Theme: We Rejoice because God First Rejoiced Over Us
Zephaniah 3:14-17 Sing, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away your judgments, He has cast out your enemy. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; You shall see disaster no more. 16 In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: "Do not fear; Zion, let not your hands be weak. 17 The LORD your God is in your midst, The Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing."
Christmas is about joy, right? We’re told to have a “holly, jolly, Christmas” because it’s the best time of the year. One of our most beloved hymns in the Christmas season is “Joy to the World.” People go around and look at Christmas lights, they drink hot chocolate, and travel across the land to be with friends and loved ones. It all sounds and looks very joyful doesn’t it, and it’s supposed to.
Why is it then that Christmas is also one of the most stressful times of the year? And it’s not just the month of December, it seems that life in general is in a downward spiral. Just yesterday I saw a sign along the road that said every day 22 veterans lose the battle with suicide. Last month a newspaper article stated that the Seattle mayor declared a “state of emergency” because of the city’s homeless population. Depression and anxiety reign around this time of year as just about every day is rainy and cloudy.
Sometimes it seems like the Christmas season is the culprit. We’re conditioned by songs, the media, and tradition that we need to be happy around Christmas. And if we’re not, it’s easy to feel like you’re left on the outside. When you add your individual problems to the equation you really get a recipe for depression. Some of us have nagging health issues. Some of us are in financial trouble. Some of have estranged friends or family members. We all have questions and concerns about the future. It sure doesn’t take long for sin and all of its effects to suck the joy out of Christmas. If we’re hoping for gifts and presents to fill in the void, we’re going to be sorely disappointed. In fact, the clamoring of earthly possessions only spirals our attitudes further downward.
In many ways, Zephaniah’s short prophecy is a microcosm of the Christmas season. There’s a lot of doom and gloom on the surface but the overall meaning behind it all is joy. If you read the book of Zephaniah, and it doesn’t take long it’s only 3 chapters, it’s almost entirely a message of judgment on God’s people of Judah. You might wonder where the hope and joy is that we come to know well in the Words of Scripture. Our few verses for review today come right at the end, and they’re just about the only verses that relay any hope.
As we examine this truth about Zephaniah’s prophecy, we might just throw up our hands and consider the book worthless and depressing. But that’s not the only way to look at it, and certainly not the right way. Sometimes God comes to us in life when things seem the bleakest because He knows that in that moment He can offer the greatest comfort. Take this picture as an example: If you never fall, you begin to forget the blessing of standing on solid ground. If you fall once, you remember for a short time. But if your entire life is a struggle, you begin to hunger and thirst desperately for deliverance and when you get it, you appreciate it.
God’s Law works the same way in our lives. Sometimes God needs to hammer at our stubborn, sinful hearts with the Law again and again to teach us a valuable lesson. The more the Law is present in our lives, the more we will be confronted with the impending curse that comes along with it because of sin. We naturally resist this because no one likes pain, discomfort, or knowing deep inside that you are helpless. When we’re confronted with harsh reality of our sins and the “wages of death” which we have earned through them; it’s the opposite of joy.
This is the same lesson that stands out so clearly amidst all the thoughts of joy around Christmas. When the homeless man struggles with sorrow and loneliness, it’s the same sin that is to blame, but it’s more apparent when others are having such a wonderful time. If you have a rift in the family, it’s going to feel more painful than it really is because Christmas is a time for the family. So the same is true for just about every problem. The holidays accentuate the ailment of sin because the holidays are meant to be joyful.
Of course, in many ways these problems are our own fault. On several fronts the general purpose and substance of the Christmas season has been taken hostage by greed and materialism. People set up expectations for themselves and others that joy comes from earthly things like: money, and gifts, and packing the most fun into my day. When the veteran contemplates ending it all, he does so partly because he feels worthless because he can’t live up to the many of the expectations for joy that are thrust upon him by secular society. Because he, and others like him, feel like they don’t fit the mold they look for ways to get out of the system.
What a painful web of wickedness is spun when the sinful heart gains control of life. We see a similar parallel in the life of God’s people roughly 650 years before the Savior would be born. They lived on their whims of their own hearts without a clue of the truth. They redefined God’s righteous commandments to fit their immoral ways. They committed spiritual adultery in the heart by blending into the world around them, instead of standing out as lights to the dark world. And they paid the price.
