I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that this Christmas season, joy is in short supply. Fear and worry seem to loom a lot larger in many people’s lives.
The world has been a scary place this year. It’s not just terrorist incidents and war in the middle east. There’s also the economy, and the number of people who have lost jobs, or had their income cut significantly because of what’s going on. There are the increasing worries about climate change. and the controversies about the best way to deal with it. There’s the refugee crisis and our awareness of the millions of people around the world who have had to leave their homes in fear of their lives. And on top of all this, of course, there are individual things some of us may be experiencing – financial stress, serious illness, family difficulties, and such – all of which are present in our church just like any other community.
How can we celebrate ‘joy to the world’ in the face of all this? ‘Joy’, in our minds, tends to overlap with ‘happiness’, and ‘happiness’ is often connected to what’s ‘happening’ to us. When what’s happening to us seems scary and discouraging, Paul’s words about ‘rejoicing in the Lord’ can be a pretty hard sell.
But the truth is that in the New Testament, joy is not usually inspired by happy circumstances; more often than not, it’s in spite of circumstances. For example, there’s the story in the Book of Acts of the night when Paul and Silas had been flogged and then thrown into jail in Philippi. There they sat in the stocks, their backs bloody and sore from the whipping they’d just received, but Acts tells us that, far from feeling sorry for themselves, ‘About midnight they were praying and singing hymns to God’ (Acts 16:25). Actually, this seems to be a standard feature of Christian life and mission in Acts – Christians get persecuted, Christians rejoice and praise the Lord, and so the story goes on!
Today we’re celebrating the Third Sunday in Advent, and it’s traditionally known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday, from the Latin word for ‘joy’. The note of joy in our scripture readings for today is strong. In our epistle Paul says ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). And in our Old Testament reading we hear Zephaniah – a prophet who for most of his book has been foretelling judgement against Jerusalem – suddenly switching gears and finishing his prophecy on a note of jubilation: ‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!’ (Zephaniah 3:14).
Why is joy such a strong characteristic of Christian discipleship? Advent provides us with two focal points for this joy. First, we rejoice because of the past; we look back to that incredible time in human history when God became a human being and came to live among us in Jesus. And secondly, we rejoice because of the future. Yes, we’re well aware of the continuing presence of evil in the world, but we rejoice because of God’s promise that one his kingdom will come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and we will all live together in justice and peace forever. Because of these two focal points – in the past, and in the future – we can live in joy in the present, between the two comings of our Lord. And when we look at our reading from Zephaniah we discover four more reasons for this outrageous sense of joy and celebration amongst God’s people.
First, we rejoice because we have been forgiven. In verses 14-15 we read these words:
‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgements against you…’
Imagine yourself as a condemned criminal coming into the courtroom to hear your sentence passed by a judge. There is no doubt about your guilt, and over your head hangs the probability of an enormous penalty that will overwhelm you for the rest of your life. There is no hope of any relief, and you have resigned yourself to your fate. You take your place in the dock and the judge asks you to stand. Then to your absolute amazement the judge says, “A royal pardon for this crime has been received. You are free to go, and your record is clear”.
According to the New Testament this is our situation as Christians. In terms of one of Jesus’ parables, you are like the finance minister of a country, and you’ve been quietly embezzling tax dollars for years. One day you are found out, and the king demands repayment of what you have stolen – an amount equal to several times the annual budget of the kingdom. Since you cannot pay, he sentences you and your family to be sold into slavery. You fall down and beg for time to pay your debt. But the king does not give you what you ask for – he gives you more than you dared to ask or imagine: he forgives your whole debt and allows you and your family to go free! According to the Gospel, this is what God has done for us.
Do you believe this? This is truly at the heart of the message of the New Testament. So if you are carrying a huge burden of guilt on your shoulders, the Gospel says that you don’t have to carry it a moment longer. You can drop it at the foot of Jesus’ Cross, leave it there, and walk away free and forgiven. If you believe this – if you have experienced it – then it’s certainly one huge reason to rejoice.
We rejoice because we have been forgiven. Second, we rejoice because God lives among us. Look at Zephaniah 3:15b-17a:
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst…’
This is the time of year when children are mailing letters to Santa Claus, and we all know his address: ‘Santa Claus, North Pole, Nunavut, H0H 0H0’! But where would one mail a letter to God? What would his address be? Many would say ‘heaven’, which to a lot of people means a faraway place that we can’t reach until we die.
In contrast to this view, the Old Testament people had a strong sense of God’s presence with Israel, and especially in the Temple in Jerusalem. As long as God was there in the midst of his people, they felt safe and secure; he would protect them from their enemies and from disasters of various kinds. But when the Babylonians came to destroy the city and take the people away into exile, they wondered what had happened to God’s presence among his people. The only conclusion they could draw was that God was no longer with them – that God had abandoned them to their fate – and that their sins had caused this terrible situation. For these people, then, verse 17 was very good news: ‘The LORD your God is in your midst’. For Zephaniah to tell them that God was living among them again meant that God had forgiven their sins and was willing to start again with them.
