3rd Sunday in Advent

3rd Sunday in Advent

December 13, 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20

“Am I On Candid Camera?”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us is the first lesson read earlier from the little known Old Testament prophet Zephaniah.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Have you ever seen the TV show “Candid Camera?” Candid Camera, created and produced by Allen Funt, began in 1948 and has appeared on network, syndicated or cable TV virtually ever since while spinning off numerous similar programs. Allen Funt himself hosted for 45 years until a stroke disabled him in 1993; he died in 1999.  The premise of Candid Camera involved concealed cameras filming ordinary people being confronted with unusual situations. When the joke was revealed, victims would be told the show’s famous catch phrase, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.” My favorite bit on Candid Camera was a couple of years ago when gas prices were rising and falling all the time. The premise was that, as a person pulled up to pump gas, the station steadily increased the price of gas while people were pumping it. Gas that started at $2.50 a gallon quickly became close to $10 a gallon and, obviously, the drivers were irate about having to pay $100 instead of $25 for 10 gallons of gas. Yeah, it was a good one.

When I said earlier that the first lesson for today was from Zephaniah, did you ask yourselves, “Am I on Candid Camera? Come on…who does Pastor think he’s fooling? There’s no ‘Zephaniah’ in the Bible! Is the camera in the new projector?” No, there is no camera. Yes, there is a Zephaniah! Zephaniah, like Habakkuk and Hosea and Micah, are considered “minor” prophets when compared to prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. But this is not to diminish the message of Zephaniah as a prophet! Instead, this book is a classic Old Testament prophetic message. Zephaniah was a contemporary of Jeremiah, which means he had his prophetic ministry around 640-609 BC and is considered the last pre-exilic prophet, that is, he was the last prophet before the Babylonian conquest of Judah and the subsequent exile of the Israelite people to Babylon.

Prior to chapter three, the message of Zephaniah is primarily one of the coming Day of the Lord; it’s a message of doom and gloom for Israel. In Zephaniah 1:2-3, God told the people: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth…I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth.” Yikes…pretty harsh words from a “minor” prophet, don’t you think?

Zephaniah, as a prophet, brought God’s Word of judgment against the moral corruption of the Israelite people at that time. Corruption was everywhere. Jerusalem was a rebellious city. Idolatry was rampant. Worship of God was far off and distant. In their sin, the people are described as walking like blind men (1:17) since their behavior was indicative of the fact that they were so spiritually distant from God.

Hate to be a “Debbie Downer” right before Christmas, but our 21st century is not so far off from the day of Zephaniah. Evidence of moral depravity and idolatry is nothing new to us; it is almost expected. We live in an age in which carrying a gun in public is far more common than carrying a Bible. Truth be told, not much has changed since the days of Zephaniah. Sin is still sin. Moral depravity is still moral depravity. What we are experiencing are not just “signs of the times;” they are continued signs of the sin-corrupted bodies of humanity. Zephaniah saw it. We see it. Unlike Candid Camera, it ‘aint funny.

In the face of a difficult time and the unsettling prophecy that God’s judgment was coming, Zephaniah provided a message that probably caused the people to wonder if they were on Candid Camera. In verses 15 and 17 of today’s lesson, Zephaniah reassured the people that a time was coming when things would change. “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil” and “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save.” Zephaniah forth told that a better time was coming when God would be and remain with His people. The “major” prophet Isaiah proclaimed that “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Whoa. Despite the difficult and hard times that had been and continued to be for the Israelites, a time was coming when God would be with them. A time was coming when God Himself would come into their midst to save the people from their sin-filled chaos and strife.

Fulfilling the words of the “minor” prophet Micah, the Christ child is born in Bethlehem to fulfill all that was spoken of Him. He would be the One to come and take away our punishment for sin (v. 15). The ultimate gift to humanity comes to provide the ultimate gift for humanity. The forgiveness for all the sinfulness of the Israelites and for all our sinfulness today is given by the Babe of Bethlehem who grew up big and strong in order to die. I have said it before and I’ll say it again…you cannot have Christmas without Good Friday/Easter; you cannot have the manger without the cross. Zephaniah, like the other prophets before him, pointed to the Messiah who saves His people by dying for His people. And what do we need saving from? We need saving from ourselves; saving from the sin that causes such destructive behavior to ourselves and those around us. Jesus dead on the cross and risen from the tomb secures the forgiveness of our sins before God and it is given to us by His grace through our faith in that Savior.

He continues to be in our midst today. As Lutherans we boldly proclaim that Christ is here…today…in our midst through the proclamation of His Word and through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Someone from outside the Lutheran faith may hear the words later “This is my Body; This is my blood” and they too will wonder if they’re on Candid Camera. But it is true. Our God is a God who comes into our midst in this world to seek and save the lost and He continues to be found where He promises He will be: He’s not in page-a-day devotional calendars or a downtown holiday parade float or in a pretty greeting card. He is found in His Word and His Sacraments – in His Means of Grace – to continue to dwell within our midst and do what is necessary to ensure our continued salvation.

“Jesus is here today? Am I on Candid Camera?” No. He is here. His presence now is not one of checking up on us or as a practical joke, but a presence of salvation and promise.  We are not on Candid Camera, we are not being foolish or unreasonable, when we truly believe that God is in our midst to seek, save, and preserve us. He is there when that bank statement comes and things were worse than you thought. He is there when sleep evades you due to worry and stress. He is there when the loneliness or craving or depression at this time of year is so bad it hurts. He is there when everything seems to be going wrong. He is there when the news is bad, the pain is great, the hope and money seem short, the darkness so bleak. God has not abandoned you or the Israelites or any of His people. He is where He promises to be. Are there times you feel He is not there? At those times and especially at this time of year, Rejoice! You are His, and He is yours and nothing changes that. You are a blood-bought child of God and no amount of hard times will ever change that, thus says the Lord (v. 20).