Zephaniah 3:14-17 Sing for Joy!
I think most people would agree that Christmas time is one of the happiest, most joyful times of the year. The decorations, the familiar Christmas carols playing, the excitement for the gifts we receive, the special holiday meals, families gathering together – all help contribute to the Christmas cheer. But if that is all that our joy is based on, if that is the chief reason for us to rejoice at this time of year – what happens when we go back to our everyday lives? What happens when family return to their homes, when the decorations are taken down, the Christmas cookies are gone and that special gift breaks? What happens to our joy then?
For Christians, our Christmas joy does not depend on any of those things. In fact, take them all away; replace them with trouble and sorrow; and we would still have reason to rejoice at Christmas. Outward circumstances should not and do not determine the condition of a believer’s heart. Even when everything around us is dark and gloomy, Christians can be joyful. The true Christmas joy is a Savior born in Bethlehem. Joy is ours because God sent his own Son into the world to rescue us from sin – that joy is with us every day no matter what the circumstances of our life. That is why the apostle Paul can encourage us as he did in our second lesson – “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
The prophet Zephaniah has a similar encouragement for us – “Sing, … shout loudly, … Be glad and celebrate with all your heart.” While Advent is a time for repentance, a time to meditate on how our sins caused the Son of God to humble himself to be born in Bethlehem’s stable, it is also a time of joy – because God has kept his promise and has taken away our sin. Rejoice – that is the message of the third Sunday of Advent. Rejoice your king is coming. Rejoice for the Lord is near. Sing for joy, the Lord has removed your punishment. Sing for joy, the Lord rejoices over you.
What is it that keeps us from rejoicing? The fact is even believers face life’s problems. We could all make a long list of problems – financial problems, uncertainty, pain, sickness and death. Even believers are troubled at times by past sins. The joy that is ours as Christians is often dimmed and in danger of being destroyed by fear. Fear and joy are opposites. And sin causes fear. The apostle John tells us, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Sometimes when the problems of time seek to overwhelm us, the thought can almost occur to us – “I’m finally getting what I deserve. God is punishing me for my sin.” All trouble and sorrow is a result of sin – even if it isn’t some specific sin. So the problems of life remind me of the sinner that I am and the punishment I deserve. The Bible tells us, “The wages of sin is death” and “The soul who sins is the one who will die.”
God’s law reveals the sinners that we are and calls us to repentance. That is the message which Zephaniah proclaims in the chapters and verses leading up to our text. At the beginning of his book we hear a warning – “‘I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord. … Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near.” The Lord will return one day as judge. We need to be prepared. It is a similar message to the one we heard from John the Baptist in our gospel reading. “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance.” It is a similar message to the one we heard last week – the Lord comes to purify and cleanse, to call us to repentance.
But the punishment is gone. Sin and guilt have been removed. The punishment which our sins deserve has been placed on Jesus. The Lord in mercy has taken away the sins of the world. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” “The Lord your God is among you, a warrior who saves.” He is a warrior, a hero who comes not to destroy, but to save. We might recall God’s mighty acts of deliverance in the Old Testament – such examples as the parting of the Red Sea when God destroyed the Egyptian army, or the battle of Jericho when the Lord caused the walls of the city to fall down or the time when the Lord wiped out the Assyrian army which was camped outside of Jerusalem.
But the Lord also battles for us. He provides us with everything that we need for body and life. He watches over and cares for us. He protects us. The Lord fights for us. He is in control of everything, ruling for our good. While wicked and evil people may at times seem to get the upper hand, while at times they may even seem to be in control, the fact is our King and Savior is the one who is ruling – and he promises to work everything for our eternal good. He is mighty to save.
And even more importantly the Lord has done battle with our spiritual enemies. On the cross, Jesus did battle with our enemies of sin, death and Satan. There on the cross, Jesus defeated those enemies. He rose victorious on Easter Sunday. He is our victorious Savior and King mighty to save.
And as our victorious king, Jesus will continue to rule for our good. His great goal is to bring us safely through this life to our home in heaven. So he will continue to be with us, to watch over us, to protect us and to lead and guide us. The troubles and sorrows of this life need not get us down and distract us. Even when he allows trouble and sorrow to enter our life, it’s not a punishment from the Lord – but discipline for our good, to focus us on him and his word.
