SING. PRAY. GO HOME.
A Message on Zephaniah 3:14-20
December 16, 2012—3rd Sunday of Advent
First Christian Church—Palestine, IL
Rev. Dennis A. Steckley
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There’s an old gospel hymn that reminds us, “You may have the joybells ringing in your heart.” That’s a good thought for today because the third Sunday of Advent carries the special theme of joy. Traditionally, it’s called Gaudete Sunday. If you remember your high school Latin, you’ll recognize gaudete as an imperative. The word means “joy,” and so gaudete is “you will have joy.” I’m reminded of what is said to be an old drinking song, Gaudeamus Igitur, which says, in English:
Let us rejoice, therefore,
While we are young.
After a pleasant youth
After a troubling old age
The earth will have us.
Now, I’m not recommending that you find your joy in drinking! It may work for the short term, but in the long run, that will not give you a lasting joy at all. Potentially it may give you something completely other!
Indeed, though Advent is meant to lean more toward the serious side as we prepare for the Second Coming of Christ, this third Sunday is a bit of an exception to the rule. We focus on the joy that we have through our relationship with God—and I’m going to approach that by looking at four Rs we find in the text—not the three Rs—readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic, but four Rs.
Our first R is rejoice. If ever there were a Biblical theme, it would be rejoice. Over and over throughout the Bible we are told to rejoice. The apostle Paul even says, “Rejoice in the Lord always”—and then to be sure the hearers get it he adds, “And again I say rejoice [Philippians 4:4]. Now, I recognize that sometimes we go through times of great sorrow and we won’t be jumping for joy then, but the general principle still holds. We rejoice not because of external circumstances at any given moment, but because we have faith in what God is doing. We believe that God is taking all the sorrows and problems of this old world and somehow making them into a beautiful new world that is yet to be revealed. Indeed, the process won’t be complete and the new world won’t be revealed until the Second Advent we are remembering and looking forward to.
This we accept on faith because we have found our God to be trustworthy. Our God makes promises and our God keeps promises. As theologian Jurgen Moltmann aptly points out, “Biblical thought always understands hope as the expectation of a good future which rests on God’s promise.” You see, the joy that comes from hope in God’s promise rests on two legs: first, the promise itself, and second, the ability to fulfill that promise without exception.
Now all of us can make promises, but we can’t always keep them even with the best of intentions. I could stand here this morning and promise to buy you all lunch at Llama’s after church. Please notice the operative word there—I said “could,” not “would!”
But even had I sincerely said I would take you all to lunch at Llama’s, I can’t guarantee that it would happen, no matter how sincere my promise. I might, for example, trip going down the steps, God forbid, and break my leg—like the doctor that fell in an old cistern and broke his leg. It just goes to show that doctors should tend the sick and leave the well alone. But if I fell on the steps and broke my leg, in that case, I wouldn’t be taking you to Llama’s; instead, I’d probably be taking a ride in an ambulance. I would have broken my promise even though I sincerely intended to keep it.
All of us have that situation with any promise we make—our hearts may be in the right place and we may be 100% sincere—but because of human limitations, we can never absolutely guarantee we’ll be able to keep a promise!
God doesn’t have that problem. Because God is God, God can guarantee God’s promises. If God says something will be done, it will be done! You can count on it. It’s money in the bank. So we can rejoice because of the promises God has made; because of the promises God will keep!
Second—and, yes, I’m pushing a bit to get four Rs out of this, but the second one is resonate. By resonate, I mean God echoes and shares our joy. Look at verse 17—it’s always been a favorite of mine: He will sing and be joyful over you.
Perhaps you’ve seen that video clip on YouTube of the late Mr. Rogers receiving an award at the TV Hall of Fame in 1999. One of the surprises the planners of that event had in mind was to bring out Jeff Erlanger, a young man in a wheelchair whom Mr. Rogers had interviewed eighteen years ago when this young man with a lifelong disability was a child. When that young man came out and Fred Rogers realized who it was, you could just see the excitement in his face, in his body language. He was thrilled beyond words at this expression of love that came back to him out of a lifetime of giving love, compassion, and understanding.
