Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
December 16, 2018
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,
Author Kent Crockett writes of his wife Cindy, refueling their car at a gas station in a small Texas town. Instead of driving up to a self-service pump, Cindy accidently pulled up to a full service pump. She didn’t realize that the luxury of having someone else pump her gas cost her an extra fifty cents per gallon until she had to pay for the fill up. Later she told her husband about the how the station had hiked the price on full service. Kent says that he was irate about the situation. He thought that the gas station probably had violated some federal or state law. He considered calling a lawyer. He calculated that the extra fifty cents per gallon his wife spent would have taken their vehicle over 128 miles down the road if she had bought self-service gasoline. He fumed for hours. But as he fumed, something came over him. As he fumed he discovered that he was missing out on everything else that was happening around him. He says he suddenly realized that he had sold his joy for a mere seven dollars. He confessed that joy should not be given up so easily.
On the final night of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches’ Annual Meeting and Conference last summer, we were treated to a wonderful banquet with entertainment provided by the San Diego Concert Band. The band played their so-called Fourth of July lineup, full of patriotic marches and American folk music. I remember that it was very impressive when the divider doors of the ballroom opened and the Concert Band was sitting there ready to entertain. During the third piece of the concert, my eyes were drawn to a young man who was playing the clarinet. He seemed to possess a great amount of energy. It was as if he were playing the music with his facial expressions and directing the entire band with the exaggerated movement of his body. While everyone else in the band was doing their job producing beautiful music without much fanfare, this clarinet player was the only one in the concert band who made it obvious that he was having a good time doing his job. I wasn’t alone in noticing this young man. When the third song ended, two
others at my table shouted out, “Look at the clarinet player on the far right!” For the rest of the concert, it was nearly impossible for me to take my eyes off him. He was that entertaining. He was having that much fun.
Following the concert, the band packed up their instruments and those of us who attended the conference said our goodbyes to one another. But a colleague and I moved forward to seek out the clarinet player. We shook his hand and told him how much we enjoyed watching his enjoyment. He offered a simple explanation, “It is my joy. Whatever else is going on in my life flows through me when I play my instrument.” I asked him if he always played that way. He said, “I can’t play any other way. I have to put everything into music. Even when things aren’t going well, music is my abundant joy.” I left the ballroom feeling that I needed to be more like that young man who played the clarinet. I needed to find a source of joy and to let it show.
This is the Third Sunday in Advent, the season of waiting and preparing for the birth of God’s love which we celebrate at Christmas. This Sunday we recognize joy in our Advent preparation. It is easy to equate joy with happiness. Yet happiness is generally defined as a feeling of contentment or well-being that is predicated on something good happening to us. Happiness is an emotion that comes from contentment, satisfaction, bliss, or pleasure. Joy is a little more complex. Joy involves a deeper connection to a greater good, a bond with others, to a purpose or to a higher power. For Christians, joy is a peace that keeps our hearts with Christ in all circumstance. It is in knowing God’s purpose will be realized in all things in spite of apparent worldly contradiction, in spite of our apparent failure and strife. Perhaps simply put: joy is living with faith and hope.
The reading for this Sunday of Joy is from the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah. In almost thirty-four years of preaching, I can’t recall ever having preached from the book of Zephaniah. Zephaniah’s prophecy is limited to just three short chapter, 55 verses in total. But this Advent I decided to focus on the words of the prophets: two weeks ago Jeremiah, last week Malachi, next week Micah, and this week Zephaniah.
Zephaniah delivered the word of God in about 640 BC, around two hundred years before the words of Malachi that we considered last week. The political and religious situations of Zephaniah’s day were quite tenuous. He was speaking to the kings and kingdom of Judah. Their northern neighbor of Israel had already been conquered two generations before by the Assyrians. Now there were barbarian armies from southern Russia sweeping down from the north, threatening Egypt and all of the area. The Babylonian empire was gaining strength to the east. People lived in fear of what might happen next. Many within the kingdom of Judah advocated for alliances. Others spoke out for military preparation. Still others believed that the future was without hope so that pleasure and wealth and happiness were the more important concerns of the day.
Into this situation, Zephaniah spoke the word of God. The day of the Lord would come soon, bringing judgement. The kings and kingdom of Judah would pay for their sins of falling away from God. God had noticed the apathy and indifference of the people. God had seen their failure to care for the poor and oppressed and their selfish greed which took advantage of the powerless. God knew of their desire to follow whatever false god was comfortable and appealing. God was saddened over leaders who were corrupt in speech and action. For two and a half chapters of his book Zephaniah’s words spoke of the day of the Lord in not so pleasant terms. That day would bring judgement. God would “gather the nations and pour out his wrath upon them- my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger….The day of the Lord will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom.” Merry Christmas from Zephaniah!
Here are what some commentators have written about the prophet Zephaniah. “He is a beloved, cantankerous, malcontent.” “Zephaniah’s default position was one of gloom and doom.” “If we put a face on Zephaniah, it would probably be the Grinch who stole Christmas rather than a prophet who promised it.” His words aren’t the kind of stuff people want to hear two weeks before Christmas. The world is dark enough today without hearing about this ancient man who preached even more darkness.
But then, suddenly Zephaniah’s writing changed. In the words we heard this morning, he still spoke of God’s coming to humanity, but in a different way. The world may still be dark, but God was in now in their very midst. The prophet called for God’s people to be glad and shout and sing for joy. God was about to change things. God had come as a pardoning judge, offering forgiveness for those who honestly repent. God had come as shepherd, dealing with the wolves and terror of the night that oppress the flock. God had come as Prince of Peace who will defeat the principalities and powers who threaten life. God had come as Creator, restoring the wonder of earth and sea and sky so that all can glorify God through our place in creation. Even God will burst into song, a song of jubilation because the proper relationship with humanity will be restored. The divine heart will overflow with joy! Imagine that- a day in which God delights in the human condition!
Joy! The situation hadn’t changed but the perspective had. The God who threatened to come to the world with judgement and wrath had come in a very different way. Zephaniah sought to reassure the people that God was present with them and that they could live in the confidence of that promise. The words of the cantankerous, dark, negative prophet changed. Instead of looking at the situation through a dark filter, he began to speak of God’s presence through the perspective of joy. There was a transformation. Words of fear and vulnerability were replaced by words of hope and promise.
Author Leo Buscaglia tells the story about his mother making something she called their “misery dinner.” It was the night after his father came home and said it looked as if he would have to go into bankruptcy because his partner had absconded with their firm’s funds. His mother went out and sold some jewelry to buy food for a sumptuous feast. Other members of the family scolded her for it. But she told them that “the time for joy is now, when we need it most, not next week. Her courageous act rallied the family.
Teilhard de Chardin once said, “The infallible proof of the presence of God is joy.” Long ago in a world marked by fear and injustice and exile, even the dark and gloomy Zephaniah spoke good news, “The Lord your God is in your midst. Rejoice and exult with all of your heart.” Joy isn’t the absence of the darkness. Joy is the celebration of God’s promise and God’s faithfulness with words and action despite the darkness. In our world where God may seem absent and inactive, we are reminded that appearances are deceiving. Even earthly life can give us no assurance of release from trouble, we can count on God’s deliverance of forgiveness and redemption. Because God came in Jesus the Christ, we know that God will come to us again. “Do not fear, O Zion, do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God is in your midst and he will rejoice over you with gladness.” As God finds joy in us, so we celebrate our lives in pure joy.