JOY INSTEAD OF JUDGMENT
Text: Zephaniah 3:14-17
A few months ago, my brother-in-law was called into his boss’s office along with one of the other employees. Because layoffs had already hit others, they figured that they were next. I suppose that they mentally braced themselves for the bad news they expected to hear. You can imagine their surprise when their boss sat them down in his office and said, “Due to the economy, we have to have another round of layoffs. The two of you are the only ones we’re keeping.” Now, that’s not exactly great news. No one likes to hear that others are losing their jobs. But they were expecting a pink slip, and instead they got some personal good news—perhaps not in the way they’d like to get good news, but still good news for them personally.
If you could travel back in time and space to the setting that today’s First Lesson was written in, and if you could interview the people that lived in ancient Judah at that time, you might find a nation of people who were expecting to be hit by some pretty awful news. I’m not talking about unemployment. I’m talking about being on the wrong side of God’s judgment. Our First Lesson comes from a little, three-chapter long Old Testament book called Zephaniah. The first two and a half chapters of Zephaniah are packed with hellfire and brimstone. God was more than a little displeased with the moral depravity of his ancient people, and God did not pull his punches when he described what his people had coming. But when Zephaniah’s book reached its final section, God’s words took a very unexpected turn. This was a turn far more profound than someone who expects a layoff hearing that he still has a job. Here was a group of people expecting the thunderbolts of God’s judgment, and instead they were given an unexpected and undeserved message of pure joy. Joy instead of judgment—that is the gist of what Zephaniah has to say in our First Lesson.
I’m fairly certain that there are not too many of us here today who know what the state of affairs were like in Judah around 630 B.C. And I’m equally certain that there are not too many of us here today who know much about the Old Testament book called Zephaniah. So allow me to set the scene for you, because the larger scene will help us appreciate the specific words in today’s First Lesson.
Zephaniah was a prophet who traced his ancestry back to Hezekiah, one of the godliest kings in Judah’s history. Since there was royal blood in his ancestry, Zephaniah was also a distant relative of the king who reigned in Judah at the time he served as a prophet; that was King Josiah. Josiah, like Hezekiah, was one of the good, moral, godly kings of Judah. But Josiah took over the kingdom at a time when the nation was a spiritual cesspool. One of the history books in the Old Testament tells us how Josiah tried to make a clean sweep of all the idolatrous practices in ancient Israel:
“In the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, [Josiah] began to seek the God of his father David. In his twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of high places, Asherah poles, carved idols and cast images. Under his direction the altars of the Baals were torn down; he cut to pieces the incense altars that were above them, and smashed the Asherah poles, the idols and the images. These he broke to pieces and scattered over the graves of those who had sacrificed to them” (2 Chronicles 34:3-4).
We’d give an “A+” to Josiah for his reforms and for restoration of a godly direction in the nation, but we’d also have to give an “F” to the nation of Judah for constantly sinking into sin. It’s no surprise that prophets like Jeremiah and Zephaniah, who lived at this time, supported Josiah’s reforms with their prophetic work. In his short book, Zephaniah repeatedly referred to the “day of the Lord” – a day that was coming in their future when God would dish out his just judgment for all the godless and moral filth that permeated ancient Judah. Read through the first two and a half chapters of Zephaniah’s little book. You won’t get any hint of a “happily ever after” ending. Zephaniah’s words in this book make John the Baptist’s warnings in today’s Gospel sound like “Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood” by comparison. Judgment, judgment, judgment—that was Zephaniah’s message.
Imagine the complete shock and surprise Zephaniah’s audience experienced when they came across these words in today’s First Lesson from the end of Zephaniah’s book. These people should have expected a message of just judgment, but Zephaniah surprises them with a message of unexpected joy. “Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! 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.”
Anytime someone repeats himself, you know he is trying to make an important point. When Zephaniah says the same thing four times at the start of our reading, you know he is trying to make an important point. “Sing!” “Shout aloud!” “Be glad and rejoice!” In four different ways, Zephaniah tells his readers to rejoice. We have already explained why they would not have seen this coming. Why should they rejoice over a hellfire and brimstone day of the Lord coming in their future? “Repent” might be a better word for them—and that was certainly the message God had proclaimed through Zephaniah’s earlier comments. But now the message is clearly, “Rejoice!” And that begs the question: Why?
