Victors in the Midst of Strife

I was assigned the fourth week of advent last year too. So, here is another sermon on “Joy”. We sang Joyful Joyful, We Adore Thee out of the hymnal this year, I forgot about the verse that wasn’t included in our hymnal and that we printed it in the bulletin last year. I guess that counts as not singing the same hymn, right?


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 judgments 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.

We read from the prophets during advent, because we are looking back at the promises of God, especially the promise of God to dwell with us and the promise that the kingdom of God is coming.  Zephaniah isn’t really writing about the coming of the Messiah but of the promise that God will dwell with us.  The purpose of God dwelling with us is to correct systems of injustice.  As Christians, when we read this text, we interpret it as a sign of the coming of Christ.  We point to Jesus’ birth as the unique way that God chose to dwell among us.

In the text that  _____________ read today, we heard twice (versus 15 and 17) that God is and will continue to be in our midst.  God’s presence among the people does two things: it protects, and it rejoices.  “God’s presence among the people is animating, in that God rejoices with them, renews them, and exults over them… God’s living among the people releases them from fear and shame, invigorating them to work for the good[1].  The future God promises us is filled with peace and joy. 

We are a people of hope.  In our season of advent, of preparing for the birth of Christ, we are also preparing for the second coming of Christ, when he will complete his work and reign in righteousness over all of the world.  But these promises are not only for our future but for our present time.  Zephaniah is important today, not just as a prediction of what is to come but as assurance that God “also comes to humanity in the community of faith.” 

Zephaniah assures us that we can experience the presence of God as a gathered community of faith. 

I would like to assure all of us (including myself) that we can experience the presence of God even when those of us gathered together are not perfect nor are we in perfect relationships with one another or God.

Sometimes the community is system broken.  Sometimes we feel distant from those we love.  Sometimes our own anxiety and grief keep us from being in community.  Sometimes the incarnation seems to theological to be practical.  Sometimes the happy choruses we sing in church don’t inspire real joy.  What if we can’t feel joyful or even fake it?  What is joy, really anyway? 

In her book, “Loving My Actual Christmas”, Alexandra Kuykendall helps us understand the meaning of the word joy.  She notes that joy is often interchanged with happy.  But these words are not really synonyms.  Happiness is temporary; it comes and goes within a moment.  “But Joy, that settling-in-the-spirit kind of happiness, is found in a deeper place…. It turns out joy is centered in accepting God’s love and then turning around and loving others.  In this context of giving and receiving love, joy is grown.”[2]  She invites her readers to acknowledge their actual feelings.  For many of us, happiness is not the first thing that comes to mind.  Many of us experience stress and grief more acutely during the holidays.  Sometimes, simply acknowledging how we are really feeling is a step towards adjusting our attitude.  Her practical steps for readers include listing what we are grateful for.  Making this list is something we can do even when we are in the midst of despair.  In her earlier chapter on love, Alexandra says that love is an action. And in the joy chapter, she says that “joy stems from a place of action too”[3].

The action that we can take, is to be real about how we are feeling, to be grateful even when we are miserable, and to love ourselves and others, even in our vulnerable and imperfect state. 

Is it possible to be sad and still experience joy?  Absolutely.  The good news is that God has come to us to dwell with us, not because we are perfect and happy but because we are sad and in need of God’s love.  The joy of heaven came to earth not because we earned it but because we needed joy, which comes from God’s love.

God’s love is good news to all who are sad, lonely, hurting, oppressed, imprisoned, sick, vulnerable, and anyone who is generally having a miserable existence, because it is for those that God has come to dwell.  God has come to all of us who are in darkness, to bring hope, love, joy and peace. 

John has been using poems by Ann Weems as part of our advent candle lighting.  I’m going to read another of her poems from Kneeling in Bethlehem called “Not Celebrate” that we both thought captures the dramatic irony of the season.  Christ comes to bring joy to those who do not feel like celebrating his coming. 

“Not celebrate? Your burden is too great to bear? Your loneliness is intensified during this Christmas season? Your tears seem to have no end? Not celebrate? You should lead the celebration! You should run through the streets to ring the bells and sing the loudest! You should fling the tinsel on the tree, and open your house to your neighbors, and call them in to dance! For it is you above all others who know the joy of Advent. It is unto you that a Savior is born this day, One who comes to lift your burden from your shoulders, One who comes to wipe the tears from your eyes. You are not alone, for he is born this day to you.”

So those of us who are suffering should be celebrating because God is coming to dwell with us.  God is coming to dwell with us as we remember the baby born in Bethlehem.  God is coming.  God is coming to dwell with us.  Hallelujah! 

And yet, we are a community with different experiences of Christmas, and some of us aren’t suffering.  We might be writing in our gratitude journals daily and feeling disconnected form not only the experiences of Zephaniah but the experiences of other people in our world. 

