Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20
A Song of Joy
14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you* in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.*
I will remove disaster from you,*
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
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.
Philippians 4: 4 – 7
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Luke 3: 7 – 18
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,* 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. I knew a woman once who had three rather robust sons in a row and whenever any of them was grumpy, she’d line him up and say, “God commands us to rejoice, so rejoice!”
Now before we condemn dear Moira as a behaviour Nazi, let me tell you she has a point! So much of our attitude is a matter of the will. If I determine to rejoice, nine times out of ten I will be able to do so.
Of course there are circumstances when applying this principle would be ridiculous, even cruel. But these are the drastic moments in our lives and they are a lot less frequent than we would like to think.
This is of course the magic of the Nike logo: Just do it! In order to Just do it, we have to apply our wills, whatever it may be. The appeal of the logo is the almost impulsive optimism it holds that sweeps away the reluctance of the will. When you make a quick decision to do something you move from caution right into positive action without wallowing in negativity. You ride right over reluctance.
The other element in the Just do it example is faith. The faster the decision to spring into action, the greater the amount of trust involved. It’s a case of “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
So the first thing I want to say is that if we want to be joyful, we need to be prepared to apply our wills to the task.
The second thing I’d like to say is this: we have a tendency, in Protestant circles, to associate joy with spiritual excitement. Now that is a good thing. One of the most ignored Christian principles is encapsulated in that verse from Nehemiah; The joy of the Lord is your strength.
When we open ourselves up to God and develop our relationship with God, hope, love, joy and peace well up within us.
But this emotive side of our relationship with God will begin to wear thin unless we turn our faith outwards, unless we allow the good things God does in us, in a spiritual sense, to work out in a practical sense.
You may have heard the expression, “He’s so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good.” There is some real truth in this. Nothing robs Christians so thoroughly of their integrity than a constant stream of hyper-spiritual talk alongside a life that does not show practical love for one’s fellow human being.
Interestingly that very verse about the joy of the Lord from Nehemiah, when read in full, has a very practical care-for-your-fellow-human-being context. The whole verse reads: Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8: 10)
“and send some to those who have nothing prepared” goes hand in hand with “for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
Joy has its roots in a love for God that overflows into the care of fellow men and women.
Our Old Testament reading from Zephaniah gives us a reason to be joyful: God is well-intentioned towards Israel and intends to act on their behalf.
In the Epistle to the Philippians, Paul commands us to rejoice because God is near to us, but he also calls them to the action of prayer.
John the Baptist, in the gospel reading, takes a not dissimilar approach. Don’t tell me you have Abraham as your ancestor” he says. “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” “ Bear fruit,” he says. “Be people of action.”
But what kind of action might he be referring to? Verse 18 tells us John “proclaimed the good news to the people.”
What was this good news? Well, clearly it was that Jesus was coming, but it includes a little section between his telling them off for not being active in bearing fruit and his telling them that Jesus is coming. And this is it:
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
The Good News consists of an expectation that we should be actively building a just society. That is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
It makes plain common sense that joy can only be expected to last and grow in our lives when we are actively concerned about others.
Everything in verses 10 to 14 that I have just read has to do with a redistribution of wealth, fairness in economic matters and honesty in financial matters.
I’m going to end with this statement. Joy only lasts in those who learn to give. This is one of the reasons why Advent is a great opportunity. It gives us an opportunity to relook the way we live in the light of Christ’s return.
Let us by all means enjoy the gifts we give one another at Christmas, and let us rejoice in the eternal salvation we have in Christ. There is great joy in these things. But let us also allow the Advent process to teach us about true joy – the inner strength that comes from being a co-worker with Christ in establishing his Kingdom of justice and compassion.
If you want to, if you apply your will, you can rejoice. Sustaining that joy requires a little more.
What goes hand in hand with “for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” is this: “and send some to those who have nothing prepared”
God bless you.