Here comes the news that none of them could have predicted. “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.”
Breaking news! These people were getting ready to duck at the oncoming thunderbolts of God’s judgment for sin. Instead, “The Lord has taken away your punishment.” Zephaniah previews God’s greatest act in all of human history and delivers news that Judah did not expect. They could stand before God on the last, great “day of the Lord,” because “the Lord has taken away your punishment.” Zephaniah previews for his people and reviews for us God’s unexpected and undeserved grace in Christ. Hundreds of years after Zephaniah did his work, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did his redeeming and reconciling work on the cross. Another Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, vividly spoke about Jesus’ redeeming work in his book: “He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Everything that Judah had coming, came to Jesus as he endured God’s judgment for sin on the cross. The judgment for sin is gone—and so is the barrier between God and mankind! That’s why Zephaniah adds, “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.” God gives them joy instead of judgment!
One of the realities of being a parent is that you are always cleaning up someone else’s mess. Your children scatter their toys all over the living room, and pretty soon it’s almost impossible to take a step without stepping on something that’s not supposed to be there. Even if you teach your children to clean up after themselves, you help them clean up their toys because you want them to stay focused on their task and to make sure everything is properly cleaned up. Those are moments that you don’t exactly relish, but that’s simply reality when you are a parent.
Imagine the mess that our sins must look like to God. He calls on his children to love him wholeheartedly, but we place anything and everything higher on our personal priority list. He calls us to love others to the same degree that we love ourselves, and we look at others—even others in our family or in our church—like they are a nuisance, an inconvenience, an unlovable and undesirable intrusion into our lives. Truth be told, Tiger Woods isn’t the only one who has made a mess of his life. Each of us in our own way, a way that may not be scandalous to the world but still offensive to God, has messed our lives with sin. And so God, our heavenly Father, sent his Son to clean up our mess, to pay the penalty for our sin, and to undo the otherwise eternal damage we had done.
That sounds like a task God wouldn’t exactly relish. But in another unexpected statement, Zephaniah tells us that God relished and rejoiced at the opportunity to rescue us. “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.” Think about that! God not only cleaned up our mess, but he rejoices over our cleaned-up status. Jesus not only endured your hell on the cross, but he was willing and determined to endure it on your behalf! Jesus not only faced the death your sin deserved, but then he conquered death for you! God delights in the people he has made his own, and that means that he delights in you! Not only does he give you joy instead of judgment, but it brings him joy to give you the joy of his forgiveness.
Last Sunday, the Word of God really let us “have it!” The Second Sunday of Advent has a strong repentance focus. Last Sunday we were reminded how serious sin is, and how seriously we ought to listen to God’s call to repent. Critics will say that a hard-hitting repentance message is just an artifact of Medieval Christianity or pagan religion. Skeptics will claim that a hard-hitting repentance message is just the church’s way to manipulate people. But God’s call to repent is very real and relevant.
Perhaps you felt the flames of hell nipping at your feet when we talked about repentance last Sunday. Perhaps you feel the judgment of God coming down from the heavens as you listened to Zephaniah’s words today. As much as that may make you uncomfortable, a spiritual reality check like that is good. We live in a world that psychologizes sin away and sanitizes death. Seldom do we come to grips with the reality that God’s judgment is coming, and that our life’s story ought to put us on the wrong side of that judgment.
God wants you realize that. He wants you to know that his Son’s judgment is coming and that you ought not be on the right side of his judgment when Christ returns. He wants you to know that so that he can take you by surprise with his shockingly generous grace. He wants to fill your hearts with joy and take away your fear of judgment. And in his Son Jesus, he has. “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). “Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25). “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The Second Sunday of Advent has a strong repentance focus—and you probably sensed that last week. The Third Sunday of Advent has a strong joy focus—and I hope you sense that today. In fact, last Sunday’s message of judgment helps us to appreciate this Sunday’s message of joy. We can hardly appreciate the news that Jesus came to be our Savior if we do not recognize that we need a Savior in the first place. We can hardly appreciate the joy of the redeemed if we do not understand that we were once heading for the judgment of the damned. The final judgment is still coming, but for you whose trust is in the wounds of your Savior, that day will be a day of joy. Jesus has given you forgiveness and faith now, and a heavenly future with him forever. Jesus has given you joy instead of judgment. “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.” Amen.