A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7- 18.
“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth!” (Ps. 100:1), “Shout for joy to God, all the earth” (66:1). “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4); Paul’s imperative, echoing the Psalmist’s, forces the question: are we to will ourselves into a joyful state? Can we be always joyful? Suppose we are not able always to feel joyful?
“We work with you for your joy,” Paul tells the Corinthians (2 Cor 1:24). “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The mission of the church to the world is no other than this: “Do not be afraid,” we announce to the terrorized and traumatized, the oppressed and the poor, “We bring good news of a great joy—for everyone!” “God with us” is the Christmas message.Peter writes, “We rejoice [in Christ] with inexpressible and glorified joy.” “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:8-9). Paul also says, “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:5-7).
Our Joy in Christ will not be disturbed by changes in our circumstances. Our mind and heart rest in the comfort of the Lord. We are confident and hopeful, our gentleness evident to everyone, because the peace we know is not fleeting. Joy abides, elation passes. We find this in all descriptions of religious experience: permanence is the basis for distinguishing what is real from what is not. If the phenomena we experience are impermanent, then they are aptly called unreal. The psalmist says, “Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5). Whatever is true abides: “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things” (Phil 4:8).
For Jesus speaks to us today, as he did to his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:20-22).
“As the Father has loved me,” Jesus said, “so I have loved you. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love…I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). And post-resurrection, Jesus says, “Peace be with you!” So the disciples were overjoyed…and he breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Jesus offers us this same Spirit today, by grace, through faith (Gal 3:14): He makes known to us the path of life, and fills us with joy in his presence, with eternal pleasures at his right hand (Ps 16:11); “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
Joy is a spectrum of feeling. The joy Zephaniah prophesies is the joy that follows judgment; in this instance, the joy of a city – Jerusalem – following its judgment for arrogance and corruption. Jerusalem will be taken down for oppressing its people and defiling the name of God; a remnant will survive, and God will dwell with his remnant. The joy Zephaniah prophesies is that of a community. At first it is the joy of the post-exilic community that returns to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity. This was to be a frustrated joy, for the restoration is incomplete, and the hope for a deliverer – the day of the Lord – waxes and wanes. The joy of the inaugurated kingdom breaks forth again, following the Advent and the life of Jesus, and the death and resurrection of the Christ, this time not to be frustrated, for the joy of the church, which is the remnant of Israel, is the joy of the promised Kingdom. Finally, there will come the day when the joy of the end time overwhelms all else, at the appearance of the New Jerusalem; only then does joy which is yet a sign become an everlasting joy.
Israel, intended as a theocracy, had chosen to be ruled by kings and would end up subject to foreigners. But the oppressors mentioned in Zephaniah are not foreigners, but the prophets, priests, and kings – Israel’s own leaders – 600 years before the birth of Jesus. As the sons of Samuel, the last of the judges, were corrupt, so are the Jerusalem rulers, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah. The Babylonians will prove to be the instrument of their destruction. As foreigners, the Babylonians have their existence, their being, in opposition to the splendor of God. They represent the other, that which does not recognize its dependence on God and therefore has no reality. The Babylonians are phantoms. The prophets, priests, and kings, however, represent Yahweh, and they have become “roaring lions” and “evening wolves” who leave nothing for the poor, the widows and orphans. The prophets and priests shame Yahweh, yet He Himself remains righteous. His judgment is a consuming fire: the fire of his anger. His judgment is a refining fire, and its remnant are purified, to serve Him anew in holiness and righteousness. The remnant will rejoice, and all the other perish.
The remnant, having survived for sixty years in Babylonia before making its way back to Jerusalem, now stands also as a sign for what shall come. The destruction, abandonment, and restoration of the city and its Temple establishes the pattern re-enacted in first century Jerusalem, when the Romans became the ordained instruments of God’s will. John the Baptist, as Zephaniah before him, indicts Jerusalem: not the Romans, who are de facto defiled, but the Jews themselves, that is, their prophets and priests (as they no longer have a king). John calls the Jews “a brood of vipers,” Theophylact explains, “because they [God’s chosen people] oppressed their own fathers and mothers. It is said that the viper eats its way out of its mother’s womb, and thus is born. Likewise, the Jews had killed their prophets and teachers.”[i] “The wrath to come” is the refining fire. When the second Temple is entirely destroyed in the fire set by the Roman army, God’s axe had been taken to the branches of Abraham, and God had taken up residence in the heart temple of his believers, the final remnant who bore good fruit. Joy is a mark that the Spirit is cultivating His fruit in our life, for “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22, 23).
John is very specific about how God’s remnant will be known. To the many he says, “When you have two coats, share with him who has none;” “when you have food, do likewise;” to the tax collectors, who are despised, he says, “Take from others no more than is lawful;” to the mercenaries, he says, “Avoid extortion; do not bear false witness; be content with your wages.” And in the Book of Acts, we find the remnant, gathered as the early church, carrying out John’s commands, for “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:45). Ambrose says, “Compassion is the fullness of the virtues and therefore the form of the perfect virtue is placed before all.”[ii]
John is also clear about his role: he baptizes with water, that is, with the unredeemed creation, because he prepares the way for the Messiah, who, permitting himself to be baptized, will change the very nature of water, and baptize with the Spirit and fire. Calvin says “The word fire is added as an epithet, and is applied to the Spirit, because he takes away our pollutions, as fire purifies gold.”[iii]John uses a new metaphor for the alchemy of transformation: the Messiah will “thoroughly cleanse His threshing floor, and will gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff He will burn up with fire unquenchable” (Luke 7-18). So the psalmist says: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5).
This displacement of 600 years, and the “two sojournings” of John the Forerunner and Jesus the Christ, provide the mysterious context for the Spirit’s descent on the church. The church becomes the remnant purified by Yahweh, and the church rejoices, as it makes its offerings to God and worships Him. The church is not haughty; if it behaves so, then it is counterfeit. The church is meek and humble and trusts in the Lord. “The remnant of Israel will do no wrong; they will speak no lies, nor will deceit be found in their mouths. They will eat and lie down and no one will make them afraid” (Zep3:13). The church shouts aloud, the church is glad and rejoices, for the Lord our God has saved us! He delights in us, he quiets us with his love, he sings to us. Our Lord has gathered us together, and here, in the church, we are truly home. Here, in the church, God is with us everyday; God cares for us.
“God with us” is the Christmas message. The mission of the church is to speak this reality to the world, convert the other and eliminate phantom realities. The realization of God’s Kingdom is also the end to all the violence inherent in subject/object dichotomies. Our human restoration restores all of heaven and earth. “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18). “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (Jude 24), be all honor and glory, now and forever, Amen.
[i] Theophylact, The Gospel According To Luke, 42
[ii] Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 2.77, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Luke (NT Vol 3)
[iii] Calvin’s Commentaries, Luke 3:11