Advent 3C – December 12, 2021
This is Gaudete Sunday! It’s the Latin word for ‘rejoice’ taken from the first word in the New Testament reading for today. Rejoice in the Lord always we just heard Paul say to the Philippians – Again I say Rejoice! And why? Because the Lord is near.
Last week we heard John the Baptist calling us to a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” as he cried out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. And why? Because the Lord is near!
You just heard the gospel reading for today, describing John’s ministry in greater detail. As he called people to repentance, they had some questions about how, exactly, to go about that. Yes, we know repenting means turning away from one thing so we can turn toward something else, but how do we do that?
So John gives some specific examples. He encourages his listeners to look for ways to make things right and fair, to be generous with what we have, so that others who don’t have anything can be clothed and fed and cared for. He starts out calling people a brood of vipers, but ends up proclaiming the good news that … the Lord is near!
We are three fourths of the way through the season of Advent. And while we might think of these four weeks of preparation as leading up to Christmas, our focus should probably be looking forward to Christ’s coming again in glory as much as remembering his first coming in human form.
In fact, during medieval times, the four Sundays of Advent had nothing to do with Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love – the themes of Advent in the middle ages were Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Put that in your Christmas stocking! The truth is that Advent simply means Arrival. We look for Jesus to come among us, to be God with us – Emmanuel. So today, we hear the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah describe what that will be like, how God with us changes everything, and why God wants to be with us in the first place.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. 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, a warrior who gives victory; 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.
I will remove disaster from you so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord. (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
Rejoice! Exult! I wonder if we even know what those words mean anymore. The short definition of “exult” is to ‘feel or show triumphant elation or jubilation.’ Try explaining that to a kindergartener.
Let me give you an example: It’s the sound you make and the way you act when a player from your favorite football team intercepts a pass and runs it in for a touchdown. Especially if that touchdown puts your team in the lead.
You exult when you watch your child ride a bike unassisted for the first time. I exult every time I get a sermon written in time to preach it. It’s that “Woohoo!” feeling of gratitude that things are good – really good! – and we are filled with joy and gladness we can’t contain. So why does the prophet Zephaniah, who has spent so much breath telling the nation of Israel how bad things are going to be for them because of their disobedience, suddenly do a 180 turn and start telling us to rejoice?
Because God has taken away the judgments against you. The first two chapters of Zephaniah are all about the punishment God intends for those who have rejected God. It’s pretty dire. A lot worse than being called a brood of vipers. Then, suddenly, here in chapter three, God does an about face – God repents. Now hear me out, I’m not spouting heresy here. There are several places in scripture where God repents:
- God repented that he had made humans, because they would only do evil, and it ‘grieved him at his heart,’ so he told Noah to build an ark before God flooded the earth (Genesis 6:6)
- God repented from destroying Jerusalem because of King David’s sin, and stopped the angel of death at the threshing floor which eventually would become the land where Solomon would build the first Temple (Chronicles 21:15)
- When Nineveh repented of its sin in Jonah 3:10, God repented of destroying Nineveh.
Do you notice what all this repenting has in common? God gets disgusted with humans who have rejected God’s love, and decides to destroy them – then repents, or changes direction, and shows mercy instead. You could almost say that God is the model of repentance. God shows us how to repent of our sin, by repenting of punishment and turning toward mercy and life.
Here in Zephaniah, that’s exactly what God does. Zephaniah describes the Day of the Lord as a time of doom and destruction, but God says, “On that day, you won’t be ashamed … no longer will you be haughty on my holy mountain … no one will make you afraid,” (3:11-13) because God will shower God’s people with love and forgiveness. And like everything else God does, this new message of love and joy goes over the top.
“Rejoice,” Zephaniah says, “God is in your midst, so you do not need to be afraid anymore.” Your judgment, your punishment for all the ways you have abandoned God or ignored God or rebelled against God – all that is cleared away. You have no reason to be afraid, because God is in your midst. God is with us. And that brings us to my favorite verse in the whole Bible, and the central idea of this passage. It is a five-fold blessing:
- The Lord your God is in your midst,
- a warrior who gives victory;
- he will rejoice over you with gladness,
- he will renew (or quiet) you in his love,
- he will exult over you with loud singing …
All that rejoicing and exulting Zephaniah tells us to do back in verse 14 is merely a reflection of God’s rejoicing and exulting. All our loud singing is simply an answer to the singing God does over us. Have you ever considered that God sings? And when God sings, it’s because of you?
Ponder that for a moment. You are so precious to God, so deeply loved, that God rejoices over you and sings your name, even as God is in your midst, right beside you, God with you. I know the first time this verse hit me, it wasn’t with the realization that God cared so much for me, it was the fact that God sings! And if God sings, and we are made in God’s image, that’s why we sing. Not for our own pleasure, but for God’s.
It has only been with time and deeper understanding that I have come to realize it isn’t the singing that’s important here. It’s the love. Sometimes that love actually prohibits us from indulging in the pleasure of singing – as it has over these past months of pandemic restrictions. But if love is more important that anything else in this passage, surely we can express that love for God and for one another in other expressions of joy, at least for now.
And that brings us to the final part of this passage, this message of hope, peace, and joy for the third Sunday in Advent. Finally, we come to God’s promises, God’s pledge to do what God says he will do.
In the Day of the Lord, the day of rejoicing and exultation, God says “I will…”
I will remove disaster.
I will deal with your oppressors.
I will save the lame.
I will gather the outcast.
I will change your shame into your fame.
And best of all, because God is with us,
“I will bring you home.”
Isn’t that exactly where we want to be? At home with God, as God is at home with us? This is what matters. This is what Advent is preparing us for – the time when time is no more, when all the promises of the ages have been fulfilled, and God brings us home.