Sermon Ideas For Zephaniah 3:14-20 Part 5
If last week's reading dealt with repentance, a theme continued in today's Gospel (Lk 3:718), this week's focuses on the closely-related theme of rejoicing. "There will be more joy in heaven," said Jesus (Lk 15:7), "over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance." Imagine then the celebration when an entire community takes serious God's warning of coming judgment (Zeph 1:12,14-15) and accepts God's invitation to be reconciled (Zeph 2:1-3).
The call to rejoicing comes to the whole community of faith, affirming again that it is easier to love and serve God with and beside other believers than as an individual. Many people today, who sincerely profess a vital relationship with God but for whatever reason have no current involvement with a church, miss out on the contagious nature of spontaneous worship in addition to running a greater risk that their ardor for God will cool more quickly. Joy shared is joy multiplied.
There is a three-fold reason for rejoicing. First, God has removed both judgment and the agents of judgment. What God threatened to do earlier as punishment for individual and communal disobedience, much of which already came, will not continue. Not that God's determination has changed; the people, or at least enough of them to satisfy God, have learned their lesson and changed. God responds to repentance! That response immediately triggers God's protective nature. Whatever and whoever threatens God's people is turned away. Once God's willing tools, now the faith community's enemies have become God's enemies. God's people can let go of guilt and fear.
For us in the twentieth century who continuously face numerous wars and natural disasters, reasons for optimism and rejoicing may be harder to come by. We may be tempted to discard God's long-standing promise since we have seen, at best, only a partial fulfillment when Israel's captivity ended in 536 B.C and don't expect to see it completed until Christ returns. In the face of all that is wrong in the world today one can rejoice only so long over a prospect that remains a mirage.
That's why the second reason for rejoicing is so important. God is with us as a reality not only for Zephaniah's Jews but also for twentieth century believers, for whom the first coming of Christ is fast receding into the mists of history and hermeneutical attack. God is in the midst of the faithful community not only in 536 B.C. or at the return of Christ, but now, and will be there always. Our joy can rest on a present reality rather than a past event or a future eventuality. That can give new meaning and joy to Advent as well. We live not only in the not yet, but also joyfully in the already. The time of fearful anticipation of trouble has been driven away; now God is our refuge and strength.
Third, God loves those belonging to the community of faith. (There's also a love of God for those not belonging to that community but that is not in play here.) It may be expected that the community of faith rejoices over God's presence and protection, considering what evil God is turning away from them. The surprise is that God rejoices over repentant believers like the Prodigal's father rejoiced over the return of the son given up for dead. More than mere rejoicing, verse 17 echoes with images and sounds of a wedding where bride and bridegroom attempt to surpass each other in describing the depth and width and breadth of their love. It is the familiar, continuing refrain also found in Hosea, Ephesians 5:32 and Revelation 21:2, whereby God wants to reassure all believers that God's love is permanent and strongly protective, a bond between two parties who are becoming one inseparable flesh.
Lest believers falsely assume the marriage and its benefits are their doing, solely a result of their repentance and subsequent commendable behavior, Zephaniah's ode to joy once more affirms God as the initiator of the new relationship. Nine times we are told what God will do, culminating in God's pledge to save the lame and the outcasts who in almost all societies are despised, ignored and rejected. Those without claim to ability or standing will be lifted up to a place of honor and prestige. Their new standing in the community is not based on false pity over their condition or false regret over their past mistreatment; it is linked to God who has become the rescuer, the affirmer, the protector of those least able to look after themselves.
For twentieth century believers dealing with an ancient scripture, the lesson in all this may well be that repentance is not complete until all vestiges of a caste system disappear from the community of faith. All of us equally require God's forgiveness and acceptance. Our subsequent rejoicing over God's goodness will have a false note unless everyone is welcomed into the choir of faith and celebration.