Monday, December 17, 2018


[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday morning.]

Zephaniah 3:14-20
The theme for this Third Sunday of Advent is Joy. And there may be no better Old Testament lesson to focus us on this theme than Zephaniah 3:14-20.

The passage is chock-full of joy, brimming with joy, running over with joy
  • It begins with the prophet calling the people of God to sing and shout with joy in anticipation of the fulfillment of the promises that God was giving to them, promises God was giving to them despite their past idolatries and other sins. 
  • In verse 17, the prophet says that there will come a time when God Himself will be so filled with joy that He will “rejoice over [them] with singing.” (To hear God sing must be something amazing!) 
  • And it culminates with the joy all of God’s people will experience when God brings them home to Him. 

Joy fills every word of this lesson!

What’s all this joy about anyway? 

To answer that question, a little background is needed.

Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah, who became the king of Judah as a boy and went on to become one of Judah’s greatest kings, not because of his military prowess, but because of his faithfulness to God. Josiah instituted reforms in Judah that encouraged the people to turn back to God. Josiah did this after he’d become a man and taken control of the kingdom. And some people believe, Josiah was encouraged in these reforms by prophets like Zephaniah.

But when Zephaniah began prophesying somewhere around 640 BC, Judah was mired in idol worship of all kinds. 

And, as always happens when people turn to anything or anyone other than god to be of ultimate importance in their lives, sin became rife among God’s people

They were prosperous but refused to acknowledge that their ability to amass wealth came from God. 

They were unjust to the very people God says His people are to treat with love and care--viewing them in Martin Luther’s phrase “like little Christs”: widows, orphans, the poor, the lame, the migrant. 

Because the people of Judah were descendants of Abraham and Sarah, they thought they were safe from God’s condemnation for their sins, just as today, some Christians figure they’re good with God simply because they’re baptized and confirmed and have a place on some congregation’s roster, even though they refuse to live in their baptismal covenants and make gods of themselves, or their money, or their status, or their pleasure.

Judah wasn’t the only nation that God warned of His impending punishment for constant, unrepentant sin through Zephaniah. 

That's why Zephaniah's book that ends with the joy that we see in our first lesson today begins with the words, 
  • “'I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,'” declares the Lord. I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea—and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.'” (Zephaniah 1:1-3) 
  • “I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (Zephaniah 1:17-18)

If we insist on unrepentantly violating God’s will--failing to trust in God, failing to love our neighbor, there are consequences. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul reminds us in Romans 6:23. 

But God’s Word also reminds us (in many places) that He is “compassionate and gracious...slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). In Ezekiel 18:23, we’re given God’s attitude of love for us: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways [that is, repent and trust in God] and live?”

God sent prophets like Zephaniah to call all the people of the world to turn to Him and live (Isaiah 45:22, Joel 2:12, Zechariah 1:3, Amos 5:4). 

When we turn to the God now revealed to we non-Jews (we Gentiles) as well as to Jews through Jesus Christ, it doesn’t mean that all the bad stuff of this world will go away. But there will still be reason for joy

Take a look at our lesson then, Zephaniah 3:14-20.

It begins: “Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”

Whenever an Old Testament prophet spoke, his words spoke to multiple situations, their words telescoping multiple times. Through Zephaniah, God addressed three audiences:
  • (1) Here, Zephaniah speaks to his own people in the seventh-century BC who were looking for a Messiah Who would bring forgiveness of sins and restoration. 
  • (2) He speaks also to the New Testament Church which witnessed Jesus the Messiah’s death for human sin and His resurrection bringing forgiveness and new life to all who believe in Jesus. But that first-century church still waited, often impatiently, for the final restoration of God’s reign over His people on Jesus’ return. 
  • (3) Finally, Zephaniah speaks also to us--to you and me, as we wrestle with this life’s often hard realities: sin (our own and others’), disease, death, relational discord, wars, and hardships. Through the prophet, God speaks to us today and He says, “Don’t be overwhelmed by the things of this world because I have overcome it all--sin and death, suffering and disappointment.” 

