As Peyton’s 16th birthday approached, Marc and I asked her how she’d like to celebrate. She’d never had a big birthday party before, and we thought this would be a good time to have one. She said what she really wanted was to get a bunch of friends together and dance. Because her friends came from many different groups—church, softball, the schools she had attended, volunteer work she had done—she also wanted to invite her guests to each bring a friend so everyone would know someone there. Beyond that, she didn’t want anything fancy—just her uncle to play some CDs, some cookies and snacks for refreshments, and instead of gifts for herself, supplies for the Humane Society. But, we did need a space big enough for a lot of dancing teenagers.
The downtown building we rehabbed some twenty years ago for Marc’s law offices was originally built as a car dealership, so it has a big garage. Marc jokingly said, “Hey, we could have your party in the garage and call it a ‘rave.’” On further reflection, that didn’t seem like such a good idea. But, the building does still have some large unfinished spaces with big windows looking out at the new wing of the library. So, we decided to have her party there. We hung streamers from the sprinkler pipes, taped down large poster board stars over the holes in the floor, got a bunch of balloons, put up some twinkly Christmas lights, and it worked great. It was such a happy night—everyone had so much fun!
A few days after the party, I went back into that room, and I was struck by how I felt there. I felt a peace-filled appreciation for the beauty of that night, for the young people who had attended and their energy and potential, gratitude for the privilege of being Peyton’s mom. And I thought, “This is what joy feels like.” Now, fifteen years later, I still feel that joy when I enter that space, and I am quicker to recognize joy when I feel it in other times and places, and especially in my relationship with God through Jesus.
We’ve been talking about what it means to be a place called Zion, looking to Scripture for clues about how to live as the namesake of God’s holy city. We’ve talked about what it means to be fruitful, and what it means to be unshakeable. And this week, we talk about what it means to be a joyful place called Zion. Because, no matter what challenges we’ve faced in the past, and no matter what challenges may come in the future, we have good reason to be joyful.
Joy comes to us by many paths. It comes, like that moment of mine, in the wake of a particularly happy time, when the giddiness wears off and you discover something more solid underneath. Sometimes it comes slowly—when appreciation and gratitude and contentment gradually accumulate and blend together. Sometimes it comes after we’ve royally messed up, and we are met with forgiveness and grace. Sometimes it even comes during or after hardship, when we realize that even in the midst of a difficult life-altering event we can meet each day with some degree of confidence and assurance, and there is joy in that.
This must have been how Zephaniah’s audience felt hearing his words. Zephaniah’s ministry took place during the reign of King Josiah. Josiah was a good king, but he followed some pretty bad ones. And during the reigns of those bad ones, many of God’s people had gone astray. They had worshipped other gods. They had abandoned their identity as God’s people and had adopted the customs of other nations. They had indulged in drunkenness and debauchery, and laughed at the idea that God would notice or take action.
The people of Jerusalem itself had not trusted in God; instead of accepting the correction God had offered in the past, they just rushed to make their deeds even more corrupt. Those who were entrusted with the wellbeing of the people and who should have been leaders in faithful living had ignored their responsibilities—public officials and judges preyed on the weak, the prophets were reckless, and the priests profaned what was sacred and did violence to the law. And, Zephaniah warned, when the people of God forget who and whose they are, bad things happen.
People in our world today live much like some did in the time of Zephaniah. On the surface it may look like a happy way of life. The world tells us: Buy more of the right stuff, and you’ll be satisfied. Drink the right beverage, wear the most fashionable clothes, associate with the right people, and you’ll be loved. Vote for the right party, go to the right school, get the right job, and you’ll be successful. Cultivate the wealthy and influential, ignore the needs of the poor and powerless, disregard the warnings of our present-day prophets, and you’ll be powerful. Do whatever feels good: God’s not paying any attention and won’t do anything if he does. Even churches fall under the spell of desiring popularity and worldly influence, and they ignore the call to care for the widow and orphan in order to build a base of political and social power.
It all looks good on the surface. But God does know where surface happiness masks emptiness and where the patina of power gilds underlying sin. Power built on this shifting ground will collapse. Happiness built on this insecure foundation is temporary and fickle. Eventually, it will be met by disaster.
But, that is not the end of the story. Through Zephaniah, God also speaks of new beginnings. God speaks of a time when all nations will join together in their praise of God and in their desire to serve God. God speaks of a time when God’s people will not be put to shame because of their past rebellions. God speaks of the time when the proudly exultant ones will be removed and haughtiness will be non-existent on Zion.
And, God speaks of those who remain faithful in the face of a scornful world. Listen to the words in Zephaniah that come before our passage: “For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord—the remnant of Israel.” To that remnant God issues a glorious invitation: to sing aloud and to shout with joy; to rejoice and exult with all their hearts.
