The word ‘advent’ means coming and in the season of Advent the Church looks forward to the coming of the Lord. Knowing that an authority figure is coming has the potential to incite one of two reactions: fear or joy. When you’re a child and you hear the garage door going up, you have a very different reaction if mom says “hey, dad’s home,” versus “just you wait, now dad’s home.” If your boss tells you that he wants to see you in his office right before quitting time on Friday your reaction will depend on whether you’re expecting a promotion or the company has begun a round of lay-offs. When you see flashing red and blue lights on the highway, how you react depends on whether you need help slowing down or help getting out of a ditch. The Lord is coming. Is our natural reaction fear or joy? It’s not even close, is it? The Lord knows who we are and what we’ve done, how could we not be afraid?
If we could travel back to the time of Zephaniah, we would run into an entire nation who had every reason to fear the Lord’s coming. After God had given Israel the Promised Land, he warned them repeatedly that if they turned away from him he would uproot them from the land and turn them into the laughing stock of the world. (2 Chronicles 7:19-22) Well, Judah failed to listen and failed to obey and had turned from the true God to false gods – idols like Baal and Molech whose worship practices included religious prostitution and child sacrifice. (Zephaniah 1:4-5) They scoffed at the prophets God sent to warn them to change their wicked ways and proudly boasted that God would not do anything to them – either good or bad – and like hardened atheists they made their wealth, real estate and businesses into their gods. (Zephaniah 1:12-13) And so, for 2/3s of his book, the only message Zephaniah has is one of judgment. But in the closing section of this book, the Zephaniah’s message takes a very unexpected turn. To the few faithful believers – those who took the Lord’s warnings seriously and repented of their sins – the Lord offers a message of pure, unadulterated joy. Joy instead of judgment – that is the gist of what Zephaniah has to tell us today.
Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! That sounds similar to the holly, jolly music we hear on the radio these days, right? Do you see the problem, though? Those four verbs sing…shout aloud…be glad and rejoice are all commands. Why on earth would God have to command us to rejoice during “the most wonderful time of the year”? Why do morning shows and health professionals have to issue suggestions for dealing with holiday-related stress and depression?  Why has it become trendy to skip Christmas altogether and take a vacation instead? There are several reasons. 1) For one, God has written his law on our hearts and put a conscience in our heads that reminds us every time we don’t measure up. We know that we rightly deserve judgment, not joy, from God. (Romans 2:14-15) 2) Second, we often search for joy in all the wrong places. More than any other time of year, hidden idols are exposed: alcohol and excess, decorations and gifts, vacations and family and friends – while these things are gifts of God, they are not God. If we seek happiness and joy from anyone or anything other than God, we are, in fact, worshipping an idol.  And, when they take the place of the Giver, they do not bring true joy. If you doubt that, wait for December 26. See the trees lining the curb, the return lines at the stores, the grumpy, hung-over people at work, listen for the complaints about family and friends, notice how many people dig themselves into debt for just a day or two of holiday cheer. If you’ve been looking for joy in the gifts rather than the giver, then the command to rejoice is first a command to repent – to turn your heart away from artificial sources of joy and turn to God. Lastly 3) there’s a little part of each of us that thinks the good news of Christmas is just too good to be true. We are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the lawyer to read the fine print, to find out that there are strings attached – because nothing in this world is free. By nature we simply cannot grasp that forgiveness and peace and joy are free and unconditional gifts of God to us. No matter how many times we’ve heard the angels’ announcement that today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you (Luke 2:11) – we still think, “no way, that’s too good to be true.” And do you know what all three reasons have in common? They crush our joy because they place our focus on us and our earthly situation instead where our focus should be at Christmas: on the Lord and what he has done for us!
That’s why it’s so important that we make the Lord the center of our Christmas celebration. Because when our joy is in the Lord, then it won’t matter if our home looks like something out of a Hallmark movie, if we can afford the best and shiniest gifts, if there’s an empty place at the table or in our hearts, if failing health or financial stress or a family conflict cast a shadow over the celebration – we will be filled with joy regardless of the outward circumstances. Why? Because the Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. Let’s be blunt: the best the world can offer is a brief reprieve from reality, a momentary illusion that life isn’t short and hard and painful. But the Lord confronts reality head-on and sweeps the ugliness away forever – starting with the reality of the punishment we deserve. Make no mistake – we have earned God’s judgment. (Romans 2:12-13, 16) But the Lord has taken it away. Not arbitrarily, not like the police officer who says “well, it’s Christmastime, I’ll let you go with a warning today.” No, God redirected our punishment to his Son. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) So that now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) God will never punish you for your sins because he punished Jesus in your place. If that’s not a reason to rejoice – then there’s no reason to ever rejoice.
