You may have noticed that in the media we Christians don’t exactly have a reputation for being joyful. The standard media Christian in many TV shows seems to be a long faced, angry person who spends their whole life trying to impose strict moral standards on the people around them – and then getting mad at them when they don’t eagerly fall into line.
But in the New Testament, joy is one of the defining characteristics of Christians. And it’s not usually inspired by their circumstances! For example, there’s the lovely story in the Book of Actsof 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. How did they react? Acts tells us ‘About midnight they were praying and singing hymns to God’(Acts 16:25). 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 is the Third Sunday in Advent. Traditionally, it’s called ‘Gaudate’ Sunday, from the Latin word for ‘joy’. The note of joy in our scripture readings for today is strong. In our epistle we hear Paul saying, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). And in our Old Testament reading we hear the prophet Zephaniah – 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 our 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, to save us from evil and sin and to give us hope for the healing of the whole world. Secondly, we rejoice because of the future. Yes, we know all about the continuing presence of evil in the world, but we rejoice because we know it won’t always be like this. The day will come when God will heal the world completely, and we will all live together in justice and peace. Because of these two focal points, we can live in joy right now, 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 wonderful sense of joy and celebration amongst God’s people.
First, we rejoice because we have been forgiven.Look at verses 14-15:
‘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 the finance minister of an ancient middle-eastern country. You’ve been quietly embezzling tax dollars for years. But then one day you’re found out, and the king demands repayment of what you’ve stolen – an amount equal to several times the annual budget of the kingdom. Since you can’t possibly 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 doesn’t give you what you ask for – he gives you morethan you asked! He forgives your entire debt and allows you and your family to go free!
This of course is one of Jesus’ parables. According to the Gospel, this is what God has done for us. Do you believe it? This is truly at the heart of the message of the New Testament. Perhaps you sometimes feel like ‘Christian’ in Pilgrim’s Progress,carrying a huge burden of guilt on your shoulders, but the Gospel says 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. Surely that’s a reason to rejoice?
We rejoice because we’ve been forgiven. Second, we rejoice because God lives among us. Look at Zephaniah 3:15-17:
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 hisaddress be? Many would say ‘heaven’, which to a lot of people means a faraway place we can’t reach until we die.
But the Old Testament people had a strong sense of God’s presence withIsrael, and especially in the Temple in Jerusalem. As long as God was living there among his people, they felt safe and secure; he would protect them from their enemies and from disasters of various kinds. But in the 6thcentury B.C. the Babylonians destroyed the city and took the people away into exile, and 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 – he’d abandoned them to their fate. Surely God must be angry at them because of their sins? That was why he’d left them.
So for these people verse 17 was very good news: ‘The LORD your God is in your midst’. If God was living among them again, that must mean he’d forgiven their sins and was willing to start over with them.
For us as Christians the good news is even better than that. The good news we celebrate at Christmas time is 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’! And he didn’t leave the neighbourhood when he ascended into heaven: his gift of the Holy Spirit means he’s still with us today.
What’s God’s address? Christianity teaches us that God lives in yourhouse and shares your daily life. 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 go home and go to work tomorrow he’ll be there ahead of us. He’s not far away, holding himself aloof from us; he’s made the decision to become ‘one of us’ – and we rejoice in this good news.
So we rejoice because we’re 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).
God is so excited about you that he sings a song of joy over you! 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’re believers we often project this feeling onto our relationship with God. We think of ourselves as sounworthy! We might be able to force ourselves to believe God could maybe tolerateus – but surely he could never come to enjoyus, or rejoiceover us, could he?
Yes, he could. 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. 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? I blush sometimes when I think of all the excuses I make for not praying more. What will motivate me to change this situation and spend more time in prayer? Personally, I find the best motivation is to remind myself that God made me for the pleasure of knowing me. God is actually looking forwardto spending time in my company – and yours too. It may be hard to believe, but in our reading today the prophet says it’s true.
Are you catching a sense of the joy Zephaniah feels? God freely forgives our sins and welcomes us into his presence. God is not far away from any of us; he became one of us, and lives in us and among us as we gather together. God rejoices over us and loves spending time in our company. And the fourth thing Zephaniah wants us to rejoice about is this: 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 kilometres 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 captives, exiled to Babylon for half a century. 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. But then something happens to shake us up – perhaps a bereavement, or the loss of a job, or the news of a terminal illness. And then we realise again 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. Nowwe know the joy of having our sins forgiven. Nowwe have the joy of knowing that God lives among us. Nowwe 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 who’ve gone before us.
So right now, let’s 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’s also remember that this is only the beginning. Let’s 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!