Real Joy in the Midst of Suffering
Many liturgical traditions historically referred to the 3rd Sunday of advent as Gaudete Sunday; this designation came from the early church and marked the halfway point of Advent when Advent was longer than it is now. This is taken from the Latin meaning to rejoice, joy is the typical theme of the day. Zephaniah is a strange prophet to be hearing on a Sunday named after Joy. His book of prophetic oracles is probably the darkest and gloomiest of all the Old Testament prophets. Also one of the shortest its 4 and a half chapters of dismal judgment. Luckily today we hear the half of a chapter which isn’t.
As a matter of fact today’s readings all come from books of the bible that may not be the first to come to mind for a day we call Rejoice Sunday. Our psalmody like last week doesn’t come from the psalms but from the prophet Isaiah who is known as much for his words of judgment and gloom as he is for his words of joy and hope. Then you have Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a letter written from a cold hard prison floor. Even the Gospel from Luke this morning doesn’t come across as entirely joyful. John the Baptist was a fiery preacher who wasn’t known for his joyful disposition. He began his message this morning by calling his listeners a “Brood of vipers”. I’m sure nobody would be rejoicing if I began my sermons by calling you all snakes.
But yet these are the lessons today and they do indeed have something to say about what it means to find joy in the fulfillment of God’s promises. Paul writes to the new Christians in Philippi.
Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Remember that this exhortation was written from prison. Paul knew what it meant to know the joy and peace of God in the midst of human pain and suffering. Zephaniah ended his oracles with the final verse we heard today.
Zephaniah 3:20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; 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.
It seems that even the gloomiest of God’s prophets couldn’t ignore how wonderful God’s promises were. Perhaps real joy isn’t the absence of sin, shame, pain, or death. But is the awareness of God’s presence in the midst of all of it. Rejoice brothers and sisters God has promised to be present and that is what we rejoice in.
I think our ability to “rejoice in the Lord always” is what allows us to live as God’s children should in this fallen world. One thing we hear a lot during advent is “do not fear”. The angel Gabriel said it to Zechariah, Mary and, Joseph when he brought his messages to each of them. This week in this context of rejoicing we hear it as well. Zephaniah tells his hearers not to fear because God is with them, Isaiah says that he will not fear because the Lord God is his strength, Paul tells the Philippians not to worry.
Does fear disappear because of faith in God? I don’t think so, but I do believe that the joy that comes from awareness of God’s presence empowers us and enables us to embrace life without being frozen by fear. On Wednesday night we watched the Nativity Story. There was a scene where Joseph was telling Mary about his visit from Gabriel. He told her that the Angel said do not be afraid. Mary looks at him and said “well are you afraid?” Joseph’s answer was an unqualified well yes I am and Mary was able to also able to speak of her fear. But because they knew that God has promised great things they were able to carry on with their journey. Now I can’t imagine how terrifying it was to be told they’re going to be the parents of God’s only son, and that they would have to travel to Bethlehem while Mary was pregnant. The pressure must have been enormous, but yet their awareness of God’s presence a presence made real to them by Gabriel’s visits kept their very real fears from immobilizing them.
Brothers and sisters I don’t pretend to know all the fears that are gripping the hearts and minds of all of you but I know they are there. The reality of illness and very real health concerns of us and our loved ones, the uncertainty of a trying economic downturn, and strife in our personal relationships can all be sources of fear in our daily lives. As a congregation we are asking some very difficult and scary questions about what lies ahead for the ministry of Zion (Immanuel) Lutheran Church. Brothers and sisters it is moments like this that we must stand in our advent joy and hear the angel saying to us. Do not fear; rejoice for God is with you.
It’s important to remember that Paul doesn’t say rejoice in all things but Rejoice in Christ at all times. We don’t boast in our trials and tribulations but we boast in our God who is with us in those trials and tribulations. As Christians we don’t show of our scars and pains like they’re jewels in our crowns. But we thank God for his scars and pains which he acquired in his love for us. Brothers and sisters do not fear; rejoice for God is with you.