For us as Christians, the good news is even better than that. The traditional gospel reading for Christmas Day tells us that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14), or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, ‘The Word became a human being and moved into the neighbourhood’! Where does God live? Because of the birth of Jesus, God lives in our neighbourhood; he has come among us as a human being and shared our life. Furthermore, he didn’t leave the neighbourhood when he ascended into heaven: his gift of the Holy Spirit means that he is still with us today.
So what’s God’s address? The answer for us is that God’s address is our house, and our hearts. This morning God’s address is 12603 Ellerslie Road, because Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. He’s here among us as we worship this morning, and when we leave to go home and to go to our places of work tomorrow he will be there ahead of us. He’s not far away, holding himself aloof from us; he has made the decision to become ‘one of us’ – and we rejoice in this good news.
So we rejoice because we are forgiven, and we rejoice because God lives among us and in our hearts. Thirdly, we rejoice because God rejoices over us. Look at verses 17-18:
‘He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival’ (vv.17b-18a).
Apparently God is so excited about us that he sings a song of joy over us; that’s what this verse says! For some of us this is pretty hard to believe. We’ve grown up with a low opinion of ourselves, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s pretty hard for us to accept that anyone would actually enjoy spending time with us. And if we are believers we often transfer this to our relationship with God. We think of ourselves as so unworthy, and so we might be able to force ourselves to believe that God could maybe tolerate us – but surely not to enjoy us, to rejoice over us?
Listen again to what verse 17 says: ‘he will rejoice over you with gladness’. These words are spoken to God’s people in all their brokenness and imperfection. And you are one of God’s people, so these words are spoken to you! God rejoices over you! As a friend of mine likes to say, ‘I want to introduce you to a God who loves you more than you can ever imagine, and who made you for the pleasure of knowing you!’
How does this good news impact my habits of prayer? Surely the best motivation for me to pray is the knowledge that God made me for the pleasure of knowing me. God is looking forward to spending time in my company – and in your company. It may be hard for you to believe that, but the scripture says it’s true.
So we’ve seen three things we can rejoice in, even in the midst of all the bad stuff that’s going on. First, God freely forgives our sins and welcomes us into his presence. Second, God is not far away from any of us; he became one of us, and he lives in us and among us as we gather together. Third, God rejoices over us and loves spending time in our company. And there’s one more thing Zephaniah wants us to rejoice about: We rejoice because God is bringing us to our eternal home. Look at verse 20:
‘At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you’.
When I lived in Valleyview I had a quarter time job as a consultant for the Diocese of Athabasca, and once a month I would travel to lead workshops in various parishes across northern Alberta, from Fort Vermilion to Fort McMurray. I remember many occasions when I was driving home on Sunday afternoons over hundreds of miles of snowy roads, often tired out from a full weekend. But it was always a wonderful feeling to pull into the driveway of the rectory in Valleyview, knowing that inside that house I would find some loving hugs, a hot cup of tea, and a nice supper. It was always great to get home!
But imagine if you could never go home. Imagine being one of the Israelite exiles in Babylon for the seventy-year period of their captivity – two or three generations, in other words. During that period they preserved their language and culture, their identity as Jewish people. They purified themselves from the worship of idols. And they longed for the day when they could return to their own land.
Earlier generations of Christians had this same longing for what the Nicene Creed calls ‘the life of the world to come’; they sang ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through’. Today many of us live a very comfortable lifestyle, and we can easily buy into the illusion that complete happiness is possible in this world as it is. Politicians and retailers want us to believe that, of course: it makes us more susceptible to the unrealistic promises they make. And maybe for a while we do believe it, but then something happens to shake us up – perhaps a bereavement, or the loss of a job, or the sentence of a terminal illness. Then we realise afresh that it’s a mistake for us to expect complete happiness right now. We were made for something better; we were made for eternity. The kingdom of God is our real home, and on the day when it comes in all its fulness, that’s when we’ll find pure, unadulterated joy forevermore.
So there’s a ‘now’ and a ‘not yet’ to this joy we experience as followers of Jesus. Now we know the joy of having our sins forgiven. Now we have the joy of knowing that God lives in our hearts and that God lives among us as we meet as Christians. Now we might possibly even dare to believe that God rejoices over us and made us for the pleasure of knowing us.
But not yet do we know the complete, unadulterated joy, with no hint of sorrow at all, that we will know one day. That’s the future side of Advent; we look forward to the day when God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. On that day, each of us will truly be home forever – home with God, and home with the millions of believers who have gone before us.
So let us now obey Paul’s exhortation: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). As we’ve seen, there’s already plenty for us to rejoice about. But let us also remember that this is only the beginning. Let us look forward to the day of our great homecoming, when we together with all God’s people will know fulness of joy forever. And what a day of rejoicing that will be!