Behold, Rejoice and Exult
Topic: Biblical Verse: Zephaniah 3:14–3:20
The Third Sunday in Advent
December 12, 2021
“Behold, Rejoice and Exult”
The Third Sunday in Advent calls us to rejoice. That word crops up several times in today’s Scripture readings. In the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Zephaniah: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” (Zephaniah 3:14), and again, “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” (Zephaniah 3:20). In the Epistle lesson from Paul the apostle, the opening verse: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). This is the season of rejoicing as familiar carols call us to be merry and of good cheer. But our rejoicing isn’t about stockings hung by the chimney with care, or beautifully decorated trees, or all of the trappings that we associate with this time of year. Our rejoicing goes much deeper than that. We rejoice in the coming of Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God-with-us (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23). Because of Jesus, we “Behold, Rejoice and Exult.” That is the theme for the message today. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
It’s easy to rejoice when times are good, when we lack for nothing, and when everything goes the way we think it should. It’s not so easy to rejoice when times are not good, when we lack for many things, and when nothing goes the way we think it should. What then? Does our rejoicing just shrivel up and die? This past Thursday evening, we had a special worship service entitled, “When Christmas Hurts,” which focuses on the reality that for many this season is not one of rejoicing, but disappointment and disillusionment. For all of the joy of the season, deep pain can crowd out the joy. Sickness, family troubles, financial worries, depression and loneliness – these are the things that can suck the joy out of this season. Can we accept Zephaniah’s invitation to “sing aloud… rejoice and exult with all your heart?” How do we get around all of these obstacles that stand in the way of rejoicing?
Zephaniah may be one of those books of the Bible that we’re not so familiar with. I encourage you to go home and read through it – it’s only three chapters. Let’s see if we can unpack some of the context in this short, prophetic book. The opening verse of Zephaniah gives us a clear picture of when his ministry took place: “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah” (Zephaniah 1:1). We can date this precisely to when Josiah reigned, which was 640-609 B.C. Josiah is one of the very few kings of Judah who received unqualified praise (2 Chronicles 34:1-7), and this was because of his religious reforms. Josiah removed foreign idols and worship practices from the kingdom, drawing the people of God back into a living relationship with God their Maker and Redeemer. But Zephaniah’s message from God to the people was one of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, as well as the nations around them. Almost the whole book of Zephaniah, except for today’s Old Testament lesson, focuses on God’s coming judgment against his own people’s faithlessness and disobedience. The sweet words of comfort and hope that we hear today are preceded by other convicting and condemning words from the Lord. And so it is with us today. The sweet words of comfort and hope of the Gospel – the good news that through faith in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins – must be preceded by the convicting and condemning words of the Law, the hammer of God’s righteous anger and judgment, that exposes our own faithlessness and disobedience to the Lord. How can we know the true joy of the forgiveness of our sins if we do not first recognize the utter depravity and corruption that our sins have brought upon us? We can try to paper over this, doing our best to cover our sin and shame with fig leaves, but it doesn’t really work. The Law shows us what we really look like, something we’d rather avoid. But the Law cannot save us; it only tells us where we have erred and fallen short of the glory of God. And so the Law must give way to what does save. The Law must give way to the Gospel. It is always Law and Gospel, sin and grace – they go together. But the life-changing good news of the Gospel must predominate over the Law. Centuries before Jesus was born, Zephaniah pointed ahead to him with this promise: “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” (Zephaniah 3:15-17). That’s good news: the Lord is in our midst, not to condemn, but to save. That is what Jesus’ very name means, as the angel of the Lord revealed to Joseph: “He will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And because of this, we behold all that God in Christ has done for us, and beholding, we rejoice and exult.
Our Scripture memory verse for today is that opening verse from today’s Epistle lesson, which we read together: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Our rejoicing isn’t just some superficial, “ha ha” kind of joy that’s temporary, here today and gone tomorrow. The joy we have in our Advent Lord is not dependent on external things that are constantly shifting and changing in this ever-changing world where nothing stays the same. Paul the apostle tells us here that our joy comes not from without, but from within. It comes from the assurance we have that the Lord is in our midst; that he is near, not to condemn, but to save. There is nothing that this ever-changing world can throw at us that is beyond God’s almighty power. Nothing is too hard for the Lord. Because of this, Paul reminds us that this rejoicing causes us to release our cares and worries, turning them over to the Lord. Really, what does all that worrying accomplish anyway? “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:5b-6). Beholding all that God wants to do for us, putting our trust and confidence not in ourselves but in the Lord, we receive an amazing gift: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Isn’t that what we all want – God’s own peace in our lives?
On this Third Sunday in Advent that calls us to rejoice, we behold, rejoice and exult because through Christ our Advent Savior, the Lord himself rejoices over us: “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” (Zephaniah 3:17). “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20b). Amen.