Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent People are Rejoicing People

(A sermon based on Zephaniah 3:14-20 & Philippians 4:4-7 for the Third Sunday of Advent)

It was in the Children’s Sunday School Department weekly assembly at Midway Baptist Church that I learned to sing it:

I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart, down in my heart.
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart to stay.

I learned it according to what I heard, though, and what I heard was:
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart, down in my heart.
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart Tuesday.

I couldn’t help but wonder—what about the other six days of the week? Why couldn’t I have joy on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday?

At some point, of course, I figured out what the song was really saying but that didn’t eliminate my question; in fact, my comprehension of the actual words of the song added a question to the one I already had: I now wondered why (1) I couldn’t seem to have joy every day of the week—why I didn’t have it all the time and (2) why the joy that I did experience didn’t seem to have staying power—why it seemed to be fleeting.

I wonder how many of you are wondering those same things. Why can’t you have joy all the time? Why can’t your joy be the kind of joy that endures?

One truth, of course, is that stuff gets in the way—that life gets in the way.

When the prophet Zephaniah was delivering his message in the second half of the seventh century BCE, the nation of Judah was trying, under the leadership of a good king named Josiah, to find its way out of the moral and spiritual hole into which it had fallen during the long reign of the evil kind Manasseh. Josiah’s reign was a time of hope that the people would return to the Lord but the fact was, the prophets knew and said, things would get worse before they got better.

Sometimes we look around us and we wonder how the culture of our nation and, for that matter, of the world, got into the shape it is in. We wonder how human life has become so devalued that we accept such things as war, abortion on demand, and sexual promiscuity with nary a second thought. Sometimes we are tempted to put our hope in leaders or in armies or in treaties—and we certainly should hope and pray that such might be of help—but we can’t shake the nagging feeling that things will get worse before they get better.

The way that things are in the world gets in the way of a pervasive and permanent joy.

So does the way that things are in our own lives.

Paul encouraged his Philippian sisters and brothers not to worry, which of course means that they were worrying. While he did not say so, his readers knew that Paul had as much or more reason to worry as they did, since he was writing his letter to them from prison. Now, they were worried about things that we have no cause to worry about, given that they were being persecuted for their faith while we are not, but we have things that we can worry about, be it our health, the health of our loved ones, finances, children, parents, grandchildren, vocation—and the list can go on and on.

The point is that things in life can make us worry and worry is an impediment to joy.

Neither the things in the world nor the things in our lives that cause us anxiety and that rob us of joy are going to go away; how, then, can we be people who rejoice?

The key is to have our lives get caught up in what God is up to, to have them get caught up in God’s actions in the world and in God’s attitude toward this world and toward the lives we live in it. God is, as those with eyes to see and ears to hear and faith to believe know, working God’s purposes out— and everything really is going to be all right one day.

It is not the case that what is going on the world and in our lives is unimportant and insignificant—indeed, God cares very much about all of that and is going to act in judgment and in grace to deal with it all someday; but it is the case that God has greater purposes that will be fulfilled and goals that will be met through and beyond all of that.

In the words of Karl Barth, “In other words, in all that I am, I am only a party to that which God thinks and does. In all that I do, it is not I, but rather God who is important.” [Karl Barth, “To Believe,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), p. 137]

And so Zephaniah, after spending many words to make it clear to his listeners that judgment on sin was coming and that it would be so thorough as to seem utter and complete, turned at the end of his message to assure them that on the other side of judgment was salvation, that on the other side of defeat was victory, and that on the other side of devastation was restoration. The prophet proclaimed,

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you;
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
(vv. 14-15)

The people could rejoice because of what the Lord was doing and was about to do; we too can rejoice because of what the Lord is doing and is about to do—but we can also rejoice because of what the Lord has already done. Indeed, we can affirm what Zephaniah said—“The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst”—in ways that go beyond what the great prophet knew, because we live on this side of the birth of the baby Jesus who came into this world and into our lives to be the certain presence of the Lord in our midst.

As a part of his message Zephaniah said a very remarkable thing:

The LORD, your God, is in your midst…;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
(vv. 17-18b)

God rejoiced! God rejoiced, Zephaniah said, over what God was doing to bring about reconciliation, over what God was doing to bring his people back into relationship with him.

Perhaps a joy that can be pervasive and permanent in our lives, a joy that is not contingent on what gains we enjoy or what losses we suffer, a joy that is not dependent on today’s circumstances or this moment’s emotions, is a joy that is the overflow of what God has done, is doing, and will do through his Son Jesus Christ.

Zephaniah said that it was a remnant of Israel that would know such joy (3:12-13) but you will remember what the angel said to the shepherds on that night so long ago: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10; emphasis added). Yes, it was just a remnant—those few shepherds—who received the good news of great joy that night, but the joy they caught was contagious—it could be caught by all people. Yes, it was just a remnant—those few Wise Men—who were “overwhelmed with joy” when they saw the star over the house where the infant Jesus was (Matthew 2:10), but the joy they caught was contagious—it could be caught by all people.

You see, we can catch God’s joy over what God has done, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ, and others can catch it from us if we will catch it.

It is true that the world can spread despair, but it is more true that God is spreading joy. Which are you catching?

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