Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scripture: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Matthew 25:14-30
Sometimes you’re reading something and there’s a phrase or an expression that jumps out at you or raises a question of some kind. That’s what happened to me with our reading this morning from the prophet Zephaniah. It’s there in verse 12, where God, speaking through Zephaniah, says, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.”
Have any of you ever heard about people resting on their dregs before? I’ve heard of people resting on their laurels. I’ve heard of people who win an award or a prize and then just kind of coast from then on out. Some people think that Robert De Niro is the greatest actor of his generation. Bang the Drum Slowly. The Godfather II. Taxi Driver. The Deer Hunter. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. You can find people that will argue that those are among the greatest movie performances of the 20th century. I haven’t heard anyone suggest that about Analyze This or Meet the Parents or any of the sequels to those movies. Not that they’re necessarily bad
movies or anything, but a lot of people think that De Niro is just coasting in them, taking it easy, resting on his reputation, resting on his laurels.
Part of figuring out what it means to rest on your dregs is to know what “dregs” means. I usually think of “dregs” as those coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup if you overfill the coffee pot or the tea leaves that are left in the cup if there’s a small hole in the teabag. Merriam-Webster.com gives three definitions: the sediment contained in a liquid (like the dregs of the coffee), the most undesirable part (like the dregs of society), or the last remaining part (like the last dregs of fuel.)
In Zephaniah’s case, this is referring to kind of a combination of the first two definitions. In Old Testament times people drank wine. Drinkable water could be hard to find, there was no refrigeration or pasteurization for milk, and so people drank a lot of wine. There’s sediment, or dregs, in wine. If you leave that wine sitting for long enough the sediment will all kind of settle at the bottom and although I don’t drink much wine myself I’m told it’s quite nasty to drink. The dregs of the wine aren’t just the sediment in it. The dregs can also become the least desirable part of the wine if the wine just sits too long.
The New International Version spells it out a little more clearly. Verse 12 says, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those
who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, “The Lord will do nothing, either good or bad.” That’s the tie between complacency and dregs.
Zephaniah is prophesying to the kingdom of Judah, and what he foretells is what will happen to them if they do not turn back to the Lord. If they just go on as they always have, they will be conquered. They will be punished. Jerusalem will be destroyed. The people will be exiled. And in fact that’s what happened to them later on.
Have the last few weeks felt like a time of complacency to you? There’s been the election, there’s been all the stuff after the election, and it doesn’t matter what your politics are, I’m sure no one here in the United States would describe the time since November 3 as a time of complacency. There are some people, though, who have said that complacency in 2016 in terms of a lower turnout of eligible voters is what brought us to the controversies of 2020. That’s not really fair to 2016 in some ways, though, because voter turnout in 2012 was even lower.
My point isn’t that when it comes to elections any one of you is complacent now or was complacent back in 2016 or 2012 or any other time. My point is no matter what it is in life, whether it’s elections or sports or technology or anything, we can get used to the way things are and
assume that the way things have always been is the way that they’re going to be now and will be in the future.
That’s kind of what happens to the one-talent servant in our gospel reading from Matthew. The servant knows that the boss is the kind of guy who lets the servants do all the work and then takes all the benefit for himself. The servant doesn’t expect to get anything good out of whatever effort he puts into this project he’s been given, and so he puts no effort into it. The servant does not even do the minimum that he could have done. The servant could have walked to the bank and deposited his one talent, and then later the boss would have gotten back one talent plus interest. But no, the servant just goes into the back yard and buries the talent in the ground.
And what happens to our complacent servant, resting on his dregs, assuming that since he’s never gotten anything good out of the boss he might as well not bother trying, is the same thing that happens to the complacent folks in Zephaniah’s prophecy. The master returns, and there are consequences. For Zephaniah’s hearers, the consequences would include exile from Jerusalem. For the servant, the consequences include exile from the master’s household.
I think I may have said this before in a sermon, but I don’t think I’ve said it in one of our Zoom sessions so I’ll go ahead and run the risk of repeating myself for some of you. As I get older, the hardest part of it isn’t the physical part of it. Yeah, my body hurts in ways and places it didn’t forty years ago and I can’t do some things now that I could then, but that’s the nature of aging. I expected that.
The hardest part is also not the loss of friends and family. I miss my parents. I miss my grandparents. I miss my sister Lori. That also, though, is something that comes with aging. You expect that you will lose family members. Hopefully that’s not something that happens prematurely, but sadly that’s the case sometimes and as we get older we become a little more accustomed to it. It’s difficult sometimes, but it’s also generally the nature of aging.
I don’t know if it’s the hardest thing or not, but one of the hardest things for me about getting older is avoiding complacency. Avoiding cynicism. Holding on to my idealism, my faith that God wants us to make the world a better and more just place for everyone in it. I don’t want to say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.” I don’t want to give up on hope. I don’t want to give up on people. I don’t want to give up on my faith in redemption. I don’t want to become complacent.
And God doesn’t want us to become complacent. Not just about elections or government or politics, but about anything. God doesn’t want complacency in the way we treat people, or the way we worship. God doesn’t want complacency in our desires, our goals, our faith. God doesn’t want us to take it easy. God doesn’t want us to settle.
God calls us to an active faith. God calls us to live lives of hope, hope in a just and peaceful future, not fearful lives worried that we will be taken advantage of or that someone else might get ahead of us somehow.
We may have done great things in the past. It doesn’t matter. We can’t complacently rest on our laurels. Things in our lives may have worked the same way for many, many years. God may have worked the same way in our lives for a long time. It doesn’t matter. We can’t complacently rest on our dregs. Because when we complacently rest on our dregs, it is we who become the dregs. God save us from that. Amen.