Not just the price of captivity, that would indeed come later at the hands of the Babylonians. No, the price we’re talking about is the same one that is present so abundantly at this time of year in our land – the lack of true joy. The somewhat depressing tone of Zephaniah’s book was not God’s doing. His judgment was meant as a cleansing, as He so often had to do with His people, and as He has had to do with us many times. The lack of true joy came from the peoples’ sins. It’s the same place all pain, hardship, depression, and the like have originated from the beginning of the Fall.
Think of how easy it would have been for Zephaniah and his people to give up at the prospect of their sins. They had no Savior yet, to their understanding. The majority had given up on using God’s Word and receiving His blessings on the regular Sabbath worship. Judgment was upon them right now, and a captivity was coming in the future. Think of God’s prophet in particular. Not only had the people gone astray, they didn’t want to listen to the direct revelation of truth given from God. Zephaniah captured the mood pretty well with these words from chapter 1: The great day of the LORD is near; It is near and hastens quickly. The noise of the day of the LORD is bitter; There the mighty men shall cry out. That day is a day of wrath, A day of trouble and distress, A day of devastation and desolation, A day of darkness and gloominess, A day of clouds and thick darkness (Zephaniah 1:14-15). Pretty easy to have a low sense of self-esteem in such a setting. And pretty easy to give up any hope of joy.
And yet, God’s final message to Zephaniah and His people is to “Shout with joy!” All throughout the book, the reader is led to despair. Think how much more the actual people involved in it were! And yet, the final emphasis is hope and joy. And the reason matters too. Tell anyone who is struggling that you can offer hope and joy and they’ll ask how. Simply saying it over and over again isn’t good enough. Judah’s hope centered on the Lord. He would be among them. He would quiet them with His love, and He would rejoice over them. There you have the answer to the question of true joy. It starts and stays with God. Just as we learn in the simple passage the “We love God because He first love us,” so also we see that we rejoice because God rejoices over us first.
The depth of the disaster that would befall Judah made an impact, as it needed to. But that was all part of God’s almighty plan. It’s not that God desires to see His people suffer, rather it’s that He is able to use even that to produce a good result. The good result for Judah was a lesson learned once again. There is no hope for those who are independent of God. The world’s allures and temptations of joy and pleasure are hollow. Life with God is in His Word. To be brought closer to those truths, to build the trust of faith in God alone is the best result for anyone’s life, no matter how it comes to pass. And it’s the only source of joy that lasts.
For us, the same lesson must be learned, and therefore the hardships will come our way. Even though the majority of our lives may feel like they’re filled with sadness and disappointment, the only thing that matters is the end. We repeat with Judah the eternal refrain of joyful worship in the Lord’s presence. But the really special thing is this: the singing and the rejoicing can begin now. We don’t have to wait any longer than Judah did the moment Zephaniah spoke these words from God. Yes, captivity under sin looms on the horizon just like captivity from Babylon. Yes, there will be days when the gloom and doom of sin fills the majority of our thoughts, just as the majority of Zephaniah’s book was about judgment.
But the source of our joy is the same. It’s found in God’s presence among us, even if it is as small as an infant in a manger. We suffer from the same things Judah suffered from, but we also rejoice in the same One – Jesus; our Immanuel, “God with us.” That is the true joy of Christmas. It’s kind of like the story of the Grinch. Christmas joy is not trimmings and packages, boxes or bags. It’s not even in the rare, “Roast Beast.” But it’s not about holding hands together and just singing about joy either, as the famous story ends. Our song as Christians rings much louder and for much longer, because our song of victory is in Jesus.
That’s the joy we rejoice in and the joy we share; and nothing can take it away. Not the weather, not the hollow expectations of the season, not loneliness, not depression, not even rifts between brother or sister or parent and child. The world and the sin that ensnares it no longer dictates what you must be or how you must feel. “The LORD has taken away your judgments, and He has cast out your enemy.” You are safe, you are loved, and your God rejoices over you.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.