And the gifts just keep on coming: he has turned back your enemy. By suffering God’s wrath in our place, Jesus has crushed death and the devil. They are defanged, powerless. They are like a cat that has had its teeth removed – they can gnaw at you, but they cannot hurt you. And now, because the Lord, the King of Israel is with [us] we are never alone, he is always with us, guiding and guarding our lives so that we no longer need to fear evil – whether it’s the evil of sickness or poverty or hardship or pain or loneliness or death – none of them can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39) Even as the days grow shorter and the shadow of death looms larger – we find our joy in the Lord, for instead of the judgment we deserve, he has given us the joy of salvation.
And while our joy centers on what God has done for us – listen to where the Lord finds his joy: On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” Our joy is in what the Lord has done for us, but the Lord’s joy is in us! Isn’t that amazing?
Again, Zephaniah speaks to a sinful tendency we have: our tendency to be afraid to come into God’s presence, whether on the day of his return in glory – or even here, in worship. We know that God is present, we even begin worship by invoking his name. But don’t we often feel like Isaiah: woe to me…I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty. (Isaiah 6:5) And that fear is paralyzing – not only does it rob us of joy, not only does it hinder our energy and enthusiasm in carrying out the work God has given us, but sometimes it keeps us from worshipping, praying, studying Scripture altogether. Certainly when the Lord comes in judgment he will burn up [unbelievers] with [the] unquenchable fire of hell. (Luke 3:17) But that’s not why he comes to us now. Just as Jesus did not come on Christmas to bring judgment but salvation, so he comes to us here not to scold us for our sins, but to take them away. When we’re here, we’re not the only ones singing – God is singing over us!  The Bible says that there is rejoicing [in heaven] over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:10) God rejoices in our repentance because he is not like us – who often only grudgingly give out forgiveness – he take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live. (Ezekiel 33:11) Nowhere is God’s joy more evident than in the Sacraments. In Baptism, he takes a helpless little sinner – and instead of casting him away as he deserves – washes his sins away and makes him his child. In Holy Communion the Lord invites the weary, the downtrodden, the desperate, the despairing – sinners like you and me – to come to his table to receive his body and blood – for the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of salvation. Don’t walk up here filled with shame or guilt, as if God is hovering with his arms crossed with a look that says “You again? You need my forgiveness again? When will you ever learn?” – come up here with joy, because nothing gives the Lord greater joy than forgiving your sins.
Let’s close with Zephaniah’s beautiful description of Christmas: he will quiet you with his love. Isn’t that an amazing picture – especially when the stress and expectations and busyness and commercialization of these days threaten to kill your joy? It’s amazing because it’s so relatable. When a baby wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, what does a parent do? Scream back? “Shut up, I’m trying to sleep here.” Issue a threat? “If you don’t stop crying right now, I’ll give you something to really cry about!” No. The parent takes that baby in his arms and gently rocks her, sings to her, speaks to her, assuring her of his love. That’s what God does for us on Christmas. He comes as a tiny baby – to take away our fear, to quiet our anxious hearts, to assure us of his tender love. God’s attitude toward us is like a grandparent at Christmas – you love your children and grandchildren dearly – in spite of what they’ve done, in spite of their failings and the times they have forgotten all about you – you still want to heal their wounds and dry their tears and calm their fears, you want to give them joy and peace – the very best you can offer. And even though you may not always be able to – God in Christ always does! Nothing gives him greater joy that seeing his children joyfully receiving the gifts he freely offers.
Just like the gifts of hope and the peace Jesus brings us this Advent season, his gift of joy is unexpected. When we hear that he is coming we tend to be fearful because we know we deserve judgment. Today, through Zephaniah the Lord has taken away our fear with the promise that he comes to us to give us joy instead of judgment – this isn’t like the artificial, worldly joy that’s long gone by December 26th…the joy we have in the Lord – and the joy he has in us, lasts into all eternity. If that doesn’t bring you joy this Christmas, than, truly, nothing will. Amen.
 Martin Luther writes “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress.” LC 1:2
 (Did you know God sings? Probably not, because this is one of only three verses in the Bible (that I could find: Psalm 68:6; Mark 14:26) that describes God singing.)