Rejoice in the Lord Always
Sermon preached at Enmore, 3rd Sunday in Advent, 16th December 2018
Readings: Zephaniah 3.14-20; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
Traditionally, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent we emphasise the theme of joy. It is also known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin meaning ‘rejoice.’ Joy and rejoicing are prominent in our first two readings: the Old Testament and the Epistle. It may not be obvious but there is also an element of joy in the rather tough words uttered by John the Baptist in our Gospel reading. After describing John’s call to repentance and changed behaviour, Luke adds the words: “So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” The good news was the coming of the one, John was preparing the way for- Jesus, the Christ. But having looked at John and his message last week let us turn our attention to the readings from Zephaniah and Philippians.
The book of Zephaniah is one of those books most of us have trouble finding in our Bibles. I doubt if anyone would want to put it in their list of favourite Bible books. Most of Zephaniah is incredibly gloomy. The opening speech begins with the words: “I shall utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord.” I will sweep away humans and animals, I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea…I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Lord.” Not a very promising start and the prophecy continues in this vein for the first two and a half chapters. However, when we discover more about the life and times of Zephaniah we start to understand why his prophecy is so bleak.
Zephaniah lived during the early years of the reign of King Josiah who came to the throne in Jerusalem around 640 B.C. when he was only 8 years old. He followed soon after the evil, King Manasseh, who had reigned for 55 years- the longest reign of any Israelite monarch. I use the word ‘evil’ of Manasseh because that is how the Hebrew Scriptures describe him. In fact, it is said of Manasseh that he committed more evil than the surrounding nations and filled all of Jerusalem with innocent blood. Zephaniah’s prophetic ministry begins in the context of widespread corruption, idolatry, moral and social decay. In fact things are so bad that two thirds of the book is taken up with descriptions of the judgement soon to be visited on Jerusalem and her people. Then suddenly after all this talk of death and destruction, right at the end of the book, in the passage read this morning, Zephaniah does a complete about face and calls on the people of Jerusalem to rejoice. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart O daughter Jerusalem, The Lord has taken away the judgements against you”.
Why the sudden change? Scholars have suggested various solutions- some have supposed that these words were added much later by a post exilic writer who was describing the joy of the people returning to Jerusalem after their long exile in Babylon. Others have said Zephaniah is referring to the reforms that Josiah implemented later in his reign which restored proper temple worship and stamped out the corruption that had become endemic in society. But if we look closely the ground for hope, optimism and joy is actually found in the verse, “The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more”. The word from the Lord which began with unavoidable judgement has been transformed into joyous hope. No matter what dreadful events may lie in the future, God is still present with his people and has not abandoned them. “The King of Israel is in your midst” is a message of hope for Advent for we are reminded that one of the names of Jesus is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’: God with us in our joys, God with us in our pain, God with us in every experience of life. Notice also that Zephaniah declares that ‘God will rejoice over you with gladness and he will renew you in his love.’ As we gather here this morning it is a wonderful thought that God rejoices over us- he is delighted when his people gather to sing his praises and listen to his word. He is filled with joy when we welcome the stranger and comfort the broken hearted. His heart is warmed every time we come to him in prayer. C.S. Lewis wrote, “to be loved by God, not merely pitied but delighted in as an artist delights in her work or as a father in his son or daughter – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”
The theme of rejoicing in spite of the circumstances of life is also prominent in Philippians. This is one of Paul’s prison letters but it is probably his most confident and joyous. “Rejoice in the Lord always” is not to be taken as a facile, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ kind of message. Paul knows that the Christians he is writing to are facing very real difficulties and live in an environment often hostile to their faith. After all this is the city where Paul and Silas were flogged with rods and then thrown into prison for supposedly preaching ‘customs contrary to Roman law’. Being a Christian in first century Philippi was not for the faint hearted. Paul gives three injunctions to these believers:
- Rejoice in the Lord
- Let your gentleness be known to everyone
- Do not worry about anything but in everything with prayer and supplication let your requests be known unto God.
Why are they to rejoice? Paul gives a reason very similar to the one given by Zephaniah. ‘The Lord is near.’ The Greek word for ‘near’ like our English word can be understood both spatially and temporally. Probably both meanings are intended here. The early Christians believed that the return of Jesus would happen soon, probably in their lifetime. This gave them a tremendous confidence that no matter how tough things were now, the day was coming when the earth would be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. But their rejoicing was not just based on future hope but present reality. The Lord was near to each one of them. He was in their midst. His ear was always open to their cry. Advent reminds us that the Lord is near. Near to us, no matter what difficult things we may be facing in the week before us.
Gentleness is a lovely word. We like to be treated with gentleness in a world where we so often encounter the opposite. We look for gentleness especially in those times when we feel vulnerable or at risk: a visit to the doctor or dentist, facing a medical test, seeing a lawyer. Paul says that Christians should be known for their gentleness to all people- not just the ones who are easy to get on with but also the people who tend to irritate or annoy us.
We live in a worrying world where there is always something to be anxious about. Paul’s exhortation not to worry is linked with what he regards as the antidote to worry, namely prayer and thanksgiving. There is a lot of truth in the line from the old hymn, ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’, which says, ‘O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.’ But how do we do this? How do we give God the really big things that worry us, consume our peace and keep us awake at night. Sometimes it helps if we link prayer with an action. I have known people who have written down the details of the thing that is making them anxious and then symbolically handed it over to God by burning the piece of paper. Others find it helpful to light a candle and place it on the altar as a sign that God now has the matter in hand. Others find it helps to share the matter with a Christian friend or Minister and then pray about it together. Prayer is our great resource in times of stress and anxiety. We are not promised that God will always answer the prayer in the way we expect but we are promised that the peace of God will stand guard at the door of our heart and mind, protecting us from paralysing fear and anxiety. God’s peace cannot be rationally explained. Paul says it ‘surpasses all understanding’ but it is the testimony of countless Christians that it can be experienced even in the most difficult times. May we all know that peace in these remaining busy days of Advent.