14Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15The 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. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17The 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. Zephaniah 3:14-17 (ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Rejoice! Actually today is called “Rejoice Sunday!” That’s why today we light the pink candle in the advent wreath. Today is a day of rejoicing. But, Pastor we’ve been rejoicing already. We’ve been Christmas shopping. We’ve been attending parties. We’ve been setting up the Christmas tree. After all ‘tis the season to be jolly! We are happy that Christmas is coming! And so we are… and so we should be.
That’s what this text is talking about. Sing aloud! It says, shout, rejoice and exult. (I’m not sure the last time I ‘exulted’ but I’m sure it was fun! It actually means ‘leap for joy’). Finally, we’re getting to the part of the season before Christmas we really enjoy. But what is there really to be happy about. All told, the season is really a stressful time. On top of all of our regular problems, paying bills, meeting work obligations, taking care of our families, running here and there for the kids, and on and on… we’ve got all those extra Christmas things to deal with. Extra cooking, extra cleaning, extra traveling, extra cards and letters to write, extra shopping, and even more… It’s easy to say we should be rejoicing in the Christmas spirit but everyone really knows how hard it is.
Actually, the Prophet Zephaniah knew what you are going through. Well, not precisely you, but he knew about people just like you. When he was preaching to the Jews, things were beginning to look very bad. The political situation was becoming increasingly dangerous; one of Israel’s favorite kings had been killed in battle. It was becoming very clear that they were minor pawns on the world stage of nations. More and more, there was less and less to rejoice about. Added on to the regular problems of living in their day and age, there were all these extra things to worry about. They were loaded down with the things of life, overwhelmed with trouble.
And most of Zephaniah’s message really didn’t help. The first part of his book didn’t leave much doubt as to what was going to happen. God’s judgment was coming. There was going to be lots more trouble. There was going to be foreign armies at the gates and their cities were going to burn. There was going to be punishment from God for forgetting the special relationship they had with the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. There wasn’t much to rejoice about. And still Zephaniah says rejoice. And there was reason to rejoice. It’s because of something that’s repeated in Zephaniah’s message; one phrase that makes all the difference for God’s people. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. And The Lord your God, is in your midst. You see, no matter how bad it was going to be, Zephaniah gave God’s promise that God would be with His people, right there in the middle of them, right there while they were bearing the worst of it, God was going to be there. And that… was really a reason for joy… a reason for rejoicing. It is in fact such a strong promise that Zephaniah gives them the words that they will be saying. He says, “Look it’s going to be so good when all this is over your going to want to start rejoicing right now!”
A father knocks on his daughter door. She is crying on her bed because she has received punishment for disobeying. “Can I come in honey?” he says. Quietly he enters and sits beside her on the bed. He folds her into his arms. “It’s ok, your mother and I still love you. It won’t be long and your grounding will be over. You can start rejoicing right now!”
But in Zephaniah’s case its even more than that. The Lord has taken away the judgments against you. And he is not just talking about small claims court here, or the end of a period of grounding. He’s actually talking about the death sentence. He is saying that you deserve death but God is going to set aside the verdict. He is going to take care of you so you will not be punished. It is going to happen for you. And it is so sure that you may as well begin the celebration right now!
A father went to tuck his excited children in bed. They were having a hard time getting to sleep because they were so excited. You see, tomorrow they were going to the zoo. It was a trip they had been expecting for a long time. They knew how much fun they were going to have. Dad sat gently tucking in the blankets around them, recounting all they were going to do… “Will we see lions?” “Of course, a great many I suppose.” “How about tigers?” “Yes, tigers too! Now please try to go to sleep.” “But Dad, I can’t sleep, I’m just too excited.” One of the boys said, fidgeting under the covers. The older clutched his pillow and looked up at his father. “Dad,” he said, “I just want to thank you for tomorrow.” That’s what Zephaniah was talking about. Thanking God for his presence now and thanking God for what He will do tomorrow.
Well, it’s all fine and good for those folks back then. They had lots to be thankful for. They had God in their midst. I’m not really sure we want God around us all the time. I mean, so much of what we say and do isn’t really the kind of stuff we’d share with God anyway. Especially the troubles we’re having. If God were here, the season would really have to be jolly wouldn’t it? God doesn’t’ really fit here in the middle of my holiday depression. He doesn’t really fit here along with my broken family (there’s nothing like a little holiday stress to bring out the worst in us). God doesn’t really fit in the holiday hassle of shop-till-you-drop overspending, and the insecurity of knowing that the bills are going to come due next month. God doesn’t fit in my holiday were I miss my loved ones who have died this year. Add all of that on to my regular life stress and there’s not much to rejoice about, is there? God doesn’t really fit in the middle of my messy world.
But you see, that’s exactly what Christmas is. God in our midst, God with us, right in the middle of our messy lives. He is a mighty one who will save, Zephaniah says. And he’s not just talking to long dead people in the Middle East. He’s talking to you and me. Christmas is the holiday where we celebrate the fact that God did actually, physically come right into our messy world. He showed up right in our midst, in the middle of our messed up families and broken dreams. God became flesh, that is, He took on a human body and soul, a whole human life; Birth and death, sorrow and pain, joy and laughter. He was as real, as flesh-and-blood, as the person sitting next to you. He breathed the world’s air, with all its foul smells as well as its sweet smells. He experienced human life, in the same way that you do. Right in the middle of depressed people with broken families and insecurity just like yours. God in your midst. Jesus didn’t just come to be close to you. But he came to rescue you from the very thing that separates you from God in the first place. Jesus Christ, God and man, lived, died, and rose again, to save you from sin. Sin is what keeps you apart from God. That’s because sin is really humans pushing God away; people wanting God to be as far away as possible, out of sight out of mind. Sin is people rejecting the God who created them and loves for them. And the punishment that that deserves is taken up by Jesus Christ, and nailed to the cross with Him. Your punishment paid for by the living-in-your- midst Jesus Christ. And all that pain and suffering, all that sorrow and separation, comes to you because of sin was laid upon Jesus. That’s the real joy of the season. You see, God belongs right were He says He’ll be, in your midst to save you.
Ah, you say, but I still have all this suffering, my family is still broken, I’m still apart from my loved ones, and this year’s holiday depression is worse than ever. And all that’s true, the world is still a messy place, it’s still a broken place because of sin. But there’s more to Jesus in your midst than His death on the cross. His death is not the end. Jesus rose again. He lives and reigns now today. And what’s more, He lives and reigns in our midst today, right now, right here. He’s sitting with you in your dark room telling you that even though things are bad they won’t last forever. He’s right there sitting beside you telling you how great it’s going to be when all this trouble is past, because His resurrection is His sure promise to you that all of this pain and suffering are done away with. He has taken them into His grave, so that your grave isn’t the end for you but only the beginning. So you can begin your rejoicing right now.
Because right now, He hasn’t left you alone to deal with your pain. He comes in your midst, H come to you in very real ways. Not in just some invisible, intangible, un-sensible, way… but He is with you in ways that you can actually hear, and see, and taste and feel. Pick up a bible, read God’s Word and Jesus is right there in your midst. Gather in church where “two or three are gathered in His name,” and Jesus is right there in your midst. Approach His table and take His body and blood given and shed for you, and Jesus is right there in your midst; in the midst of your depression; in the midst of your pain; in the midst of your insecurity. Now that’s real reason for rejoicing. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.