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Advent 3

SCRIPTURE:   Zephaniah 3: 14-20 (NIV, 1984)

14 Sing, O Daughter of Zion;
shout aloud, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
O Daughter of Jerusalem!
15 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.
16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
17 The Lord your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”

18 “The sorrows for the appointed feasts
I will remove from you;
they are a burden and a reproach to you.
19 At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you;
I will rescue the lame
and gather those who have been scattered.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they were put to shame.
20 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.

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SERMON:  Sing for Joy,      Zephaniah 3:14-20          December 16, 2012

Here is a question for you: What does joy look like? That’s right, joy. How would you describe it? How might you paint a picture of it? If you had to come up with a universal symbol, a kind of catchall image for this universal experience and feeling that we call joy, what would it be?

Is it a mother holding her newborn child? That has to be joy. What about the shout of a fan when his team finally wins it all? Maybe it’s the huge grin of a groom when he catches a glimpse of his bride walking down the aisle on their wedding day. Pure joy.

Joy is an interesting emotion. It is difficult to put into words, yet, when you see it, it is unmistakable, and when you feel it, it is unforgettable. So again, how might you describe this thing called joy? What would you say is the symbol of joy?

Some people would argue that coming up with a symbol of joy is a lot easier than you would think. In fact, some would say we already have one. It is called the dollar sign, and — if you think about it — they may be onto something. After all, who hasn’t thought that hitting the jackpot in a Casino or being set for life by the lottery would bring about enormous joy? 

Many people consider Christmas the most joyful time of the year. According to one popular Christmas carol, it’s the “hap-happiest time of the year.” However, what is the happiness being referred to? Is it the sights, smells and events of the holiday season?  It’s wonderful to have happy moments to look forward to with family and friends, but there’s much, much more.

The Bible paints a different picture of joy. A picture not connected to status symbols or success. It is divorced from the idea of piling up more stuff. That’s not to say those things are bad. Giving gifts is great, receiving them is great and money is often a means for temporary peace and stability, blessing and fulfillment. That’s all fine. However, that is not authentic joy … at least not biblical joy.

The book that bears Zephaniah's name is brief — only three short chapters. It is part of that ancient division of the Hebrew Bible known as The Twelve, or the Minor Prophets. All twelve of these books fit on one scroll. Therefore, they are not minor in significance, but in size. Zephaniah was evidently a person of considerable social standing in Judah. He was a fourth-generation descendent of King Hezekiah. The name "Zephaniah" means, “The LORD hides, or protects.” The state of Judah declined after the death of Hezekiah. The prophet’s call to repentance fell on deaf ears, and Judah became ripe for judgment.

But the closing words of Zephaniah’s God-given message offer an incredible picture, a beautiful glimpse of real, biblical, God-style joy. It was the hope of Israel for a Messiah, and our hope of salvation, as well as the second coming of Christ. There will be a day, there will be a time, Zephaniah says, when men and women will “sing aloud” and “shout,” where they will “be glad and rejoice” with all their hearts. This is true, authentic joy and not the fleeting happiness that wells up as a result of sudden financial gain or achieving certain levels of success.

 

No, this lasting joy will flow from the fact that God has found his joy in us, in you and in me! Verse 17:  The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”


Today’s Scripture reading begins at verse 14 and begins with the verb “Sing!”
The command to sing here in Zephaniah is in sharp contrast to the other sounds prophesied earlier in the book: silence (1:7), a cry (1:10), a wail (1:10), a loud crash (1:10), a bitter sound (1:14), a battle cry (1:16). If we compare Chapters 1 and 3, we find a stark contrast between God’s judgment and God’s deliverance. The prophetic command to sing reflects the dramatically changed circumstances of the Lord’s restoration on behalf of God’s people.

Singing was integral to Israel’s worship, as well as a part of normal everyday life. In contrast to singing in the modern world, singing in the ancient world was largely reserved for joyous (or at least ordinarily happy) occasions. In contrast, mourning was expressed by lamentation, dirge or wail. There were no beautiful, sad country songs!
 

Who is to sing? The “daughter Zion,” (v. 14), a phrase found in a couple of dozen places in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Isaiah (e.g., 2 Kings 19:21; Psalm 9:14; Isaiah 1:8; 10:32; 16:1; 37:22; etc.). (Earlier translations, such as the KJV and the RSV, understood the Hebrew phrase bat-tsion correctly as a construct chain but incorrectly as the first element being, in some sense, the possession of the second. Accordingly, they translated the phrase famously (and misleadingly) as “daughter of Zion.” The construct phrase is an appositional or associative genitive rather than a possessive genitive (which most Hebrew grammars recognize), with the first element functioning adjectivally.)

 

To sum up, Zion had no daughter; Zion was the daughter, and the word daughter functions in the phrase as a term of endearment: “dear” or “darling.” (See further W.F. Stinespring, “Zion, Daughter of,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume, ed. K. R. Crim, et al. [Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1976, 985]).

This grammatical distinction is important insofar as it helps capture the element of pathos (compassion) in much Old Testament prophetic literature addressed to Zion/Jerusalem. Again, Zion and Jerusalem are symbolic of God’s people. The phrase should be translated something such as “darling Zion/beloved Jerusalem (and its parallel at the end of the verse).”

14 Sing, O Daughter of Zion;
shout aloud, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
O Daughter of Jerusalem!
 

Real joy, biblical joy, comes from knowing without fail or falter that “The Lord your God is with you” and that “he is mighty to save.” It comes from knowing that God himself delights in you and that “he will rejoice over you” — yes, little old far-from-perfect you and me — “with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17 (NIV).

You see, the real reason joy is so essential to the celebration of Jesus’ birth is because in his arrival, in the entrance of that baby born in a Bethlehem back alley, God tells us that those Zephaniah-style “joy days” have come! In Jesus’ arrival, the King has come into our midst, and our sins are now forgiven. Your greatest shame, no matter what it is, can now become a cause for praise! Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus his Son, God the Father has forgiven us and has wiped our slate clean.      

In Christ, we are new creations, loved by God and sustained by the Holy Spirit . All we need to do is accept, receive, and continue to turn our hearts and minds toward God, His Word, and His people. At Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of true joy, the joy of acceptance and belonging. Listen to what the angel said:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11, NIV).

Unlike everything else in this world, when your joy comes from Jesus, it is a joy that will never be taken from you.                                                                       

As adults, we tend to complicate things. Have you ever noticed how children often get it!  One child's view of Christmas joy is as follows:  "Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."

Apart from Jesus, all the joys of life will someday be stolen destroyed or simply die off. The money will run out, the kids will stop calling and the cancer might come back. However, when we are connected to Christ, the life he gives us lasts forever. The peace he gives us surpasses all understanding and the gifts he offers — such as an living waters of forgiveness and grace — will never get old, wear out, get lost, fade or rust.

God rejoices over us with singing. Zephaniah comforts the despairing people by saying, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst,” a God who “will rejoice over you in gladness.” We all could use someone to rejoice over us.

This Christmas may we be a people who sing because the real joy has arrived. May we be a people who give others what they want because God has given us what we need.

This Christmas, may we do what is often overlooked and underappreciated. Let us join together and sing with God, Zephaniah, and each other . . . for our real joy, Jesus, has arrived and will come again with Power and Glory. Amen.

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