12-16-18 Pastor Donna Doutt - Do!
Last week’s Old Testament reading was from Malachi. In case you weren’t here, we talked about Malachi being one of the “minor” prophets. Minor not necessarily meaning of less importance than the “major” prophets of Jeremiah, Ezekial, or Isiaha. A minor prophet is known as such because their books named for them in the Old Testament are not as detailed or lengthy.
Zephananiah is right there with Malachi. It’s only 3 chapters long with 53 verses.This book delivers a tough message that’s hard to warm up to and tough to preach. After all, most of these prophets were predicting doom for the Jews. In the opening chapter of Zephaniah we’ve got God promising to destroy everything on earth…everything including the entire human race. Who wants to hear that? Especially here is Christmas. We want to only hear about joy…right?
So why are we focusing on the negative cries of the prophets in a season of joy? Because long before the birth of Jesus Christ, the prophets were messengers of good news too!
This scripture from Zephaniah was written near a time when the people of Jerusalem were pawns in the movement of the great world powers, Babylon, Assyria and others. Foreign armies were a constant threat and sometime a reality. Lack of food and water, the basic necessities of life came along with political and community instability. The people lived in fear.
Not only were the in political and geographical danger, but Zephaniah’s telling them now God’s going to destroy them all! But yet, we now these words in the third and last chapter of this book, the 16th verse we hear, “…Do not fear, O Zion.” The phrase, “Do not fear” is not a plea, but a declaration. Over and over in scripture, we hear some variation of “do not fear.”
In the New Testament, Luke speaks it to instill confidence in unsuspecting recipients of God’s news: “Do not be afraid Zechariah,” “Do not be afraid, Mary”, and later on in the story we will hear, “Do not be afraid…I am bring you good news of great joy.” We hear repeatedly in the scripture, “Do not fear…the Lord God is in your midst.” Another Gospel proclaims at its end, “Do not be afraid…He is not here, for he has been raised (Matt. 28:5-6). “Do not fear” is repeated over and over again in these texts because human beings are afraid of many things. Do not be afraid.”
That’s right, “do not be afraid” appears in the New International Version of the Bible 70 times. This doesn’t include variants such as “fear not,” “do not fear,” and the like.
Zephaniah may be pouring out doom and gloom to the Jews, but each of the Bible prophets who predicts Jewish doom wraps up his message with hope, and that would be in the form of a restored Israel. This is exactly what Zephaniah does here in the last chapter. He’s wrapping it all up with a joyful song! Remember…Zephaniah knows the future (that’s why he’s a prophet!) and he wants us to get up and rejoice!
Now let’s switch over and take a look at our Epistle lesson today from Philippians 4:47. This another one of the books that are letters from the Apostle Paul to the new Christian churches. You know Paul could be just as tough on congregations in the New Testament as the prophets were on the Jews in the Old Testament. We know he took to task many of the churches when they started deviating from what Christ’s church should be. He was really hard on them all, especially the Corinthians.
But Philippians… that was another story. His letters to them were like love letters. One of my resources points out, ”It’s a funny thing about being in jail. It really brings out the best in Paul. He writes his most cantankerous letters when he’s breathing free air. But in jail-as he is when he writes Philippians – he’s usually gentle-spirited, reflective, and downright fatherly.”
Paul is saying to the Philippians, in Chapter 4, verses 4 through 5, ” 4-5 Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!
6-7 Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.” (The Message).
So, what Paul is literally saying is, “Don’t worry. Be happy!”
His phrasing tells us, “Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.” What word could you use to describe when everything has come together and is settled down? Do you think that scripture would be a good description for the word “Peace”, or as the Jews would say “Shalom?”
Purple candles recall a time when Advent paralleled Lent as a season of penitence and was marked by practices of prayer and fasting. But on the Third Sunday a rose candle was lighted to symbolize joy, and penitential fasting was lifted. The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete (Gow-da-ta (long a’s) Sunday, from the Latin imperative “Rejoice”. The name echoes with this scripture that we hear today from Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will again say, Rejoice…the Lord is near.”
So our Zephaniah scripture is wrapping up the book of the Bible by revealing the blessings of restoration for God’s people and the nations in glorious song! Don’t worry! Be happy! The Lord is near! The same thing Paul is telling the Philippians, those early church members who were oppressed, ostracized, and martyred for their faith in Jesus and ultimately the final judgement. Rejoice!
We live lives of privilege here in North America. We don’t normally experience deprivation and oppression on the scale of these Biblical populations. But don’t we care about those who do suffer?
We have the same opportunity as those for whom this scripture from Zephaniah and the Philippians to whom Paul wrote. As Christians, it is our duty to love the world. We need to work and pray for an end to all of these national disasters, these conflicts, the hatred in this world. We need to trust in God’s promise for restoring us in His kingdom where no one is oppressed…no one is persecuted…those who suffer will be healed…conflict will be gone away…banished and replaced with joy!
Zephaniah is promising restoration, and it’s ok for us to claim that restoration for own lives as well. What will God “do” for us? Zephaniah tells us in his song of joy! Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
Our four Advent candles represent Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. Our scriptures today represent all four of those emotions.
We DO have hope through forgiveness of our sins and relief from judgement that we can only receive through Jesus Christ.
We DO experience the love of God that He gave his only Son for us and truly loves us unconditionally.
We DO celebrate with joy as we come to this place of worship each week and because we know that we are under God’s watchful eye.
And we DO know the peace of Christ.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart…!
 Deborah Block, Feasting on the Word Advent Companion, (John Knox Press: Louiseville, 2014), 57-58
 Stephen M. Miller, The Complete Guide to the Bible (Phoenix: Barbour Publishing, 2007), 417
 Block, Feasting on the Word Advent Companion, 58