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Rejoice in the Lord Always (Advent Three)

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:

  1. Rejoice in the Lord
  2. Let your gen­tle­ness be known to every­one
  3. 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.

Philip Brad­ford