Rejoice in the Lord Always! (December 16, 2018)

Sermon Text:  Zephaniah 3:14-17

Pastor Pagels

In the name of Christ Jesus, dear friends:

Zephaniah and Jeremiah both prophesied in the 600s BC during the dark days leading up to the Babylonian captivity.  Both prophets warned the people about God’s judgment.  And both men had ties to the royal family of Judah. In fact, Zephaniah was a descendant of King Hezekiah.

While Jeremiah’s prophecy stretches out over fifty-two chapters, the book of Zephaniah is limited to fifty-three verses.  Different passages from Jeremiah are read from the lectern on a regular basis.  Zephaniah is included as one of the Sunday Scripture lessons only once every three years. That means we are not likely to hear from Zephaniah again until 2021.

Zephaniah is listed among the minor prophets of the Old Testament because his book is short, not because he was unimportant or because his message was irrelevant.  The Lord called him. The Holy Spirit inspired him.  Zephaniah is a “minor” Old Testament figure only in the sense that we don’t have much information about him.

We do know what Zephaniah’s name means, “the Lord hides” or “the Lord has hidden.”  And even though many of the details of his life remain hidden from us, it is our privilege this morning to uncover some of the treasures contained in his book.

On the third Sunday in Advent, as our anticipation grows stronger, as the day of our Savior’s birth gets closer, Zephaniah reminds us how the birth of Jesus fills our hearts with joy.  We rejoice, not just during the Advent season, and not just because we know that Christmas is coming…

Rejoice in the Lord Always!

I.  Sing…because the Lord has taken away your punishment

II.  Shout…because the Lord has turned back your enemy

III.  Be glad…because the Lord is with you

First impressions are important.  Whenever we meet someone for the first time, we put our best foot forward.  We try to project a positive image.  As you listen to the opening verses of Zephaniah, what is your first impression?  “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, declares the LORD. I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth, declares the LORD” (1:2,3).

The Lord didn’t say nice things about his chosen people because he didn’t really have anything good to say.  The time for patience had passed.  The time for judgment had come.  Zephaniah continued: “The great day of the LORD is near– near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the LORD will be bitter…That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness, a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD…” (1:14-17).

No one would ever confuse Zephaniah with a member of the sunshine committee.  When people saw him coming, they probably crossed to the other side of the street or ran the other way.  But first impressions are not necessarily lasting impressions.  In today’s text, Zephaniah’s tone is entirely different:

“Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem” (3:14)! This is not the Zephaniah of chapter 1. This is Zephaniah, the messenger of hope.  This is Zephaniah, the bearer of good news.  The prophet is filled with joy, and he is looking for others to share his joy with him, to sing and shout and be glad!

The first joyful response is to sing. We can relate to that. We sing three or four hymns every Sunday. We sing from the psalms. The pastor and people sing from the liturgy. We have children’s choirs, adult choirs, school choirs. The Lutheran church is known as a singing church.

But the singing that Zephaniah encourages is more than that.  It is more than singing hymns out of the hymnal.  It is more than singing songs that have been practiced to perfection.  God also loves to hear the spontaneous songs that spring from the heart. The unplanned praises that come out of our mouths are beautiful music to his ears.

Why do we sing?  Why do we sing God’s praises, especially this time of year?  We sing because…“the LORD has taken away (y)our punishment” (15). Even though God’s judgment was near for Judah, even though the nation would be all but destroyed, their punishment would not last forever. God promised to preserve his people. God renewed his promise to send a Savior.

We sing God’s praises for the same reason. We are guilty of the same sins.  We deserve the same fate.  But the Lord has taken away our punishment and replaced it with a gift.  That gift was precious. That gift was priceless.  That gift came wrapped in swaddling clothes.  That gift was God’s one and only Son.  Jesus removed our punishment forever when he came into the world.  He carried our sins to the cross.  He buried our sins in the tomb. And because he did our punishment is gone for good.  Because the gift of salvation is ours, we rejoice and sing.