And they will have so much to be joyful about! God will not only take away their judgment and shame but will turn it into praise. God will conquer their enemies and gather in the weak and the outcast. There will no longer be any cause for anyone to dangle their hands in grief and despair and confusion.
As glorious and joy-inducing as these promises are, there is one that is even more so. That is the promise of a renewed relationship with God—a new closeness, a new intimacy. God will dwell among them, right in the midst of them. And the joy of the people over their new circumstances will be matched, and maybe even exceeded, by God’s joy over them! God will
be ecstatic over this new beginning. Zephaniah says, “He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love. He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” Imagine how they must have felt, knowing that God would rejoice over them!
This promise for the people of Zephaniah’s time was God’s promise for the future. The promised joy was one they could only anticipate. That was good news for them. But we have heard even better news: the promises that God made have been fulfilled in Jesus, and we are invited to be part of the remnant who experiences the joy of God’s promises kept in Jesus Christ.
One by one we can see how, in Jesus, God’s promises have been fulfilled. “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies,” God says through Zephaniah. Through our faith in Jesus’ forgiveness, our guilt and the judgment which we could rightfully expect for our own sinfulness has been removed. The two greatest enemies we face—sin and death—have been defanged. In Jesus’ death on the cross, he showed that human sin cannot derail God’s mission for the world. In Jesus’ resurrection, God showed that death has no hold on us. We have no reason to fear it in this world, because we will live on in Christ. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God has kept the promise to take away judgment and turn away our enemies.
God says through Zephaniah, “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.” Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God in Christ is literally in the midst of us—in each of our hearts, and among us as his Church. The power of the Spirit enables us to turn away fear and the hand-wringing of confusion and anxiety and grief. Through the Holy Spirit, God has kept the promise to be in our midst.
God says through Zephaniah, “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.” In Jesus, God kept this promise. Time and time again, Jesus spoke truth to the powerful of his day, calling them out on the ways they were ignoring their call as God’s people. He reached out to the ones who lived at the margins of society—the socially and physically and mentally and emotionally challenged. Today, through bold prophets who dare to speak out against injustice and those who include and treasure the weak and powerless in Jesus’ name, God has kept the promise to deal with the oppressors and gather the outcast.
Finally, God promises, “I will bring you home.” We have been given a home in Jesus. Before he died, he told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for us. Certainly, there is that place not made with hands but eternal in the heavens where we will join him after our earthly lives are over. But we also have a home with him now. We are a part of his family now. Jesus assured us: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Through Jesus, God has kept God’s promise to bring God’s people home.
Zephaniah says, “He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love. He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” We are invited to claim the joy-filled life that comes through God’s fulfilled promises, and when we do, God joins us in our joy! God’s joy is the joy of a man who finds a lost sheep and gathers his friends and neighbors to celebrate. It is the joy of a woman who has found a lost coin and throws a party. It is the joy of a father who runs full tilt and throws his arms around a wayward son. This is joy accompanied by the pouring out of life-renewing waves of love. And where else do we find that kind of outpoured love but in Jesus?
This is the joy that was promised to the future remnant of Israel—the daughter of Zion. This is the joy of that promise kept in Jesus Christ. This is the joy we are invited to enter into with exultant singing and shouting that starts in the deepest parts of our hearts and bursts out through our voices.
Singing like that doesn’t go unnoticed by the world outside our doors. When we sing of the joy we find in Jesus, other people hear it and want to learn what makes us sing. Maybe that’s why John Wesley wrote a whole set of “Directions for Singing,” which still today are printed in the United Methodist Hymnal. He writes, “Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.” He might have added the words of Zephaniah, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
You may be sitting there thinking, “That’s all well and good, Pastor Carol, but I can’t carry a tune in a bucket! And won’t people think I’m a little weird if I burst into song as I walk down the aisle at the grocery store or the hall at school? And, who’s even going to hear us when we sing at church, when we can’t open the windows?” Well, I think we can add to our repertoire. We can demonstrate the joy we feel in our relationship with Jesus through our serving. We can be alert to the times when we can speak of how Jesus makes a difference in our lives, in the good times and the hard times.
And, maybe we should sing a little more boldly, even if we’re not great (or even good) vocalists, and even when the windows and doors are closed. Maybe we should take the advice of my Methodist Grandma Greenlee: “If you can’t sing good, sing loud.” Maybe we should sing exultantly and with our whole hearts so that the joy we feel will be an encouragement to those sitting right here with us in this room, and so God will hear the joy we find in him.
The expression of joy takes many forms, but true joy has only one source. That source is the love that God has for us—a love so great that God rejoices over us when we come to God through our faith in Jesus. This is a place where the joy of that love is received and given. This is a place where the joy of relationship with God is experienced. This is a place where the joy of being one body in Christ is lived out. This is a place—a joyful place called Zion—where we have every reason to sing aloud, exultantly and with our whole hearts. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young