Propers: The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 33), A.D. 2017 A
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Imagine, if you will, the Temple of God.
Decreed by David and erected by Solomon, the Temple stood in Jerusalem, with one notable intermission, for a thousand years. It was a monumental edifice, gleaming in the sunlight, visible from the mountaintop for miles around. Night and day, clouds of sacrificial smoke billowed from between its pillars, as the priests besought atonement from God for the sins of the people and the world.
The building itself was a model, a microcosm, of the universe, of all of God’s Creation. There were the starry-decked heavens, the fruits of the Garden, the Tree of Life! And at the center of it all, the heart of the Temple from which the lifeblood flowed, there stood the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God on earth. Here was displayed for us a true picture of our world: the wonders of the cosmos and the beauty of life in all its forms, centered around the Creator and King of the universe. Life and Being, Goodness and Truth, radiated from this center like heat and light from the sun.
And in this sacred, holy place, where earth and Heaven, God and Man, dwelt together once more, the sacrifices and the Psalms re-enacted the mighty works of God in creating and redeeming and delivering His people. And by their re-enactment, in this place beyond space, in this eternity beyond time, subsequent generations did not simply learn about God’s actions in the distant past, but themselves became one with the event, one with the action, so that God had not simply liberated their ancestors in generations past but continued to liberate and claim and bless His people now, today, and forevermore!
God willing, this should all sound rather familiar. For indeed, the claims made by God’s people in the Old Testament regarding the Temple are the same claims that we as Christians make regarding our worship today. When we gather here in this Divine Liturgy, by that Font and at this Table, when we witness the mighty acts of God made known in Word and in Sacrament, we believe that God Himself comes down to earth, in bread and wine made Body and Blood. The Incarnation of God occurs again, right here, in us.
Here the saints and angels are gathered with us invisibly even now! Eternity has broken forth into our own time—which is why there are no clocks in this sacred space. Here we do not remember the acts of God as though they were some long-dead legend. Here we ourselves become part of the living story of God and Man made one in Christ Jesus. And thus transformed—thus renewed, thus resurrected!—we are then sent out to be Christ for a world still very much in need.
But there was a problem. It seems that in the time of the Temple there were those who severed the connection between our life of worship and the life of the world. They ceased to understand that what happens here, what happens in sacred space and time, exists to reveal to us the true nature of reality: God at the center of a cosmos teeming with beauty and life and a moral code of goodness sunk deep in the bones of the world. They denied the unity of the sacred with the rest of Creation. Such people professed one reality on the Sabbath, in the Temple, but quite another in the marketplace, in the home.
“The Lord will not do good,” they said, “nor will He do harm.” For such folk it was all well and good to sing about redemption and resurrection amidst the smells and bells on the weekend, but after that we must return to the real world. Zephaniah, in our readings today, refers to such people as those “who rest complacently on their dregs.” Actually, in Hebrew, it’s more like those who thicken on their dregs. It’s a wine metaphor, you see. Lots of those in the Bible.
God’s people are often compared to fig trees and grapevines, cultivated gardens meant to bear good fruit. Wine in particular is intended for health and for joy, but sour grapes bring benefit to no-one. Those who “thicken on their dregs” are thus wine which is intended to mature, to grow sweeter and finer, but who instead have no concept that all of their blessings come from God and are intended to be used for the good of those around us.
No sane vinter would keep soured, ruined wine. He must make room for the good stuff, the fine vintage that will bring honor to his house and joy to those he serves. So it will be, says Zephaniah, when the Lord searches His wine cellar with a lamp and casts out all those who have turned from God, turned from neighbor, turned themselves to vinegar! And the funny thing is that Zephaniah says this in a liturgy, in worship.
The call to be silent at the beginning of the reading is a call to attention. The proclamation of the Day of the Lord is an opening line of worship. Yet Zephaniah declares to his two-faced audience, to the hypocrites who only believe in God in a certain place and at a certain time, that the Day of the Lord will be no blessing to the petty, the cynical, the selfish and the cruel. For them it will be a horror, for the pious masks they wear shall be dashed to pieces, and the reality of their ingrown lives shall be revealed for all to see.
The Temple is meant to reveal the truth of the world, the reality behind it all. Instead, in the time of Zephaniah, it had become a box in which people thought to trap God, keeping Him safely tied and tame and out of our pocketbooks or personal lives. But the Truth is that God, in or out of the Temple, is every bit as wild and free and terrifying as He’s ever been, while we are the ones who become trapped by the smallness of our souls and the dreary cynicism of our centerless lives.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that if Christianity is not true, then it is of no importance, and if it is true, then it is of infinite importance. The one thing we cannot be with regards to Christ is moderate.
Just like our forebears in the days of Zephaniah, we too have a strong tendency to compartmentalize Christ. Church becomes one more extracurricular, one more obligation, one more option on an ever-growing menu of infinite choice. And if that’s all it is—one hour a week, stuck between these four walls—then of course we will choose other things: things that are more entertaining, things that are more diverting. As G.K. Chesterton quipped, the liturgy can of course be quite boring and repetitive, unless one happens to love God.
Now perhaps you’re thinking that this is all quite well and good for the clergy to say. Faith is our career and our paycheck, after all. Of course we want the Church to be the center of everyone’s life. Fair enough. But I tell you, when it comes to this sin, pastors are quite possibly the guiltiest of all. We know exactly what it is to compartmentalize Christ, to separate professional religiosity from the all-too earthly stresses of house and home. Too many of us speak to God only on Sundays. Too often we pay obeisance right up until the collar comes off.
But that’s not why we’re here. Church is not an extracurricular or a seminar or a sport. It’s not a gathering for socialization or self-improvement, though God willing a good bit of that does go on. And it sure as heck isn’t a concert or a career. We come to Church because God promises to meet us here, in Word and in water, in Body and Blood; in this assembly of sainted sinners, gathered, forgiven, raised from the dead, and sent out to wage peace everlasting against all the forces of sin, death, and hell!
In Church we find the very ground of reality, the one place where we can get a foretaste of the Feast to come; a glimpse of the sheer breadth and depth and radiance of a Creation whose full splendor has yet to be unveiled. Here is the cosmos revealed in its glory! Here are the saints and the angels, the Tree of Life and the Hosts of Heaven! Here is God at the center of it all! For Christ is our Temple now. He is the everlasting House by which God dwells here on earth.
The Church, brothers and sisters, is not simply a little piece of our world. It’s not a side dish, an elective, one more option to sandwich between death and taxes. The Church is the revelation of our world as it truly is, as God has made and sustains it, and of the indescribable beauty of the destiny promised to us all. And our job as Christians is to share this vision of reality with all the peoples of the earth.
Let us go, then, and live our lives as those who have seen the Truth face-to-face.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.