“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this third Sunday in Advent comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the prophet Zephaniah. Dear friends in Christ, if there is one emotion that we hear about again and again in the holiday season, it is joy. We have ornaments that say ‘joy,’ we put ‘joy’ on our walls, on our Christmas cards, on our sweaters. We have ‘joy’ banners, ‘joy’ lawn ornaments, ‘joy’ blankets. Our friends, our neighbors, and our families are all exhorted to rejoice in the season, to shout and sing for joy. During the holidays, the opening words of our text are not strange, but simply echo what the entire world is telling you: Rejoice! “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!”
But there is no joy. In fact, I would submit to you today that for many, the holiday season is the least joyful time of the year. What have we done with the Church’s ancient order of Advent before Christmas, of a time of quiet reflection preceding the joyous celebration? We have ditched Advent completely, and we have pushed the Christmas season back earlier and earlier, so that even Thanksgiving is overwhelmed. We are bombarded with advertisements, the smothering blanket of commercialism and materialism: the deals, the sales, all the stuff that you can buy for yourself or for others. We are stressed out by all the tasks of the season, from the gifts to the parties to the cards. Busyness and distractions consume us, they focus us in a hundred different directions, and only one of which (if we’re lucky) is the Church. We have no joy—there is no time, and too many other things are going on to stop and rejoice. And so, when Christmas Day comes around, we are exhausted, we are finished, we are ready to be done. Instead of the beginning of a season of rejoicing, as the Church has celebrated Christmas for centuries, Christmas Day is the climax, the end, and soon the decorations are being put away. We have not only lost Advent, we have lost Christmas, and with it, we have lost our joy.
During the holidays, we speak of joy, but there is precious little to go around. The rest of the year, Zephaniah’s call for rejoicing seems even more ridiculous. How can we rejoice when we live in this sinful world? How can I rejoice when I suffer, when my loved ones die? The exhortation to joy seems to be a cruel joke, the idealistic declaration of a prophet with His head in the clouds, who has no idea what you and I go through on a regular basis. There is no joy around a hospital bed, as the hospice nurses gather around. There is no joy as I am separated from my family, estranged by the sin that seems to always attack relationships. There is no joy as I face the ridicule of so-called ‘friends’ and classmates. There is no joy as my body doesn’t work as well as it should, letting me down just when I need it the most. There is no joy in the drudgery of my day-to day life, as I work myself to the bone to provide for my family. There is no joy as I watch the news, and see the incredible cruelty that we humans can demonstrate to one another. Zephaniah is simply another in a long line of preachers who has no idea what life is like in the real world, what my life is like. He calls for joy, not knowing how impossible joy is, how mocking such an exhortation sounds. How can there be joy in a world of sin and death? How can there be joy in a world where people get sick and die, where I will one day die?
Zephaniah’s answer is that God has brought joy into our world of sorrow. “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.” We can have joy because the King of Israel, the Lord, is in our midst. This is the true joy of Advent, the true joy of Christmas. The King of Israel, the Lord, has come down from His heavenly throne to dwell among us, to be in our midst, even bearing our flesh. The Creator has come to dwell amongst His creation, and He has come to bring joy into the midst of sorrow and mourning. He has come to bring salvation, as Zephaniah declares, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save.” No wonder the angel declared to the shepherds that first Christmas Eve, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Joy can only come into the midst of sorrow and mourning if a Savior has come to take sin and death away, and that is precisely what Christmas is all about. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in our midst, laying in that manger, laying in humility, and He will go forth from that manger to win joy for us.
“The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies.” Joy comes because the Lord who is in our midst will take away the judgments that were against us, the judgments of death and hell that we deserved for our great and many sins. When Jesus comes into our midst, He comes to bear those sins, to take them upon Himself and bear them to the cross to pay the price for them. On that cross, our judgments will fall upon Jesus, so that they will never fall upon us. Our sin has been taken away, paid for by the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lord who is in our midst. And if sin has been paid for, then our enemies—death, hell, and Satan—have no power over us. The Lord who is in our midst has cleared away our enemies, He has swept them away. Death has been robbed of its power, Satan’s accusations have no more teeth. The Lord has come into our midst, into Mary’s womb, into Bethlehem’s stable, into this dark world, and He walked the way of the cross to defeat our greatest enemies. His resurrection on the third day proves it, it trumpets this victory throughout the world. Easter proves that there is reason for joy. Easter is the only reason that Zephaniah can call on us to rejoice, Easter is the only reason that we can have Christmas joy.
But we are not the only ones rejoicing. “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.” The Lord rejoices over us, He rejoices that we have been brought back to Him, that we have been restored by the death and resurrection of Christ. What a beautiful picture we have in our text! We see the Lord Himself rejoicing, shouting for joy over the redemption of His people, over your redemption and mine. Saving us, delivering us from the bondage of sin and death, gives Him indescribable joy. He rejoices over you for you have been redeemed, purchased with the precious blood of Christ. He rejoices over you because you are His, as He intended from the beginning. The Lord rejoices over every Baptism, He rejoices every time a heart is reconciled to Him through the power of His Word. We are told that there is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repents, and it is God Himself who leads the celebration. You are His pride and joy, and He rejoices to call you His.
He rejoices for He has come into your midst to reverse your fortunes, to bring joy into the midst of sorrow. “I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach.” He turns mourning into rejoicing because He has defeated death itself; He has robbed it of its power and has made it simply the gateway to eternal life. Those who mourn now will be comforted, they will be brought to the festival, where joy will last forever. You will mourn here in this world, but that mourning will be reversed; soon every tear will be wiped from your eyes and you will rejoice forever with the victory of Christ. “Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” Those who lived in shame will be praised and renowned in all the earth, for God has defeated their enemies and He has reversed their fortunes. Those who belong to the Lord, who have been delivered by the shed blood of Jesus, look to an eternity where sin and death will be no more, where the lame will be saved and the outcast will be gathered in. There is no more need to fear, as Zephaniah declares throughout our text, as the angels told the shepherds on Christmas Eve, for the Lord’s great reversal turns fear into joy.
“‘At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ declares the Lord.” The Lord brings us into heaven, He gathers us in, and He leads the rejoicing, He is the one whose joy cannot be contained. The joy that Zephaniah calls for is simply an echo of the joy that God Himself has over our redemption. And we do have that joy, for the Lord has done great things for us. This joy is not being happy or having a smile on your face, it isn’t a feeling; it is much deeper, it is the sure and certain joy that is present even in the midst of mourning, even in the midst of suffering. This is the joy of Advent, it is the joy of Christmas, it is the joy the flows from Easter’s victory. True joy comes from the cross, from the empty tomb, for there our judgments were taken away, there our enemies were cleared away, there the Lord who is in our midst, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, won joy for us. He rejoices over us, and we rejoice over Him, for He has defeated our sorrows and brought us the joy the angels promised on that first Christmas Eve. In the Name of the Lord who is in our midst, Jesus Christ our Savior, Amen.