REJOICE IN THE LORD!
Text: Zephaniah 3:14-18a & Philippians 4:4-7
3 Advent, C
3:14Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 4:4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Today is the third Sunday in Advent; we call it "Gaudate Sunday," the Sunday of rejoicing. The candle today is pink instead of purple, symbolizing joy in the midst of somberness, the quiet joy awaiting the coming Saviour. And if there is one thing that people seem ready for this time of year, and especially after the last two years we have had … it’s joy. The season of Christmas comes with a certain expectation of joy. We're supposed to rejoice around Christmas time, aren't we? It's part of the prescribed program. Big corporations have capitalized on this sense of holiday joy, promising increased joy with every purchase for the ones you love. Or at least, a lessened feeling of guilt. And if you aren't joyful, for whatever reason, you run the risk of being with un-compassionate Scrooge or the Grinch who stole Christmas.
Outside these walls there is a certain joy associated with the season, often linked to deep-running family traditions that no one dares change. Holiday hospitality, the company of friends & family, the exchange of gifts. Is it on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? There are parties and potlucks, trimming of trees, decorations. Here in town one of the more popular of the traditions seems to be driving around town looking at all the Christmas lights. And for each and every one of these traditions people exuberantly say “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”
For many, however, the joys of the holiday season are overshadowed by a sense of sadness and loss, by grief and pain, despair and depression. Will we even be able to celebrate it this year or will health mandates make it nearly impossible again? This month, at the best of times, is especially hard on the widowed, the divorced, those who are grieving, those who live alone, those who are estranged from family, or who are far away from loved ones. Do I need to go on? Some people literally hibernate for the holidays, simply disappearing until everything is over. The Christmas season has a way of bringing up the "ghosts." The haunting melancholy memories of the past.
But even for those who are not outwardly suffering during this season, there is still a certain amount of anxiety and pain that underlies the Christmas season as it is celebrated in the world. Holiday cheer tends to last about as long as the Christmas tree we picked off the lot this week. This symbol of life in the midst of death has been dying from the moment the axe was laid to its roots. By Epiphany it will fit only for burning. Unless, of course, the tree isn't real. Which makes you wonder how much of our culture's Christmas joy is real enough to survive even the twelve days of Christmas? The shopping spree of December becomes the stack of credit card bills in January. Parties and potlucks turn into extra pounds to be dealt with in the new year. The decorations go back in the garage.
The anxieties and fears that lurk under holiday cheer are also very real. Will the kids be all right in the coming year? Will the marriage hold? Will there be work? Will our health be good? Can I have my vaccinated family over? Those fears and anxieties can overwhelm any rejoicing. With all the fears and anxieties of life looming in the background, Christmas celebrations can often feel forced or insubstantial.
Here is where we need to stop and consider God's Word through the prophet Zephaniah 16"Do not fear, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. and the apostle Paul 6Have no anxiety about anything. But how can we say this? Each of our readings today points us to a joy that goes far beyond holiday lights, and presents and egg nog and cheer. They direct us to an eternal joy, anchored in the love of God, grounded in the incarnation of God's Son. A joy that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit working faith in us, despite everything that may or may not be “going to plan around us.”
“The Lord is at hand.” is the call of St. John the Baptist and it is the heart of the Good News of great Joy behind the entire season of Christmas. The prophet Zephaniah said it this way: "The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more." Much more than simply being a time for family and friends to come together to eat and drink, Christmas is about the coming together of God and man. It is about a joy founded upon a God who loved each and every one of us so much that He would come into our midst. A God who was willing to share in our grief and pain, our suffering and our sorrows. A God who came to fight on our behalf and bring us victory.
Through His baptism Jesus would take our place under the Law of God. Through His perfect sinless life He would fulfill the Law where no one else possibly could. Through His teachings and miracles He would show the love and compassion of God like never before. In His suffering and death He would pay the price of sin once and for all. But not His sin. He had none to pay for. The sin He atoned for was yours and mine. And finally, through His glorious resurrection on that Easter morning, He brought light and life to all people forevermore. He defeated sin, death, and the devil for good. 15The 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. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17The 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.
On this third Sunday of Advent, we take a moment out of our busy schedules to remember what real joy at Christmas is all about. More than any fancy lights, packaging, or meals it is all about celebrating Christ in our midst! The joy of Christmas is Jesus Christ. And not just for us either, it is a time of joy for God as well! 17The 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. 18I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival. As Christmas quickly approaches, let us join with our Heavenly Father in rejoicing over the gift of all that Christ has accomplished for us: 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.