Reason to Rejoice

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Zephaniah
calls on us to remember that when our lives are overwhelmed with trouble and
sorrow… when the depravity of others… or mental illness… destroys what we hold
most dear… when we have completely messed up our lives with bad choices and
destructive behavior… we need to remember that God is with us… always.  When our lives are in ruin and we lay
defeated, Zephaniah reminds us that God is with us and he brings his power to bear
in our lives to fight for us.                                   


3rd Sunday of Advent

December
16, 2012      

Zephaniah
3:14-20 

Peder Stenslie       

It’s
the third Sunday of Advent, and many of us come to worship with heavy
hearts.  There has been so much
senseless and lethal violence these past days.  It is impossible to fathom the horror and grief that have
been visited on hundreds of people from Portland, Oregon to Newtown,
Connecticut.

There
can be found neither logic nor comfort in any explanation of these events.  It is beyond understanding.  It is beyond explanation.  So much of what makes life good and a
joy to live was destroyed for so many people.  The soulless and cowardly nature of the crimes is shocking
beyond comprehension.

Violent
brutality has even visited our community here at Y.C.C., affecting the lives of
friends and family throughout the state, bringing no gain, leaving only lasting
pain and regret in its wake.

With
those heavy burdens in our hearts today, we hear the prophet Zephaniah call for
the people to sing and shout… to rejoice and exult with all their heart.  The lesson is a long and beautiful song
of celebration describing the wonderful future unfolding before the people.

It
seems rather out of synch with the mood we bring to worship today until we
consider what comes before today’s lesson in Zephaniah.

The
first two and a half chapters of Zephaniah tell of lives and cultures and
kingdoms gone terribly wrong.  The
people of God, as well as neighboring peoples all around them, had made a
rotten mess of their world.  They
had tried to build for themselves a world without God.  They had lived simply as they pleased,
pursuing selfish interests… taking what they could and giving no regard to
the well-being of others, no regard for what was right… no regard for what God
had called them to be.  This kind
of living filled the land with sorrow and grief… as it always has and always
will.

In
earlier passages, when the prophet Zephaniah confronted the people of Judah, he
denounced them for being a people “who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not
do good, nor will he do harm.’” (Zeph. 1:12)  In other words, the belief of the people was “Don’t think
about God; he’s not going to do anything. 
Just do whatever you want.”

The
prophet then turned his attention to neighboring peoples… the Assyrians, for
example… who, he said, lived the attitude:  “I am, and there is no one else.” (Zeph. 2:12)  In other words, “God doesn’t
exist.  I answer to no one but myself.”

At
last, Zephaniah addressed the holy city of Jerusalem.  He called it the “oppressing city” and leveled this
charge:  “It has listened to no
voice; it has accepted no correction. 
It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God.”
(Zeph. 3:1-2)

Everyone
lived as gods unto themselves.  And
this manner of thinking and living produced great misery and sorrow. 

The
land and its people were overwhelmed with violence and despair.  A world without God proved to be a
world of pain… a world without happiness or security… a world without hope.  Everybody… and everything suffered.

In
the midst of that tragic and hopeless situation, the Word of God, through the
mouth of the prophet Zephaniah, delivered an astounding and wonderful
message.  It’s our Old Testament
lesson for today… and it is the conclusion of the book of Zephaniah.

 “Do not fear… do not let your hands grow
weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory.” 

Zephaniah
calls on us to remember that when our lives are overwhelmed with trouble and
sorrow… when the depravity of others… or mental illness… destroys what we hold
most dear… when we have completely messed up our lives with bad choices and
destructive behavior… we need to remember that God is with us… always.  When our lives are in ruin and we lay
defeated, Zephaniah reminds us that God is with us and he brings his power to bear
in our lives to fight for us.

In
today’s reading from Zephaniah, the prophet identifies many destructive powers
that tear at God’s people: 
violence, cruelty, guilt, shame, fear, sickness, rejection and poverty.  These things devastate us.  We suffer loss and grief because of
them.  And they are not God’s will
for us.

Zephaniah
proclaims that God, who is in our midst, sees and deals with them all.  The warrior who gives victory promises:  “I will contend with all of them.  I will let none of them claim you,
because you belong to me.”

As
we work through today’s lesson we hear a long list of assurances:  I will take away the judgments against
you.  I will turn away your
enemies.  I will renew you in my love.  I will remove disaster from you.  I will deal with all your oppressors.  I will save the lame. I will gather the
outcast.  I will change your shame
into praise.  I will bring you
home and I will restore your fortunes.

Like
a great warrior, God fights for us. 
In whatever way is necessary, God fights for us.  Even when we have pushed him away and
denied his very existence, he fights for us.  Even when we’ve lost so much that we don’t believe there is
anything left to live for, God fights for us.

Zephaniah
echoes here an important theme of scripture.  God is King over all nature and history. In the end,
everything answers to him.  He will
have the final word over all things.

And
the nature of that final word is revealed to us.  The King of the universe has shown himself to be the King of
love, and his will is to save his people. 
And so he takes upon himself the hard and often painful work of healing
and transforming his people.

Both
the horror of crucifixion and the inexplicable joy of resurrection are a part
of this movement to new life… and it is all an expression of God’s love for his
creation.

The
book of Zephaniah gives us a chilling look at what becomes of life when we deny
our creator and live without regard for anything or anyone but ourselves.  Then it answers that disturbing vision
with the firm assurance that God’s love for us can never be extinguished. 

We
may, in this world, feel forsaken and without hope.  We may fail God. 
We may try to push God out of our world.  We may muck up our lives (and the lives of others) seemingly
beyond repair, but we will never slip through the fingers of God.

In
the grief and horror of these dark days, that promise of God anchors us.  Its fulfillment is foreshadowed in the
gifts of love he sends to us… in his Word, which we share with one another… in
the gift of the Christ child, which we await during this season of Advent… in
the sacrament of Holy Communion, which we share today. 

His
promise even takes on human flesh in all the people who cannot understand or
explain the evil that has been done but nonetheless reach out in love and
nurture to those who have lost so much. 
I’ve been reading and hearing about them these last days.

 There’s
the bold care of the emergency responders… and the mental health professionals
and counselors who have mobilized by the hundreds to show love and care to
those who grieve… there’s the members of the community that have come together
to share their grief with those who lost loved ones.  Together they weave a fabric of care and nurture that binds
the deep wounds of those afflicted to begin the long process of healing.

Their
actions are like the first hint of light after a dark night.  We know that that first faint light
will be followed by a great light that will flood the earth.  Their gentle and loving actions
foreshadow the love and power of God by which all things will one day be made
new.

We
too are part of that promise as we gather together for worship.  We bow to God and remember the victims
of senseless violence from Portland, Oregon to Newtown, Connecticut… and here
in our own community as well… here at Y.C.C.  You and I, we also foreshadow the love and promise of God
that makes all things new. 

Hope
is and always will be here in our midst. 
As we hear it expressed in the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s
psalm… no matter what we must face in life and no matter what befalls us, we
know that…

Surely
God is my salvation;

   I will trust, and will not be
afraid,

for
the Lord God is my strength and my might;

   he has become my salvation.  (Isaiah 12:2)

Amen.