Rejoice! (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation for this third Sunday of Advent comes from our Old Testament text, especially where Zephaniah proclaims, “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 ….” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

Zephaniah is not a widely known prophet, certainly not as known as Jeremiah or Elijah. This minor prophet proclaimed YHWH’s Word to His people during the reign of Josiah, one of the few monarchs over Israel or Judah described as doing “what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” Ascending to the throne at the tender age of eight, “he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem.” During those 31 years, he repaired the temple of YHWH, long since neglected, and restored faithful worship when he heard the words of the law being read by Hilkiah the high priest after he had rediscovered the book of the law. Under his direction, Josiah steered Judah back on the right course – tearing down the altars to the false gods, doing away with abominable practices like child sacrifice and male prostitution, reinstating the observance of the Passover for the first time since the prophet Samuel. Things finally seemed to be getting back on track, and this was the time that Zephaniah prophesied.

That’s important to bear in mind, when you consider the three chapters of his prophetic writing. During a time when things were improving, when it seemed as if God’s people were repenting of their ways and turning back to Him, we still hear God’s Word of doom and of hope. The first two chapters of Zephaniah’s prophecy are words of destruction and woe, devastation and desolation. “ ‘I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem ….’ ” 

Whoa, you may think, that seems a bit harsh! The people were finally heading in the right direction! They were righting the ship! At least, they were trying! Why would God still punish them? Why is He being so unfair? Well, looks can be deceiving. God considers the heart of man, and “almost,” “trying,” and “close” only count in horseshoes and hand grenades. 

The truth of God’s law is that it’s all or nothing. No matter how impassioned the attempt, no matter the fervor and piety, the heart of mankind is still evil and corrupted. Josiah’s attempts to rededicate the people to YHWH, to bind their hearts and minds to His will and obeying His commandments, no matter how well intentioned, remained a fool’s errand. His destruction of the altars on the high places, his annihilation of the Asherah poles and the Baal vessels, his slaughter of the false priests and prophets couldn’t make the people believe, and it couldn’t right the ship. Sin can only be atoned for with the shedding of blood, and the nations of the world, including Judah, had much to atone for—in fact, there was too much. “Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled, the oppressing city,” Zephaniah writes. “She listens to no voice; she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the Lord; she does not draw near to her God.” The plain and simple fact is that, in his sin, man cannot, of his own volition, right what has been wronged. That’s the nature of sin. The only remedy, the only atonement, has to come from without. That means YHWH Himself must act to right the ship. And that brings us to our text for today.

After all these words of condemnation, of judgment pronounced for the faithless of the nations, Zephaniah speaks these words of promise and comfort to the faithful of YHWH: “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. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 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. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. 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. 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,’ says the Lord.”

YHWH Himself will do for the people what Josiah, in his zeal and piety, could not. He will make them holy. Not by any actions they themselves had done, not by the destruction of Moloch’s high places, nor the slaughter of false priests and prophets, but by the performative Word of YHWH’s Anointed One, the Meshiach, would the people be declared righteous, and their sin fully atoned for. That’s why the people of Judah could rejoice – not because they had “recommitted” their devotion to YHWH Elohim, but because He had never abandoned His people, because He remained faithful to them, and because His promise to take away their iniquity forever would be fulfilled. The faithful of Israel rejoiced that YHWH had made them this promise, because they knew His faithfulness in keeping it. 

My friends, we rejoice with the faithful of the Old Testament, the believers and prophets of YHWH. We don’t rejoice in the promise of the Messiah, as they did, but rather that Messiah has come! The King of Israel, whose name Emmanuel means “God with us,” became flesh and dwelt among His people. He who has healed the lame and gathered the outcast, who gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, who raised the dead and preached good news to the poor, He has come. He who restored physical infirmities fulfilled YHWH’s promise to take away His judgments from His people … and He did so by the shedding of His own holy, precious blood, with His innocent suffering and death, and by His victorious resurrection from the dead. We Christians rejoice because we trust YHWH has fulfilled His promise in the person of His only-begotten Son, Jesus the Christ, and we rejoice in this season of Advent that He will not leave us as orphans, but will come again to us, and in that blessed Day, we shall never again fear evil! Oh, yes, my friends; despite our inability to keep God’s law perfectly, we have much to rejoice in!

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.