Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Zephaniah 3:14-20 14 Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17 The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. 18 I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. 19 Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the LORD.
Depressed. Feeling blue, stressed out, frustrated. These are not the words we use to describe a joyful time such as Christmas. Yet some people feel this way at this time of year. Part of it comes from unrealistic expectations. Part of it comes from a misunderstanding of what this season is all about. Part of it comes from cramming too much activity into too little time.
Still, we come to church and hear God calling us to rejoice and be glad. Today, the third Sunday in Advent is Gaudate Sunday. That means, REJOICE! That’s why we light the pink candle on the Advent Wreath. It’s pink to represent a more joyful tone for the day. Rejoice! That’s easy for God to say! He’s up there in heaven, where everything’s safe and bright, unhurried, unhassled. Let him come down here and see how it feels. Then we’ll see who’s rejoicing and celebrating!
Well, in our text this morning, the prophet Zephaniah gives us God’s answer: God did come down here, and he does celebrate, and so
We Surely Can Celebrate Because
the Lord Came Here and Celebrates Over Us.
It would seem we have many reasons not to celebrate. Most of all, we have sinned; that’s reason not to celebrate! That is reason for doom and gloom. That is reason to be depressed. That is reason for fear. For the wages of sin is death. Eternal death. Punishment without end. Nothing to celebrate here.
The people of Zephaniah’s day stood under the threat of judgment for their sinful rebellion. Note the words in 3:1 “Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled,” by which the prophet warns Jerusalem of God’s wrath and calls her to repent.
We too realize our own sinfulness and our ongoing failure to live up to the standards of God’s holy expectations. As the psalmist says, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Even St. Paul was aware of his sin, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin. … I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing.” (See Rom 7:7–25 and Ps 51:3–4.) We are much like God’s rebellious people of old. Instead of being thankful for the gifts he gives, we grumble and complain about the things we want but don’t have. We too become stubborn and hard hearted, not wanting God, not listening to those who speak on God’s behalf, rather wanting to hear only what pleases us.
Not only are we sinful personally, but we live in a sin-stained world—not something to celebrate either! Because of sin, we often suffer—physically, mentally, and spiritually. We suffer from illness, aging and finally death. We suffer from the selfishness and greed of others in the world of business and in the work place.
We fight daily against evil. The violence in our streets, terrorism around the world, attacks on Christians, the slaughter of babies in abortion clinics. All motivated and fueled by Satan and his evil kingdom.
Our relationships (family, work, church) often suffer from the brokenness of our sinful world: divorce, conflict among children and parents, power struggles between co-workers.
Then, too, we have all those day-to-day and days-before-Christmas stresses that make us feel like anything but celebrating. The shopping, the strained budgets, the credit card debt piling up, the extra activities, meals, parties to prepare.
Yet God came here and celebrates over us. God does not treat us as our sins deserve; he cares for us as his own (v 14). In our text he addresses us as the “daughter of Zion” and “daughter of Jerusalem.” We are dear to him. We are his beloved children. He likewise calls us his friends in John 15:15. God is not against us. He is our friend. Jesus is our blood brother.
That’s because he came here and took away the judgment against our sins as he says, “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you” (v 15). In love God came in the flesh in the birth of his Son to share this tainted, stress-filled world. “The King of Israel” came “in your midst” to save you from sin and death. That happened when he died his atoning death on the cross. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…for God…by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh (Rom 8:1–3). You are forgiven for all your sins. For your stubborn and hard hearts that seek only your pleasure and wants and for your lack of thanksgiving you are forgiven.
His coming into the midst of our evil world to die has also “cleared away your enemies” (vv 15–17a). Jesus knows our world’s evils; he’s been here! Satan and his forces could not overpower him. Therefore, we need not fear any evil. We need not fear violence in the streets, nor persecution for our faith. We need not fear illness or aging. Not even death can separate us from God, for the victory over sin and death have been won by Christ Jesus, Our Lord.
And Jesus continues to come “in your midst” through his Word and Sacraments to forgive your sins and “quiet you by his love” (v 17a, c). In the Divine Service he calls us to gather here in his presence where he is in our midst bodily, in flesh and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.
He continues to come to us in Word and Sacrament where he takes away our shame and gives hope for an eternal future (vv 18–20). One day the “lame” and the “outcast” will be fully restored. They will be “saved,” or delivered, from their plight. We are calmed and reassured by Christ’s coming and strengthening presence. He understands the stress of our daily lives. The stress of preparing for the celebrations of this season. The stress on our wallets and the hustle and bustle of our busy lives. He has lived them and therefore is able to comfort us.
The glory of God’s redeemed will be seen by all in that final day so already, even now he is doing what heaven always does: rejoicing, exulting, and celebrating over us (v 17b, d).
Therefore, we can now celebrate with all our heart (v 14). Even though our full restoration awaits Christ’s second coming, we celebrate now in anticipation of what we know is already ours. The inheritance we are promised in his last will and testament. We celebrate with all the exuberance and joy we can show. Nothing need be held back. We “sing aloud,” we “shout,” we “rejoice,” we “exult.” Advent is a time for reflection on our sins, and a time for hope, peace, joy and love as we reflect on his death on the cross on our behalf knowing that we are redeemed by his blood and that he is today celebrating over us.
We celebrate knowing that God is also celebrating with us and sharing our joy (v 17). At the Lord’s banquet table in Holy Communion, we celebrate with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” At that table all Heaven celebrates with the saints on earth!
God’s call to rejoice, to celebrate, is by no means a command from on high to put on a festive face at a stressful time down here. God’s been here. That’s what the celebration is all about. And he’s still here—with us in our sinfulness, our stresses, our fears. That’s why the celebration is still going on. And always will. Amen.