Twice in the first few verses of this passage from Zephaniah, those who trust in God are told: “The Lord, your God, is with you!

We might have reason to doubt that promise if it weren’t for Jesus

When “the Word,” God the Son, “became flesh and lived among us,” He demonstrated the lengths God is willing to go to be with us. 

When God the Son, truly God, became simultaneously, truly human, He was born in a cave kept for cattle. 

Jesus grew up in poverty and early on, made His living by manual labor, while later He and His band of disciples lived off the contributions of some who craved His teaching. (Even then, some of the contributions were raked off the top by Judas.) 

Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life beyond condemnation. 

Yet the whole world, Jews and Gentiles, condemned Him, beating Him savagely, nailing Him to a cross, and watching while He suffered and died. 

God has drunk from the cup of human experience and human suffering to the full. Jesus’ life and death is the guarantee that God’s promise to be with us is the most reliable promise we can receive, one Jesus reiterated following His resurrection and before His ascension, He told His disciples, including you and me, “I am with you always even to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

But God is more than an understanding Friend. This God Who is with us is also, the first verses of our lesson tell us, “the Mighty Warrior who saves.” In Holy Baptism, the apostle Peter tells us, we are saved. And the apostle Paul writes, “If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” 

A friend once asked me, “Saved from what?” 
  • In Jesus, God saves us from sin, death, futility. He saves us from shame and self-recrimination
  • He saves us from worry over our eternal destiny
  • He saves us from the arrogance, pride, and thoughtlessness that lead us away from God into the very sins that caused Judah so much pain and cause so much pain even today
  • As you’ve heard me before, Jesus, above all, saves us from ourselves

Without Him, we are lost, as a funeral with any unbelieving family will prove.

Our lesson continues: “‘I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,’ says the Lord.”

Did you notice the change of narrators? In the first part of the lesspm, Zephaniah speaks on behalf of God, conveying God’s promises to those who turn from sin and turn to Him for life. But here, God speaks to us personally, intimately. He speaks to you. 

And He gives seven promises. God promises He will: remove the sorrow over our idolatries; deal with all who have hurt us (dealing with them is His job, not ours, after all); rescue the lame; give dignity and a place with Him to those who have trusted in Him; gather us to Himself; bring us home (remember that Jesus says that He has gone to prepare a place for us with God); and restore our fortunes, by which I think God means He will restore to us our intended places as heirs of His grace, just like the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.

This passage is filled with joy, with the certainty that God can turn disciples’ “mourning into dancing” (Psalm 30:11) and that in God’s consummated kingdom, God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) 

It’s to make all of this possible that Jesus was born at Christmas. 

In light of this comforting reality, is it any wonder that Zephaniah, at the outset of today’s lesson tells us to sing? What else is there to do in consideration of God’s grace and salvation but to sing? So, today, instead of the Nicene Creed, I invite you to confess your joyful faith in these words, sung to the melody of Joy to the World:

We Sing in Joy Made Full
Zephaniah 3:14-20
(sung to Antioch, the melody of Joy to the World)

Sing to the Lord, rejoice, shout praise
Our God has met our need
The King of all creation
Chooses with us to be

And comes to set us free
And comes to set us free
And comes, and comes, to set us free

This mighty God Who dies to save
Now with His people lives
Rejoicing over us
His promises He gives

And through His grace forgives
And through His grace forgives
And through, and through, His grace forgives

Gathered by God, we mourn no more
For sin’s reproach is gone
The lame, oppressed, outcast
Live under the new dawn

Of Christ, God’s only Son
Of Christ, God’s only Son
Of Christ, of Christ, God’s only Son

From every land, disciples come
Made new, forever whole
At home with our King,
Restorer of the soul

We sing in joy made full
We sing in joy made full
We sing, we sing, in joy made full!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]