You know, you can laugh at Mr. Rogers all you like. You can make fun of his simplistic message if you wish. But for me, Mr. Rogers with his calm demeanor, his love, his kindness, his compassion, his acceptance of all people, makes him a Christ figure and a wonderful role model. He was a committed Christian, you know. In fact, he was an ordained Presbyterian clergyman! Mr. Rogers helps me understand what God is like simply by being able to watch him.
Back to verse 17, God looks at us and starts singing! God is that happy with God’s followers. God has given us joy, and God is so pleased at that that God also has great joy—joy expressed in singing, in taking “delight in you,” in giving you “new life.” God is filled with visible excitement and overwhelming joy. Now I think that’s pretty nifty—God is so happy to see us that his own emotions spill out. God resonates with us!
So, we have rejoice, resonate, and now, rescue. Look at verse 19: The time is coming! I will punish your oppressors; I will rescue all the lame and bring the exiles home. This is, of course, the logical culmination of our own rejoicing and God’s resonance with that rejoicing—because those are pointing forward to what God is doing. And God is rescuing us, not from a foreign oppressor, but from our own sins, from the Evil One who strives always to lead us away from God and move us in the wrong direction. We are being rescued.
When I was in high school, I decided to read the book, The Catcher in the Rye. I confess that the primary reason I wanted to read the book was its reputation as a “dirty book.” You want a kid to read something, tell him it’s dirty and he shouldn’t read it! Works every time.
Now, I’m not necessarily recommending it for young people; there is certainly some immorality in the book, but I think it’s a great book. It would probably make my own “top ten list” of the books that have influenced me the most. Indeed, much of my philosophy of ministry is found in the paragraph where Holden Caulfield describes what he’d like to be. It’s the section from which the book gains its title:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.
Now, I suspect ministry ought to be a little more proactive than just trying to stop people from falling off the cliff. It would probably be a good idea to help build a fence at the edge of the cliff, for example! But I want to be a “catcher in the rye!” And God wants to keep us from plunging headlong off the cliff into the valley of despair and destruction. Our God is a rescuing God. Our God reached out to us in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us [Romans 5:8b].” Our God is a rescuing God. Our God is a “catcher in the rye.”
And finally we come to restore. Verse 20 reminds us, The time is coming! I will bring your scattered exiles home. We’re not home, you see. We look forward to that eternal home which is yet to come for all who are here today. I quote hymns—often two or three in a single message because they so aptly describe things we’re talking about. Remember this one:
This world is not my home
I’m just a-passing through.
If heaven’s not my home,
Then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me
From heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home
In this world anymore.
There are certainly days when I feel like that—but there are also days when I feel more like the man who said, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” After all, when God made this world, God proclaimed it good—and despite the presence of sin and all the evils that surround us, there is still much good in which to rejoice. There are still many people who are kind and compassionate. A few months ago when I hit that deer down south of Heathsville, it was about 11:00 at night. There weren’t many people out at that time of night, but as I was waiting for the sheriff, the tow truck, and my brother-in-law, three cars came along—and every one of them stopped and asked if I needed help. I didn’t, but I was very grateful for their willingness to help—and I thanked them all profusely for their kindness even as I explained that I was okay and help was on the way.
Especially at Christmas we like to tell those stories of the kindness of strangers and the friendly words spoken to and heard from folks we don’t know. It can, indeed, be a magical time of year, but all those kindnesses are but small hints of the world that is to come—a time when there will be no harsh words, no backstabbing, no thefts, no murders, no horrific mass shootings; it will be a world where as the apostle John tells us in the book of Revelation [21:3-4]:
3 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
4 And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
5 And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
This world is not our home, but it can be a good place along the journey. Supposedly, Jesus said: This world is a bridge. Pass over it. But build not your dwelling there. I say supposedly because that saying is not found in the Bible, but on an ancient gateway in India. But it may be authentic and I think it’s something Jesus would say.
Friends, for all the wonderful things about it, this world is not our home and in God’s own time, we will be restored and dwell in the house of the Lord forever. So may your hearts be filled with deep abiding joy as we await the coming of the Christ—both the tiny baby whose birth we celebrate and the coming king who will return in power and glory. Amen.