Rejoice in the Love

Zephaniah 3:14-20 & Phil. 4:4-9
3rd Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth M. Deibert

NRS Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

After last Sunday’s call to repentance, you might be glad to know that on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, we move to the more cheerful theme of rejoicing. Joy, joy, joy. We’d rather be rejoicing than repenting. But when you hear about the context of Paul, writing to the Philippians from prison, saying “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, “Rejoice!” then you know that this rejoicing is deeper than having a “Holly, jolly Christmas”. Sometimes the fa, la, las of the season get on my nerves. The tunes are fun, but the more Christmas gets associated with chestnuts and bows of holly and silver bells and frosty snowmen and red-nosed reindeer, then we are promoting a carefree and shallow notion of Christmas cheer,not real Advent joy that can stand up against the harshest realities.

We need a joy that can be sustained in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. We need a joy that can lift our spirits when death is knocking at our door and we can’t keep it way off in the yard any more, a joy that supports us when we’re still grieving this time of year for those who have gone before us. We need a joy that can build us up when we suffer through divorce or depression or aging or school troubles or the parent problems. (Parent problems go both ways you know – trouble as parents or trouble with parents.) We need a joy that can inspire us to give generously to those who have lost hope, or are hungry, or have no where to turn, as we at Peace are trying to do, but never do enough.

Rejoicing after repenting, and that’s what we do every Sunday when we confess our sins, then remember our baptism into the arms of God’s love and then greet one another with the peace of Christ. That a moment of rejoicing in God’s goodness – such that no matter what we’ve done, no matter what someone has done to us, there is joy and forgiveness and love for all.

The first time I heard Philippians 4 discussed in a college Bible study, I remember appreciating the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is be cheerful and glad when all is going well. Joy is being content and glad whether things are going well or not. Instead of “Don’t worry. Be happy” the message for today is rejoice in God’s love. Put worry and sadness and frustration and fear in perspective. If Paul can say from prison “Rejoice” or “count it all joy” or some other use of the word joy 14 times in this short letter, then we can reach a little deeper ourselves. You cannot muster happiness, but you can muster joy through the disciplines of the faith – through worship, prayer, and Bible study, through putting others first and living according to Christ’s example, yes, you can find joy, even if you are never happy.

Old Testament prophets like Zephaniah, who lived through a difficult season of Israel’s life in the 7th century BC, help us to discover a spirit of joy despite the agonies of a God-forsaken existence. When you hear the mournful Zephaniah who is so depressed over the way his people are living, so discouraged under the leadership of evil King Manasseh, say “Rejoice and be glad!” then you know that rejoicing comes as a great nevertheless to the suffering and evils of the world. That’s what theologian Karl Barth said of Paul’s rejoicing from prison – that it was a defiant nevertheless. Nevertheless I will rejoice and be thankful.

Zephaniah’s people are under the oppressive thumb of the Assyrians and this is before the great spiritual reforms of the good King Josiah. And Zephaniah does not mince words in the opening of his book. In chapter one he announced that their flesh is dung and there will be a terrible end to all of creation. Yet this same prophet ends his writing with words of hope and rejoicing. Perhaps the circumstances had actually changed by the time or perhaps he could tell that times were changing when these verses from chapter 3 were added, but all the same, these words of hope and rejoicing come to us in the literary context of despair and destruction. Zephaniah invites us to revere God and turn to God’s ways, to trust in God as protector and savior, to love God, knowing that God is delighting in us, and to imagine a better world, one in which God is reigning and renewing us in love.

Hear the word of the Lord from Zephaniah: NLT Zephaniah 3:14 Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Isreal! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. 15 For the LORD will remove his hand of judgment and will disperse the armies of your enemy. And the LORD himself, the King of Israel, will live among you! At last your troubles will be over, and you will never again fear disaster. 16 On that day the announcement to Jerusalem will be, "Cheer up, Zion! Don't be afraid! 17 For the LORD your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs." 18 "I will gather you who mourn for the appointed festivals; you will be disgraced no more. 19 And I will deal severely with all who have oppressed you. I will save the weak and helpless ones;I will bring together those who were chased away. I will give glory and fame to my former exiles, wherever they have been mocked and shamed. 20 On that day I will gather you together and bring you home again. I will give you a good name, a name of distinction, among all the nations of the earth, as I restore your fortunes before their very eyes. I, the LORD, have spoken!"

God's people learn to rejoice in God's presence, even or especially when there seemed little visible evidence to support it. Think of Mary waiting for the birth of Jesus, dealing with some anxiety about people’s perceptions yet singing about her hope: "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Or consider Paul and Silas during their first visit to Philippi. When they were thrown into prison they sang hymns of praise at midnight, "and the prisoners were listening to them" and their chains fell off. (Acts 16:25) (Christian Century, Nov 23, 1994, William Dyrness) There is freedom in being able to rejoice in the middle of difficult circumstances. To cling tenaciously to hope in God while everything around you tells you there is no hope.

Those who have joy more than happiness know that life is painful. They are not in denial about their own and others’ pain, but they are not imprisoned in despair. They understand that they have a challenging but rewarding role to play in keeping the faith and living joyfully despite difficulties.

This passage captures the tension between the hope and the conviction we hold in God’s future, and the radical change and re-shaping of our world that is required for this foreseen future to become a present reality. There is great hope in a vision of a future restoration, but all of the difficulty and pain associated with his sort of change remains in view.” (Howard Wallace, Uniting Church, Australia)

It was hopeful on Friday to hear a repentant Tiger Woods say that he needs to take a break from golf to work on healing the hurt he has caused his wife and family, not to mention the disappointment of his friends and fans. This is something to rejoice in – his repentance, but not something to be happy about. There is no happiness in Tiger and his wife trying to work out the problems caused by his multiple infidelities. There is a lot of difficulty and pain ahead, yet there can be some joy in Tiger’s decision to try to do what is right and necessary, if there is any hope of healing.

So, my friends, we end up in the same place as last week, with the tension of knowing we have a God who is coming to make things right, who is calling us to live as Christ lived, which is quite different from the way we live now. God condemns the sin of our lives, challenges us to repent, and then takes the judgment away. God is delighting in us, while also wanting more from us. God is renewing us in God’s boundless love, rejoicing in us, changing our shame into praise.

We are accustomed to images of God as judge. We are accustomed to images of God as shepherd, gathering the flock into the fold. But how often do we imagine God as one who rejoices? One who sings? Yet here, in our text, God and God's people alike are caught up in a joy that overflows into song, a joy that springs from love renewed, from a relationship restored.

This joy is not one-sided. It is not simply we, God's people ,who rejoice because God has forgiven and restored us. It is not simply God's people who rejoice. God,too, sings and shouts with joy over this love restored. The divine heart overflows with jubilation!

This image of God bears no resemblance to Aristotle's "unmoved mover," Many people today think that some higher being set the world in motion and lets it go. No, this God is moved by human attitudes and actions. This God does not watch from a distance, but enters into the life of the world. This God enters even into human flesh, in the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation.

This Sunday, we rejoice in the love, even if our lives are in a minor key. We sing with the joy of a people redeemed and restored, but also with the joy of a God who is deeply invested in the life of the world. God sings. God shouts. God rejoices. Emmanuel comes to us and renews us in love “REJOICE, rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to Thee, O Israel.”

(Ideas in last four paragraphs re-worked from Kathryn Schifferdecker, workingpreacher.org)