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Sunday, December 13, 2015

God’s Silent Song of Joy – An Advent Sermon

We’ve come now to the third Sunday of Advent – the Sunday usually marked for the subject of joy. In the first week we spoke of the coming messianic king, and the city where he rules, and the people of that community, as well as the name that they all (king, city, congregation) share–“Yahweh Is My Saving Justice.”  In the second week–last week–we spoke of another name, the name that God gives to his people forever, to the people who have wrapped themselves in the cloak of his saving justice–and that name is: “Peace through Justice, and Glory through Devotion.”

The first week’s sermon came from the writings of Jeremiah, and the second’s were attributed to (though not likely written by) Jeremiah’s sidekick and scribe, Baruch ben Neriah. In this third week we continue with another indirect connection to the prophet Jeremiah. Zephaniah, whose words we’ve read this morning, was a contemporary of Jeremiah.

However many biblical scholars believe that the portion of Zephaniah’s book that we’re looking at this morning (3:14 – 20) was added later by a student or disciple of the prophet. “Current study tends to assign the greater part of the book to the 7th century prophet, recognizing that the book may have been expanded in the exilic and post exilic periods” (Kselman 1078).  The two final psalms that bring this short prophetic book to a close bear significant differences from the rest of the words of the prophet–differences that may indicate another contributing author or editor.
However it was that the words came to us, we will speak, and sing, and shout for joy today:

“Shout for joy, daughter of Zion,
Israel, shout aloud!
Rejoice, exult with all your heart,
daughter of Jerusalem.”
(Zephaniah 3:14, NJB)

This extended holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve–which encompasses Advent and Christmas (as well as numerous holidays in other religious traditions) is often described as a season of joy. It is bright and cheerful. We put up trees, and wreathes, and decorations, and lights to warm our hearts against the cold winter winds and blowing snow (of which, we’ve had very little this year…).

We sing: “Joy to the World,” (Watts) and “Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn, a Savior unto us is born” (Boye). We sing: “Once again my heart rejoices as I hear, far and near, sweetest angel voices; ‘Christ is born,’ their choirs are singing, till the air ev’rywhere now with joy is ringing” (Gerhardt).

It is a time of festivities and parties, a time of celebration and joy.  We give gifts and eat special cookies. We gather with family and enjoy ourselves.

But, for many, the holiday season is not all warmth, and smiles, and Christmas joy. There is grief, and pain just below the surface. There is loneliness and weariness. It’s not often recognized but holiday depression is a very real thing. Though it is a myth that suicide rates increase during the Christmas season (Burton) many individuals feel socially isolated from their peers who seem to be enjoying themselves so much. Those who have lost a spouse or partner often find the holidays especially difficult to endure. And even those who usually find joy and good cheer during this time of year, may find themselves troubled by the news of the world. The days seem dark and the nights very long. Joy, for many of us, is hard to see. The song of Joy is difficult to hear.

I’ve said for the past two weeks that the season of Advent is a time of expectation, a time of preparation, and anticipation. We are looking forward to the joyful celebration of Christ’s coming–both the celebration of his coming as an infant in Bethlehem as well as his glorious coming again. But before we move forward into that joy it is important (and necessary) to look backwards first. Before we can go forward in anticipation of that great joy, we should look back to see where we’ve been.

Our text, these final two psalms of joy in Zephaniah’s book, is addressed to the Jewish exiles who’d been taken away into Babylonian captivity. These psalms bring a hopeful epilogue to a book otherwise focused on the judgement and destruction of the dark and dreadful “Day of the Lord.” But the coming of the day of Lord was, for Zephaniah, not only a time of grim punishment for the wicked –both in Judah and in the nations around – but also a day of salvation and restoration. It was both Retribution and Redemption. (DiGangi 99)

After the extravagant destruction of the city of Jerusalem, after the plundering and razing of Solomon’s temple, after long years of exile in a strange and distant land, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Israel were encouraged to sing and rejoice because their time of trouble was over, their shame was lifted, their sentence repealed. They would go home again. They would stand on the hills and watch their children, once forcibly scattered, come back from the various places they had been taken.

Shout for joy, daughter of Zion,
Israel, shout aloud!
Rejoice, exult with all your heart,
daughter of Jerusalem.
(Zephaniah 3:14 NJB)

But even better than the opportunity to go home again.  Even greater than the restoration of their abducted children. Even greater than these things – they were to sing and shout for joy because Yahweh, their saving God and King would be there with them, would be there among them.

