evil lust and tendency. In divine and spiritual things, we are all hostile to God as we read in Romans 8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7 ESV).

          But does it really matter that we are sinful and unclean? Is it really all that important? Does God actually care that we are sinners? Emphatically, yes! The only true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is holy. He is without sin and hating sin. With God, the wicked cannot dwell. And so the punishment for sin is death, eternal damnation, and other bodily, spiritual, temporal, and eternal miseries. We, then, are subject to the devil’s kingdom. Our human nature has been surrendered to his power as we are held captive by the devil who leads us astray, further and further away from the commandments and will of God as revealed to us in Holy Scripture (FC SD I). Being led astray by Satan, the world, and our own sinful flesh often leads us to believe that God does not take sin all that seriously and that He really won’t condemn us or anyone else to hell because of sin. After all, God likes to forgive sin. I like to sin! So, I’ll just ‘sin it up’ and let Him have lots of chances to forgive!

Oh, the fools the devil makes of us and we make of ourselves before the holiness of God! How long will we revel in this cheap grace that we mistakenly believe God will simply dish out to us, ignoring our rebellion against Him and His Word of truth? How long will we pretend that sin isn’t serious business? Sin is what causes your physical death! Sin is what will send you to hell forever if left alone! Sounds very, very serious, and truly, it is.

The prophet Zephaniah warned the unrepentant people of Judah that God’s judgment against their sin would come. They had become complacent, comfortable in their “sinning it up,” because they thought God really wouldn’t do anything about it. They ignored God’s holiness and forgot how much God hates sin. Zephaniah proclaimed the truth of God’s Word of condemning Law—the person who sins will die in their sins. The prophet urged the people of Judah to return to Yahweh their God in true repentance, asking for mercy as they trusted in His grace. Consider Zephaniah 1:12 as an example where Yahweh tells the people, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘Yahweh will not do good, nor will he do ill.’” God won’t do anything? Zephaniah tells them how wrong the people are in their complacency and sin. God Himself would come and search in all the cracks and crevices of their hearts and lives and, where He finds sin, evil, and rebellion, the Lord would exterminate that person in His wrath. Just as we might use a flashlight to find the spiders and bugs that have scurried to hide in the dark places of our homes, so the Lord would search for every single one of His enemies—sinners who have fallen short of His glory since all sinners are enemies of God by nature.

We dare not pretend that our sin is not real. We ought not to ignore God’s holiness and the just consequences that our sinful words, thoughts, desires, and actions merit for each of us. For when the Lord searches us, He will find nothing in us good. He sees our corruption, our wickedness, our lust for glory and passions of the flesh. As Jesus Himself asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8 ESV).

The answer is unexpected. One should answer Christ, “No. We are but poor, miserable sinners.” But the answer is ultimately, Yes! The Son of Man will find faith on earth when He comes again a second time in glory because He first came to be “God-With-Us.” Remember the acclamation of the crowds in the Gospel for the Frist Sunday in Advent as Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on the donkey colt? “Blessed the Coming One, the King, in the name of Lord!” Today, Zephaniah announces that this same King, Yahweh, God Himself, is in the midst of the people. Dr. Luther commented that it is as if the Lord were saying to the people of Judah, “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.”[1]

Jesus Himself is the Mighty One who has saved all people from death, Satan, and hell. Begotten by God the Father from eternity, God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, took to Himself a true human body and soul in the womb of the virgin Mary by the miraculous power of God the Holy Spirit. God the Son became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ. He became fully human so that He might save His people from their sins. (That is what His name “Jesus” means, “Yahweh saves.”)

It is the human creation of God who had fallen into sin for whom Jesus became incarnate in order to save from death and hell. In Christ, God has taken away the judgments against our sins. He has cleared away the enemies of sin, Satan, death, and hell by condemning His One-of-a-Kind Son to death and hell in our place on the cross. By the sacrifice of Jesus, through the means of His shed blood, the Lord has restored our fortunes to good—we are not condemned. We are not punished with everlasting death. By the gift of saving faith and trust in Jesus, you and I are made clean from our sinfulness. We are now whole and right with God as people restored to His good and gracious favor through the forgiveness of our sins. In other words, “[God] does not want you to rebuke yourself anymore. He does not want you to hate yourself anymore. Rather He loves you like a beloved [son and] daughter. You now have a God who is a very gentle Father and no longer a Judge who wants to terrify your conscience with the Law.”[2]
          In fact, because of the saving work of Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection for you, the Triune God “[exults] over you with joy; he [quiets] you with his love. He [rejoices] over you with loud singing.” By grace through faith, Christ Jesus has brought you the “fatherly sweetness of the kingdom of the Lord.” “The sense is this: ‘You will feel joy. You will feel in your conscience that the Lord is kindly disposed toward you, that He surely is a kind Father to you in all things’ You see, the Lord is said to rejoice over us when He causes us to sense His favor.”[3] And His favor to us is made known by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior, in the forgiveness of sins and in our restoration to the Father’s good pleasure.

The Word of the Lord assures us that we can count on our Savior’s promise to forgive us and to rescue us. Jesus, our God and King, is still in our midst today through the Word of His Gospel and by means of His Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is in the reading and in the hearing of the Gospel that we receive the forgiveness of our sins. It is in Baptism and Communion that we also receive the forgiveness of sins because of the Gospel in Word and Sign. God is in our midst as He comes to us as Lord and Savior to forgive, to redeem, and to restore us daily to His good and gracious favor through Word and Sacrament.

By the Spirit’s power and grace, you and I come with hearts broken by our guilt and shame to our Savior Jesus as He meets us at the font, pulpit, and altar. Here Christ turns our shame into honor by giving to us the forgiveness of sins and the everlasting life that He alone has purchased and won for us with His blood. As we trust ever more firmly in our great God and Savior, who is in our midst with His Gospel and Sacrament, how can we not shout for joy, rejoice, and exult in the Lord our God who has taken away our sins, made us holy by His grace, and restored to us everlasting life!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 18: Minor Prophets I: Hosea-Malachi, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 18 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 364.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 18: Minor Prophets I: Hosea-Malachi, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 18 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 359.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 18: Minor Prophets I: Hosea-Malachi, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 18 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 361.

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