Advent 3 – Series C (December 13, 2015)
“The Lord Will Rejoice Over You” (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, says the prophet to the people of God … to the daughter of Zion, Israel, the daughter of Jerusalem. This is the cry to the Church, to rejoice in what God has done for you. This is the theme of the Third Sunday in Advent … to rejoice! We hear the Advent call to repent as we prepare for the coming of the Lord. Although the world and our hearts are full of darkness, the light is increasing as we draw nearer to the day when Jesus returns in glory. The pink candle reminds us of the joy we should have. Take pleasure in what God has done for you. Your hearts should be merry and glad. He has taken away the judgments against you for your sin. He has cleared away your enemies of sin and death. He is in your midst. He is Immanuel … “God with us.”
Rejoice and exult with all your heart. Easier said than done, right? Even at this time of year when we’re all supposed to put on happy faces. We wrap our presents with colorful paper and bows. We wrap our faces in smiles and Merry Christmas-es and Happy Holidays-es. Some of us attempt to mask what’s underneath with all sorts of substances to numb our senses, to anesthetize us from how we truly feel, and it’s not always holly and jolly. Underneath all the wrapping is a great amount of sadness, pain, and shame. Maybe I can rejoice with part of my heart, but not all of it.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” says Paul. Really, Paul? Always? How about “Sometimes”? For some of us, it’s “Rejoice in the Lord seldom.” After all, were you able to rejoice the times you were put in prison, had rocks thrown at you, chased out of town, or shipwrecked?
The situation in Zephaniah’s day was also not much of a reason for rejoicing. There was the promise of restoration for the southern kingdom of Judah after a time of exile in Babylon. Even so, further oppression was in store for them at the hands of the Greeks and the Romans. And there was no hope of restoration for the northern kingdom of Israel. They had been scattered to the nations.
Zephaniah is pointing to something farther in the future. The King of Israel will be in their midst. The Son of David. Jesus the Messiah. God in the flesh, born from among his own people. They would be restored, but not to the land. God’s people would be restored to the eternal kingdom of God through the forgiveness of sins. This would be for all the faithful remnant of Israel, for both Jews and Gentiles alike.
The situation for John the Baptist was not much of a cause for rejoicing, either. He was lingering in prison. Soon to be beheaded. He was the prophet sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Yet now, it seems he may have been having doubts.
Wouldn’t you? Don’t you have your doubts when things are going rotten for you? Does God really love me? Is he really there for me? Why is this happening? Is he punishing me for something I have done? Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?
Jesus reassures John by pointing him to his mighty works. All these mighty works were promised by the prophets, including Zephaniah. “I will deal with all your oppressors, and I will save the lame and gather the outcast,” the Lord says through Zephaniah. We are oppressed by sin and its consequences in this broken world. We are oppressed by temptation. We are oppressed by death itself. Jesus came to deal with these enemies in his death and resurrection. And as a preview of the new creation when he comes again, he restored the lame and gathered the outcast. The blind received their sight. The lame walked. Lepers were cleansed. The deaf heard. The dead were raised up. The poor had good news preached to them.
You know all this. You’ve heard all this before. And still, we find it hard to rejoice. So, when you find it hard to rejoice, hear this good news preached to you. Even though you have a hard time rejoicing, Zephaniah promised that “The Lord will rejoice over you.”
The Lord rejoices over you with gladness. You are his creation. You are his beloved child. He takes pleasure in you. His heart is merry and gladdened because he loves you. He exults over you and displays his joy by acting on your behalf. He sent his Son for you. Listen to the greeting the angel gave to Mary: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” Listen to the greeting the angels gave to the shepherds near Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Those words are for you today. In Christ Jesus, you are favored and God is pleased with you.
The Lord rejoices over you and quiets you by his love. The rush of the holidays is not very quiet. The malls are loud. The traffic is insane. The tumult around you and within you because of sinful conflict in your home, your workplace, your school, and the world in general saddens us, frightens us, takes away our sense of peace and security. There is also that loud accusing voice in your heart that knows your own sin. Remember the prophet’s promise: “The Lord is in your midst, a mighty one who will save.” The Lord is here in Word and Sacrament with his love to quiet you and comfort you. He has already saved you. The Lord has taken away the judgments against you. He silences the accusing voice. He gives you peace in your heart even when it is not very peaceful around you.
The Lord rejoices over you, quiets you with his love, and exults over you with loud singing. Listen carefully … do you hear it? Probably not. But the Lord is still shouting in jubilation over you. At the birth of Christ, the angels offered this shout that I mentioned earlier: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” It pleased God the Father greatly to shower us with his favor when he sent his Son to be our Savior. The angels sang loudly over the shepherds of Bethlehem. We will sing loudly this Christmas.
Maybe you won’t feel like singing very loudly this Christmas, because of whatever is going on in your life. That’s when the rest of us come in. That’s when you can hear God’s voice shouting through your pastor and through your fellow believers, as we declare God praises in our services, and as you hear your fellow baptized believers exulting with loud singing. Let them sing for you. Listen to the words. Let them comfort and quiet your heart. And as you confess your sins and hear the precious word of Absolution spoken to you, the angels strike up their chorus again, as Jesus said, “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
The people of Judah would one day “mourn for the festival.” Living in Babylon, far away from their homeland, with the temple destroyed where pilgrims were to come and celebrate the prescribed feasts, they mourned. No temple. No festival.
But Jesus is our New Testament temple. He is the Word made flesh who came to tabernacle among us. He is in our midst. He gathers us together for this festival here, his feast of love and forgiveness, feeding us with his own body and blood. He restores us and renews us. He is present here and rejoices over you with gladness, quiets you with his love, and exults over you with loud singing.