In his vision of the city of Jerusalem, just before its destruction, the prophet Ezekiel saw the Cherubim, those winged creatures that carry the heavenly throne of God, rise up from the center of the city, and “with the glory of the God of Israel” depart from Jerusalem. (Ezekiel 11: 22 – 23).  In another apocalyptic book attributed to (but not written by) Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch is said to have heard a voice crying out from the abandoned temple:

“Enter, you enemies,
And come, you adversaries;
For he who kept the house has forsaken (it).”
(2 Baruch / Apocalypse of Baruch 8:2)

The people of Israel, the chosen people felt abandoned by God-forsaken, left to wither away and die in the despair of their Babylonian exile. But, after so many long years, the prophet tells them to Rejoice! You’re going home. Rejoice, your children are coming back to you. But most of all: Rejoice because God is with you.

When that Day comes the message for Jerusalem will be:
Zion, have no fear,
do not let your hands fall limp.
Yahweh your God is there with you,
the warrior-Savior.
(Zephaniah 3:16 NJB)

And, what is more, He will be rejoicing too.  He will be singing happy songs (Zephaniah 3:17 NJB)

But this is where the message gets a little difficult. The Hebrew of the text is fairly clear with its words, but what to make of them is problematic; which is why you’ll find such variety when you compare the various translations of Zephaniah 3: 17.

The Hebrew of that verse says: “He will be silent in his love.”

He will sing happy songs with the returning remnant of Israel – but he will be silent with his love. His song is a silent song. Some translations, like the KJV, take a different tack to this verse and translate it as “He will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly.” If the words are clear, the meaning is uncertain.

But I like to try to hold both of these possible translations together in my head. He will gather the sorrowful together for a solemn assembly / he will sing (silent) happy songs of love over the returnees.

There is joy in this holiday season. There is joy in the advent preparation for Christmas. But sometimes that joy is hard to find. Sometimes that song of love is hard to hear.

I think of the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”- which was based on a poem by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow-written during the sorrowful years of the American civil war. Longfellow’s wife had recently died, and his eldest son, Charles, had run off to join the union army without his father’s permission or blessing. It was only a few months before Charles was severely wounded in battle. And for the poet, the world seemed very bleak. The bells rang out on Christmas day, but there was no joy in their song.

“And in despair I bowed my head:
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men.’”

For the people living in great darkness, under the shadow of death (Luke 1:79) the light of dawn seems very far away, and that song of joy is hard to hear. The people of Israel languishing in exile felt abandoned by God, lost in their darkness; they could not hear the song. African born slaves on plantations in the American south, listened for that song. People who’ve lost their husband or wife, or their children, listen hopefully for that strains of that song. Refugees fleeing the outbreak of war in their home countries cannot hear that song over the noise of explosions and gunfire. But God is singing a song of love for his people-great happy songs for those he loves.

The darkness of the world seems ready to swallow up the light of God’s presence. The noise and clatter of the events of our lives can drown out the music of God’s love for us. It is easy to despair. It is easy to give up, to say that God has given up on us, on me. It is easy to say we are lost and alone. Hate is strong and it mocks the song of love and joy and peace and goodwill.

But God is drawing those sorrowful people together for a solemn assembly. He is drawing us together with himself to sing for us and to us and over us.

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, good will to men.’”

We are joyful because God is with us. This is the reason for the season: that God has come down and dwelt among us, has made his home, his temple within us. We rejoice because God is with us, even when his silent song of love is difficult to hear. We rejoice, even in our despair. We find hope and joy in God’s eternal, abiding presence.

In the dark shadows of our lives-God is with us. In the noisy clamor of our struggle-God is with us. He is bringing the light of hope and a song of love to the sorrowful people that he has gathered to himself for a solemn assembly. He sings this happy, silent, song of love into our hearts. And we sing and rejoice because he is here.

O come now, Living Water, pour your grace,
and bring new life to every withered place;
speak comfort to each trembling heart:
“Be strong! Fear not, for I will ne’er depart.”

Rejoice! Rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.


Boye, Birgitte K. “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn.”

Burton, Neel, “Is Suicide More Common at Christmas Time: Seven Myths about Suicide.”, December 23, 2012. 

DiGangi, Mariano. 12 Prophetic Voices: Major Messages from the Minor Prophets. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books. 1989.

Gerhardt, Paul. “Once Again My Heart Rejoices.”

Longfellow, Henry Wordsworth. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” 

Lundblad, Barbara K. “O Come, O Come Immanuel”  

Kselman, John S. “Zephaniah, Book of” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. IV. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992.

New Jerusalem Bible. New York, NY. Doubleday. 1999.

Watts, Isaac, “Joy to the World.” 

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