December 14, 2020, 4:00 AM

An Advent Reflection on Zephaniah

“The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”



We know already that the defining mark of Advent is that it is season of waiting. It is also a season of waiting faithfully – that is to say that it is a time of spiritual preparation for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to add a third ingredient to the Advent formula: Advent is a time of waiting faithfully, waiting faithfully with great joy. Yes, that’s right; I said joy. Even as Advent does remind us of the darkness of the world.


I know that it seems sometimes that joyful Christian is somewhat of a Presbyterian oxymoron. How dare anyone come into this place and smile or be happy! Imagine that! We are Presbyterian.  We do all things decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). We are certainly people who know the sanctifying value in waiting. We surely know the value of preparing ourselves for the Great Day of the Lord; but this joy thing is frivolous, shallow and so unbecoming of our Reformed theological pedigree. We are after all, the frozen chosen – are we not?


Like it or not, I’m afraid that is the caricature that has stuck to the Church of Jesus Christ for far too long.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years.  His mind, wit and work earned him the unofficial title of “the greatest justice since John Marshall.” At one point in his life, Justice Holmes explained his choice of a career by saying: “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”


However, despite our reputation as a dour crowd, the prophet Zephaniah seems to be a contrarian voice to doom and gloom! Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” (Zeph. 3:14)


On the surface of things, I must tell you that this note of joy seems somewhat strange and misplaced in this prophecy. If you turn back to the first chapter of Zephaniah, it contains one of the most foreboding and fierce descriptions of the coming Day of the Lord when God comes back to set things finally aright.


“The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. (Zeph. 1:14-18)


Things don’t get much better in the second chapter. Judgment there is described as covering the entire earth, from the north to the south, to the east and west; no one will be immune from God’s searching judgment. These are hard words, no matter how you parse them.


In historical context, it’s easy to see why Zephaniah was given this kind of word from God. Zephaniah was prophesying on the heels of the most corrupt, evil dark time in the life of Judah as a nation. The kingship of Manasseh had recently ended after 55 long years. During the reign of King Manasseh, Judah was lead irrevocably down a path of apostasy. Worship of God was neglected and the religion that remained was profane in the eyes of God. As an example of the decay that came with the reign of Manasseh, the detestable practice of child sacrifice was practiced among God’s people. The king even made some of his own sons pass through the flame. It is said that the blood of the prophets ran freely in Jerusalem during his reign. Tradition has it that he had the prophet Isaiah sawed in two for his faithful witness to God’s ways. Given this particular context in the life of Israel, God appears less the vindictive, knee-jerk tyrant; and more like a hurting, rejected, disappointed deity.


After finishing the first two chapters of Zephaniah, one would think that the third chapter of Zephaniah would logically describe something like we see in Genesis 6 with Noah and his family: God indeed wiping the slate clean of all sin, evil and human rebellion – starting all over and doing it right.


However, that’s not what happens! Instead, you hear Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil… The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zeph. 3:15,17)


In response to our faithlessness, God will be faithful. In response to our sin; God saves us. In response to our lack of love, God will love us through and through. In response to our propensity to evil; God smothers it ultimately with His goodness. Sin shall have no dominion. Shame will have no place in God’s Kingdom. Death will not overshadow and snuff out life any longer. In fact, all three things that God wants to define us – singing, exulting and rejoicing are the very things that God will do on our behalf. He will delight in us. These are the things that God truly longs to do on our behalf!


We were never designed to live apart from God. We were designed (our chief end), as the first question of the Shorter Catechism so memorably puts it: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever!


These are the very same things that are reaffirmed in the prophecy of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist in Luke 1. But not only are these things reaffirmed, the way that God will fulfill these things is revealed: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us….” (Luke 1:68-71) Sound familiar? It should. It is the word of the prophets of old, but the New Testament is able to flesh it further: “The sunrise [that is Christ] shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (1:78-79)


This is the prophetic muscle that makes the baby in Bethlehem at Christmas so special. The incarnation of the Son of God marks the historical spot in time where God put His plan of redemption into motion. In the words of Zephaniah 3:17, it meant that the LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save….”  This is why we can sing the words to “Joy to the World” and really mean it!


So. How can we have a reputation, as Presbyterians – Christians in general – of not being joyful? How can we look at the worship of God as just an option amongst many other options in life? How can we find the things of the Lord boring at worst or mundane at best? How can we not be excited and joyful at the work of God in our lives through Jesus Christ?


C.S. Lewis addressed this concern many years ago in the way that only he could: “Our Lord finds our desires [joys] not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.”


The LORD your God is in your midst!
A Mighty One who will save!

He will rejoice over you with gladness!
He will quiet you by his love!
He will exult over you with loud singing!

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