Topic: Biblical Verse: Zephaniah 3:14–3:20
Third Sunday of Advent
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
This weekend, Christians throughout the world will remember the Third Sunday of Advent as “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is the Latin translation of the first word of our reading the reading from Philippians 4, meaning “rejoice.” It’s a day about rejoicing. But how may we rejoice in the wake of this Friday’s horrifying attack in Connecticut?
Consider this experience. It’s the big game. Your team is in the playoff against your archrival, your fiercest foe. You’re in their territory, and it’s not a friendly crowd. It’s been a tough fight so far, and the momentum looks to be favoring the opposition. You score, but then they score. Fatigue is setting in for your players, but they seem to have an endless bench of reinforcements coming into the game. You feel the tension building as the clock ticks down, second by second, until the game’s almost over. It could go either way, but you hold out hope that somehow, some way your team will pull through. It looks like that hope is lost, though, when the other side scores with hardly any time remaining. At that moment, it’s like you can sense the dark wave of despair that’s about to break and come crashing down on you and all your team’s supporters. But while it seems like the officials have let your opponent get away with a lot of cheap shots and underhanded plays, they’ve been paying attention. So when it comes down to the tail end of contest, your team has only one slim shot at winning. It’s time for that last play, and it gets under way, your team giving a final push to score the needed points. You watch along with the officials, waiting for the sound of that whistle which will decide the outcome of the game. And then, as the clock is about to run out, it happens. Your side scores, at the last possible moment. Your team has won. The game, the playoff, the longstanding rivalry: all settled. Victory is yours. As that realization dawns, another wave comes crashing – not one of despair, but of joy. The tension gone, the struggle is over, all that emotion gushes up in you and comes pouring out. You yell and shout, dance and sing – maybe even hugging the people around you – celebrating this hard-fought triumph. You can’t contain the joy that you feel. That’s what it’s like to exult.
“Exult” isn’t a word that we use a lot these days, but it’s a good translation of what we heard from the prophet Zephaniah. It speaks of rejoicing and celebrating. It’s a word that expresses the elation that comes from victory and the fulfillment of hope. The first time “exult” shows up in this text, the prophet calls the people of Israel to celebrate the victory that has come to them. He speaks of their restoration as a people before God, who will draw them in from every corner of creation. But our reading for today leaves out the context of just why that restoration would be so welcome. The message that Zephaniah bears is a call to repentance. In the earlier chapters of his book, the prophet delivers the news of God’s coming judgment against all who sin. While they might have liked hearing that about their enemies, God is clear that the people of Judah have sinned against him, too. The great day of the Lord is on its way. The clock is ticking down. But as we have heard, the Lord will bring restoration for those who turn back to Him. He offers solid hope.
You and I are people in need of solid hope. While we are just now beginning to learn the facts around what took place on Friday morning, one thing is certain. As Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy ably put it, evil visited that community that day. It feels like it visited us, too. But the reality is that evil was already there. It’s already here. That’s the nature of the broken world in which we live. You might have heard that assessment before, even from this very pulpit; however, chances are that neither you, nor I, nor has our nation spent much time pondering our situation. Events like this, though, break through our desensitization to the evil that lurks around us and in us. As awful as any such crime would be, it seems all the worse for the targeting of those innocents, and in a place which intends to be a safe haven. No matter what might be revealed about the perpetrator of this act in the days, weeks, and months to come, the hard truth of it is that Satan is at work in our world. As the apostle Peter writes, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8b ESV) The devil’s greatest power is temptation, deceiving human beings like you and me into thinking that we are alone and independent, that we are the ones who should choose to do whatever we wish, no matter what the consequences to others or ourselves. In that way, Zephaniah’s time was very much like ours. They, too, needed hope when the reality of their situation sunk in.
Zephaniah declared God’s promise of restoration to those turned to the Lord for hope, and the Lord delivered on that promise. Years after the prophet brought God’s word to the people, and years again after the foretold judgment came as Judah was taken into exile, God brought His people back to the land that would be their home. Centuries after that, God the Son delivered on the divine promise again, for them and for you.
Jesus confronted the devil head-on, coming into our world as the perfect innocent. He would suffer Satan’s assaults, just like you and me; yet, Jesus didn’t yield to temptation. Unbroken by sin, he went to the cross, and there he won victory over the power of evil that would separate mankind from our Creator. Fully God and fully human, Jesus remained innocent until he took our sin and the brokenness of our world fully into himself on the cross. Jesus’ cradle, Jesus’ cross, and Jesus’ empty tomb are God’s ultimate answer to people who are in need of hope.
The fact that God Himself came to be born as one of us, to be with us, to suffer and die for us so that we might live in a restored relationship with Him — that truth can be your comfort despite any of the terrible events that the devil may sling at you. It might seem like the momentum of our world is favoring the opposition. The evil one might look to have an endless supply of allies that he will send into the fight. And indeed, the world isn’t going to get better as the clock ticks down to the end. But your Savior has already won the war. Your archrival, the devil, has been defeated. Evil will not last. When the whistle blows on that last day, victory will be yours.
Take a look at verse 17 in our text. Zephaniah says someone else will exult at the end. The Lord will exult over you. He will celebrate the victory and the restoration that comes, because you will be with Him when all is said and done. See if you can imagine the God of all creation throwing up his arms in celebration, singing loudly as He brings you in from this broken world – because He is already doing so as the Holy Spirit works faith in you. Zephaniah reports God’s words in verse 19:
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.
In these days of Advent, we remember that Jesus is coming, and he is bringing the full experience of his victory over the devil, our sin, and all evil. Even as the clock ticks down, we know God is the victor. That’s why we remember the Third Sunday of Advent as “Gaudete Sunday.” You can exult. For today, God exults over you.