So gone is fear. Now we are able to work and to serve the Lord. One affect that fear can have on a person is to cause him to freeze. He is unable to act, unable to do anything. But “you need no longer fear harm.” Jesus has removed our fear by removing sin and guilt. So we are encouraged, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.” We are able to work for the Lord to serve him. Like a prisoner who has been freed from his chains, he is free to serve the one who rescued him.
But think about how fear can keep us from doing God’s will. Why do we hesitate to speak to others about our Savior and to witness about him? Perhaps fear of how others may react. Fear that we might face ridicule or worse for our faith. Why do we want to fit in and so often live and act like the world around? Do we fear what others might think about us? Why are we tempted to compromise or overlook false teaching? Aren’t we sometimes afraid of how others, even other Christians, may react as we faithfully stand on and proclaim all of God’s Word? Why do we hold back on our offerings to the Lord? Perhaps we fear that then I might have to go without.
But in every circumstance, the Lord says, “Don’t be afraid.” We can serve him with joy. We can follow the Lord’s word in every circumstance and know that he will be with us and bless us. The Lord has dealt with our enemies and on the Last Day when he returns in glory, he will judge all those who oppose and reject him. He will take us to share his glory in heaven. The Lord is in control – don’t be afraid.
What is more, as God’s people – God rejoices over us. Think about that – we who so often fail to trust him, who are still troubled by fears and doubts, as the Lord looks on us he rejoices. God not only rejoices over every sinner who repents, but he rejoices to see his Church and his believers joyfully serving him. He rejoices to witness godly lives lived according to his word, lives of joyful thanksgiving. That new life of the Christian is the fruit of the suffering and death of Jesus. It is the result of and a response to the Lord having rescued us. His work was not in vain.
God rejoices over our salvation. The writer to the Hebrews encourages us, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus went to the cross and died to pay for our sins. He endured the shame of the death on the cross. He did this “for the joy set before him” – the joy of his glorious resurrection; the joy of our salvation; the joy of seeing believers in heaven with him. To win for us eternal life in heaven, Jesus endured death on the cross. So God rejoices with songs on his lips, because his people are living in his presence.
We are the ones who should be filled with joy and singing because in Christ we have the privilege of living with God for eternity. And Zephaniah encourages us to sing and shout and be glad and celebrate. But note that Zephaniah says that the Lord is just as happy as we are. He is happy because the goal of his work of redemption has been reached. He is joyful because the purpose of creation, that the crown of creation – mankind, might live in his presence forever – has been realized. What a remedy for fear! What a reason for us to rejoice – God is rejoicing over us.
Not only that, God is in the presence of his people with his protecting power. He is there to bless. Isaiah tells us, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” The holy God hates sin. He will not dwell among sinful people. But when sin and guilt have been removed by Christ’s blood, there is no reason why the Lord must stay separated from his people any longer. So God is with us. He is not a long way off, unaware of what is going on in our world. He is near us, ready to help and comfort his people. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Even though Jesus no longer physically walks with us, he promises us, “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” He will never leave or forsake you. What is more – Jesus send us the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit is with us to strengthen us, to lead and guide us, to comfort us – all through his word. Again Jesus promises, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” So Zephaniah assures us, “The King of Israel, the Lord, is among you.” He is with us – protecting us from harm, delivering us from evil, quieting and comforting our fears and worries.
So we have no reason to worry. In our second lesson, the apostle Paul encouraged us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We don’t have any reason for worry. Everything is under the control of our Lord and Savior. He is ruling everything for our good. We have the calm, quiet assurance of absolute security in the Lord. He will care for us. He will see us through this life to our home in heaven. We can rest secure in God’s love. God does not change; his love does not change. He is faithful to all his promises.
What great reason we have to rejoice, to sing for joy, in any circumstance, at any time. The Lord is with us. He is mighty to save. We have no reason for fear or worry. No matter what evil we see in our world, no matter what problems and trials we face in our life – the Lord is with us. He will never leave or forsake us. He rejoices over us and delights in us his people. And we rejoice in his great love and faithfulness which sustain us in every circumstance.