But our response to God’s grace doesn’t end with singing. Because of what God has done for us, we want to let others know about it. We shout from the rooftops. We shout for joy because the Lord has turned back our enemy.

The word translated “shout aloud” is used a number of different ways in the Old Testament. Sometimes it is a cry of distress.  At other times, it describes something like applause.  In Joshua 6, the word is used for a war cry.

When the Israelites came up against the city of Jericho, the Lord devised a unique battle plan.  For six days, God ordered the armed men of Israel to march once around the city along with the priests and the ark of the covenant.  On the seventh day, God’s orders changed.  On the seventh day the army marched around the city the same way, except this time they circled the city seven times.  Then the priests sounded their trumpets, the people gave a “shout,” the walls collapsed, and Jericho fell.

Zephaniah encourages us to do the same, to “shout aloud,”but for a slightly different reason.  The armies of Israel shouted, and then the Lord delivered their enemies into their hands.  We raise our voices, we shout out loud, because the Lord has already destroyed our most dangerous enemy.  Jesus took on Satan and won.  He resisted the devil’s temptations.  He crushed the serpent’s head.  And his victory is ours.

Did you know that this building was a pretty noisy place last weekend?  I am not talking about babies crying in the back of church.  It actually took place right up here in the altar area where it was impossible to miss.  You might have missed it because it took place on Saturday afternoon at our Christmas For Kids event. The children reenacted the Christmas story right up here.  And with about 150 kids, there was more than a little commotion.

As I looked down from the balcony, I was experiencing two very different emotions. On the one hand, I was filled with joy because I was hearing the old, old story that never gets old, the good news that a Savior had been born.  It was like the children had just heard it for the first time, and for some of them perhaps it was.

I have to confess that I was also experiencing some feelings of guilt, with questions like these running through my mind: Do I have the same child-like faith, or does a middle-aged pessimism tend to dominate my thoughts?  Do I share the same enthusiasm, or do I sometimes respond to the good news with a yawn?

My sinful heart is not always filled with joy.  There are days in my life when faith gives way to doubt, when I take God’s gifts for granted.  But when I look to the Lord, when I read his Word, when I hear the Christmas gospel again, those feelings of guilt fade away. Because the Lord has forgiven our sins, because Jesus has defeated our enemies, we can rejoice.  Rejoice and be glad because the Lord is with you.

Zephaniah assured God’s people using almost similar words: “The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you” (15).  That phrase, “King of Israel,” occurs dozens of times in the Old Testament, and it almost always refers to an earthly ruler.  It was a king of Israel who chose to forsake the Lord and sought the counsel of a witch instead.  It was a king of Israel who committed adultery with one of his subjects and then committed murder to cover it up.  It was a king of Israel who was blessed with great wisdom and wealth, but turned away from the Lord to worship idols. And those were some of Israel’s better kings.

In this verse, the king of Israel could not be more different.  It is no earthly ruler.  It is the Lord himself.  The Lord is the king of heaven and earth.  The Lord rules over all things for the good of his church.  And during this Advent season, we look forward to our King’s coming, not once, but twice.

First Jesus comes to us as a baby born on Christmas Day.  And he will come again as our king on the Last Day.  For now, we find ourselves in between. We remember the first coming and wait for the second coming.  And while we are waiting, as long as we are here, we have our Lord’s assurance that he will always be with us.

Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus told his disciples: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). That promise makes us glad.  That promise means that we are always protected.  That promise guarantees that we are never alone.

The theme for this sermon was taken from today’s second lesson, where Paul proclaimed: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4)!  So how do we do that?  How does ourjoy express itself?

We sing.  We sing God’s praises because the Lord has taken away our punishment.  We sing Advent hymns this morning, knowing that in a few short days we will sing: “Joy to the world, The Lord is come.”

We shout.  We give a triumphant cry because the Lord has turned back our enemies.  And we raise our voices with the Christmas angels who proclaimed to the shepherds: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11).

And finally, we can do what the blue banner behind me encourages us to do.  We can be glad because the Lord who has come and will come again has given us a promise that he will never leave our side.  Jesus is coming!  Rejoice!  Always! Amen.