You don’t have to watch more than a moment of the news to see suffering all around the world.  And if you watch more than a moment of news, you might feel gratitude for what you have and guilt for not actively alleviating all of the world’s problems.  And after feeling guilty, we confirm our guilt by reading one of the most familiar scriptures associated with advent, the Magnificat, the section of Mary’s response about the meaning of the baby she is carrying.  Luke 1:46-55:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Are we the rich, the mighty, the powerful?  Are we participants in systems that oppress the poor, the sick and the imprisoned?  That doesn’t feel good.  Is God’s promise to dwell with us still good news? 

[pause]

[My notes say pause until we are all a little uncomfortable.  Are we there?]

[pause]

Yes, God’s promise to dwell with us is still good news even for us.  God’s presence among us, among people with power and privilege, is the only thing that will give us the courage and strength to transform the systems we participate in to benefit all and not just a few.  God’s presence among us protects and rejoices.  God’s presence will animate us, renew us, and strengthen us.  God’s living among us releases us from fear and shame, invigorating us to work for good[4]

Because we love God, and each other, we pray for each other and we even pray for people who we don’t know.  According to an advent commentary I’ve been reading, this kind of praying leads us to “listen to that pain in the peoples of other nations and classes.  Then informed and compassionate, we can pray in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world…. and we trust in God’s promise for restoration.”[5]

God’s promise to dwell with all people is good news for all people.  God’s presence among us will change the world, for the better.  “The good news is for the privileged of this world, as well as for those bowed down in this world.  The good news is a promise of restoration to right relationships.  When God promises that we will be praised throughout the world, the promise is based on who we are as God’s children, and not our own might or strength.  When we are in right relationship with one another and with God, then we will be renowned and praised in all the earth (v. 20)”.[6]

The future God promises us is filled with peace and joy for all people.  So, Daughters and Sons of God, shout and sing, rejoice and exalt with all your heart! 

But before we Sing “joyful joyful”, I want to point out that it is printed in your bulletin.  It is in the bulletin because our hymnal does not include the third verse. 

Our hymnal doesn’t include the third verse because of the problematic nature of assigning God a specific gender, and God our parent does not fit the rhyme scheme.  So, I invite you to sing Father or Mother as you feel comfortable.  We won’t all agree on this, which is why this verse is often left out.  But I think in the spirit of advent, we can agree to disagree.

The reason I want to sing this verse because it is the verse upon which the whole song hinges.  This is the verse that tells us that our joy comes from being in right relationship with God and with each other.  This is the restored relationship we are seeking during advent.  This is the restored relationship that is obtained when God’s presence dwells among us. 

So today, we are singing verse three in all of its imperfect perfection. And I pray that as we are singing our hearts will be filled with joy, true joy, the joy of being connected to God and each other.

More about the lyrics to Joyful Joyful, We Adore Thee

1 Joyful, joyful, we adore You,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before You,
Op’ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!

2 All Your works with joy surround You,
Earth and heav’n reflect Your rays,
Stars and angels sing around You,
Center of unbroken praise;
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flow’ry meadow, flashing sea,
Chanting bird and flowing fountain
Praising You eternally!

3 Always giving and forgiving,
Ever blessing, ever blest,
Well-spring of the joy of living,
Ocean-depth of happy rest!
Loving Father*, Christ our Brother,
Let Your light upon us shine;
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.

4 Mortals, join the mighty chorus,
Which the morning stars began;
God’s own love is reigning o’er us,
Joining people hand in hand.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife;
Joyful music leads us sunward
In the triumph song of life.**

*Mother

**African American Heritage Hymnal, (2001)

Other worship elements:

Hymn:  Comfort, Comfort You My People #3

Hymn: Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee #464

Hymn:  All My Heart Today Rejoices #21

Prayer of confession:

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo.  Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgement.  Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image; through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.  Amen.

Prayer of the Day:

Eternal God, as you led your people in ages past, you direct our journey into the future.  We give you thanks that you came to us in Jesus Christ, and we eagerly await his coming again that his rule may be complete and your righteousness reign over all the world.  Then we will feast at his royal banquet and sing his praises with the choirs of heaven.  By your Spirit, open our eyes to the generosity of your hand, and nurture our souls in all spiritual gifts.  Fill us with gratitude overflowing that we may share life and love in praise to you, God of all the ages, in the gracious name of Jesus Christ, who taught us when we pray to say…

Offering:

Let us magnify the Lord, rejoicing in the one who scatters the proud, lifts up the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things. (Luke 1:46-47, 51-53)

Out of the embrace of mercy and righteousness, you have brought forth joy and dignity for your people, O Holy One of Israel.  Remember now your ancient promise: make straight the paths that lead to you, and smooth the rough ways, that in our day we might bring forth your compassion for all humanity. Amen.

Benediction: Philippians 4:4-7
4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
4:5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
4:6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’


[1] Feasting word advent companion p.56

[2] Page 52-53

[3] Page 60

[4] Feasting word advent companion p.56

[5] Feasting word advent companion p.62

[6] Feasting word advent companion pp. 62-63

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