Advent 3, December 13, 2015, #1176
Text: Zephaniah 3:14–20
Depressed. Feeling blue, stressed out, frustrated. These are not the things that are supposed to describe what ought to be a joyful time such as Christmas. Some people feel those things at this time of year. Sometimes it comes from unrealistic expectations. Sometimes it comes from a misunderstanding of what this season is all about. Sometimes 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. You might be thinking, “That’s easy for Him 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, celebrating!”
In our text this morning, the prophet Zephaniah gives us God’s answer: God did come down here, and He does celebrate, and We Surely Can Celebrate Because the Lord Came Here and Celebrates Over Us.
We do have to note here that while we know there is a lot of celebrating going on, in heaven and on earth, it would seem we have many reasons not to celebrate. Lots of people get to this time of year and just go, “UGH. Again?” But I am not talking about Grumpy Grinches and Sarcastic Scrooges. There are deep, serious reasons not to celebrate. For example, we have sinned; that’s a reason not to celebrate! We know there are lots of folks out there, and maybe some in here, who think they do not sin, that they are not bad people. We all sin. We all do evil. And God knows it. The people of Zephaniah’s day stood under the threat of judgment for their sinful rebellion. In the words before our text: Zephaniah said,
Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! 2 She obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the Lord, she does not draw near to her God. 3 Her officials within her are roaring lions; her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. 4 Her prophets are unprincipled; they are treacherous people. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law.
We are no different. We need to realize our sinfulness and our ongoing failure to live up to the standards of God’s holy expectations. David wrote in Psalm 51 (3–4) “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,…” We are much like God’s rebellious people of the Old Testament. We lie. We cheat. We steal. We blow off church. We are rude to our families. We hate. We lust. We sin!
And not only do we sin, and live with the effects of our sins, but we live in a sin-stained world— and that is not something to celebrate either! Because of sin, we often suffer—physically, mentally, and spiritually. If there were no sin here, these weeks before Christmas would be a time of no stress, no anxiety, no fear and all fun! If there were so sin, there would be no sickness: no shingles, no flu, no fevers.
With sin in the world, we fight daily against evil. The shootings in San Bernadino, Paris, the beheadings of Christian children in Iraq, the garbage that is on TV and the Internet. You know what I am talking about, all the violence and disorder in our world today, all motivated and fueled by Satan and his army.
Our relationships (family, work, church) often suffer from the brokenness of our sinfull world: divorce, conflict among children and parents, power struggles between co-workers. All of this stinks and all of it is because of sin, and none of it is worth celebrating. (Though some actually do.)
But you know the Good News: 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). God calls the Israelites the “daughter of Zion” and “daughter of Jerusalem.” They are dear to Him. They are His beloved children. So are we.
He calls us His friends (Jn 15:15). God is not against us. That’s because He came here and took away the judgment against our sins (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 us from sin and death. That happened when He died His sacrificial death on the cross and rose again.(Rom 8:1–3). We are forgiven for all our sins. Even when we lie. Even when we cheat. Even when we steal. Even when we are rude. Even when we hate. When we are truly sorry and truly repent, we are forgiven for all these things.
His coming into the midst of our evil world to die has also “cleared away your enemies” (vs 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. Jesus is with us and strengthens us and protects us: even if ISIS attacks us, even if people mock us for our faith, even if people are “offended” when we say “Merry Christmas.”
Therefore, we can now celebrate with all our hearts (v 14). Even though our full restoration doesn’t happen until Christ’s second coming, we celebrate now in anticipation of what we know is already ours. We celebrate with all the exuberance and joy we can show. There is no need to hold anything back. We “sing aloud,” we “shout,” we “rejoice,” we “exult.” And just so we are clear here, we are talking about praising God, not drinking too much egg nog and misbehaving at the office Christmas party. We celebrate knowing that God is also celebrating with us and sharing our joy (v 17). At the Lord’s banquet table, we celebrate with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” Heaven celebrates, & 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 happy face during this too stressful time down here. God’s been here. That’s what the celebration is all about. So sing aloud! (Just not “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”) Rejoice! Jesus did come to us in Bethlehem, 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.