Sermon for III Advent, Yr C 14/12/2003
Based on Zephaniah 3:14-20
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, AB
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“The Gift Of Joy”
On one occasion, a pastor asked one of his parishioners: “Do you believe in the hereafter?”
The parishioner replied: “You bet I do. I often go in a room and say, ‘What am I here after?’”
Then maybe you heard about this one: Above the massive front doors of a cathedral these words were inscribed: THE GATE OF HEAVEN. Below was a small sign, which read: PLEASE USE OTHER ENTRANCE. J
Way back in ancient Judah during the days when King Josiah ruled from 640 to 609 B.C., there lived a prophet named Zephaniah. He preached a series of prophetic oracles—warning the people of Judah, Jerusalem and the nations of God’s coming Day of Judgement. He confronted his fellow citizens of Judah and Jerusalem—charging them with the sins of corruption and idolatry. When they went into God’s temple, they had forgotten what they were here after. Guilty of the sin of idolatry, they had thought they could enter heaven not by the main doors but by other entrances, worshipping other gods.
As God’s spokesperson, the prophet Zephaniah railed against the Canaanite Baal worship and the adoption of the gods of Assyria and other nations; which was rampant among the people of Judah and Jerusalem at that time. God’s people had engaged in temple prostitution and even had made child sacrifices to these foreign gods. Many believed that to be safe, they needed to place their eggs in several baskets—so why not worship every deity rather than just one? Surely this would offer them their security now and in the hereafter. Not so, said the prophet Zephaniah! There was only One God, the True God, and all of these other gods must be abandoned if God’s chosen people were to survive and be blessed by the LORD. How could Judah, Jerusalem or the other nations for that matter expect the True God to bless them when they had become so corrupt—not caring about justice, practicing such sinful and evil rituals, forsaking the poor, the orphan and the widow, and even believing that the True God was helpless to act in the historical events of Judah and the rest of the world. According to Zephaniah, Judah, Jerusalem and the nations were on a collision course with God’s wrath and judgement, which would bring them punishment, death and disaster. Unless they would repent of their sins, and turn with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength back to the LORD God, they were doomed. It was a difficult message, a very sober message, and a message that must have been difficult both to preach and to be on the receiving end of.
Then, all of a sudden, these oracles of doom and gloom stop and the book of Zephaniah ends with today’s first lesson, which is a hymn of joy. Even though the consequences of Judah and Jerusalem’s sin must be suffered; nonetheless, Zephaniah sees the day when the LORD with his gift of joy will bless a remnant of God’s people. The prophet says: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgements against you.” God’s anger and punishment did not last forever. God offers Judah and Jerusalem his love and delivers them from their suffering.
God would not be far away from his people—“The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” God in other words, will be our Emmanuel, God-with-us. The prophet looks ahead to that wonderful time when God sends his Son, Jesus to dwell among us as our Saviour and Messiah.
Pastor David Peterson tells about a time when he was preparing his sermon. His little daughter came in and said, “Daddy, can we play?”
He answered, “I’m awfully sorry, Sweetheart, but I’m right in the middle of preparing this sermon. In about an hour I can play.”
She said, “Okay, when you’re finished, Daddy, I am going to give you a great big hug.”
He said, “Thank you very much.” She went to the door and then, says Pastor Peterson, “she did a U-turn and came back and gave me a chiropractic, bone-breaking hug.” Pastor Peterson said to her, “Darling, you said you were going to give me a hug after I finished.”
She answered, “Daddy, I just wanted you to know what you have to look forward to!” 1
So too, during this third Sunday in Advent, Zephaniah speaks the LORD’s words of joy, embracing us with the promise of fulfillment as we wait for with joy and hope the coming of Jesus our Emmanuel. God is like that little girl, giving us a foretaste of the time to look ahead with joy when Jesus shall come to be with us and embrace us in his all encompassing love.
One of the pictures Zephaniah gives us in this oracle of joy is that of music and singing. The prophet open the oracle by inviting the citizens of Judah and Jerusalem to express their joy, to “Sing aloud.” And then in verse seventeen, the LORD will express his joy: “he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”
Jewish writer, Chaim Potok, captures this wonderful atmosphere of joy in describing it like this:
The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember the white-bearded Torah reader dancing with one of those heavy scrolls as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and uncle danced for what seemed to me an interminable length of time, circling about one another with their Torah scrolls, advancing upon one another, backing off, singing… The noise inside the synagogue poured out into the night, an undulating, swelling and receding and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with the Torah, holding it close to you, the words of God to Moses at Sinai. I wondered if Gentiles ever danced with their Bible. 2
In today’s second lesson from Philippians, the apostle Paul would indeed give us Gentiles the permission to sing and dance with our Bible, when he exhorts the church at Philippi and us to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Notice that little word always; at every time, in every circumstance, in every place, Paul instructs us to rejoice, be filled with the joy of Christ always.
In his reflection of this passage from Philippians, I like the way Dr William Barclay describes this joy in Christ:
It is as if having said, “Rejoice!” there flashed into (Paul’s) mind a picture of all that was to come. He himself was lying in prison with almost certain death awaiting him; the Philippians were setting out on the Christian way, and dark days, dangers and persecutions inevitably lay ahead. So Paul says, “I know what I’m saying. I’ve thought of everything that can possibly happen. And still I say it—Rejoice!” Christian joy is independent of all things on earth because it has its source in the continual presence of Christ. Two lovers are always happy when they are together, no matter where they are. The Christian can never lose (her or) his joy because (s)he can never lose Christ. 3
As for Paul and Zephaniah, so it is with us—rejoice always! No one or nothing can take the presence of God away from us. Christ is with us so we can live with joy, knowing and trusting that we are always in good company and that we are safe and secure in his arms no matter what troubles, sufferings sorrows and hardships we face. Amen.
1 Cited from: Dale Brunner, “Is Jesus Inclusive or Exclusive?” Theology, News, and Notes, October 1999, p. 3.
2 Cited from: Chaim Potok, In The Beginning.
3 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians (Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd., 1975), p. 75.