The third Sunday of Advent traditionally has a focus on joy. And, indeed, almost all the texts for this Sunday speak of joy.
Our reading from Zephaniah sets the tone: "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!" (3:14). The prophet piles on the exhortations to joy: exult, rejoice, sing, shout!
Why this invitation to sing the Hallelujah Chorus? Because the LORD has issued a pardon and commuted Israel's sentence. The judgments against Judah and Jerusalem are turned aside, and the nation (or at least a remnant thereof) is set free (see Zephaniah 3:12-13).
According to the superscription of the book (Zephaniah 1:1), Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE), before the Babylonian exile. The passage chosen as the reading for today, however, may have been added after the exile. It differs markedly in tone from the earlier parts of the book (which are largely about judgment) and it speaks of "gathering" the outcasts (3:19-20).
Whether the passage is exilic or pre-exilic, the message is clear: God is for Israel. God has forgiven her iniquities, which are detailed earlier in the book--syncretism (1:4-6); complacency (1:12); corrupt leaders (3:3-4); injustice (3:1, 5). And not only is "daughter Zion" forgiven, but the LORD himself is with her. Therefore, says the prophet, "Fear not!" (3:16). It is the injunction spoken to everyone who encounters the near presence of the LORD, or the LORD's angel, a presence gracious but nonetheless terrifying. In this Advent season, Zechariah and Mary both hear those words: Fear not!
Fear not. Do not be afraid. Why? Because "the king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst" (3:15). If this oracle is indeed exilic, it is addressing the loss of a Davidic monarch. Israel has no need of a descendant of David, the prophet seems to say; the LORD himself is Israel's king. And this king will not leave. He dwells in the midst of his people so that they need not fear disaster anymore.
The image shifts, from God as pardoning judge and king, to God as savior and warrior, one who rescues Israel from all her enemies. It is striking that in this verse (verse 17), some of the same words for "rejoicing" come up again; but this time, it is the LORD who is the subject of the verbs! Human beings are not the only ones who are filled with joy; God, too, bursts into song! Why? Because the relationship is restored. The love between God and Israel is renewed. We hear in verse 17 strong echoes of the biblical metaphor that pictures the relationship between God and Israel as a love affair, a marriage.
In the last few verses, the image shifts one more time, to God as shepherd, gathering the lame and the ones who have strayed, and bringing them home again. The LORD will give them a "name" (renown) and change their shame into praise, in the sight of "all the peoples of the earth" (3:19-20).
Any of these images, of course, could provide fruitful reflections for a sermon: God as forgiving judge, God as saving king and warrior, God as tender shepherd. Perhaps one of the most powerful images, however, on this Sunday devoted to joy, is the one that depicts God as the one who bursts into song with joy over God's beloved: "He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival" (3:17-18).
Such joy is not subdued; it is not quiet or dignified. The Hebrew words used in verse 17 are used elsewhere in the Bible to describe great jubilation. The LORD rejoices over his beloved, over Judah and Jerusalem, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (Isaiah 62:5). As David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant, in exultation, so God rejoices over God's people (2 Samuel 6). As the morning stars sang at the creation of the world, so God sings with elation over God's beloved (Job 38:7).
We are accustomed to images of God as judge. (Indeed, much of Zephaniah uses such imagery.) We are accustomed to images of God as shepherd, gathering the flock into the fold. But how often do we imagine God as one who rejoices? One who sings? Yet here, in our text, God and God's people alike are caught up in a joy that overflows into song, a joy that springs from love renewed, relationship restored.
This joy is not one-sided. It is not simply God's people who rejoice because God has forgiven and restored them. That is an altogether understandable reaction to God's redemption. It is not simply God's people who rejoice. God, too, sings and shouts with joy over this love restored. The divine heart overflows with jubilation!
This image of God bears no resemblance to Aristotle's "unmoved mover," or, indeed, to many people's image of a divine watchmaker who sets the world in motion and lets it go. (I think of the song, "From a Distance," made popular nearly twenty years ago by Bette Midler: "God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us...from a distance.")
No, this God is moved, is deeply affected, by human attitudes and actions. This God does not watch from a distance, but enters into the life of the world. This God enters even into human flesh, in the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation.
This Sunday, we speak of joy, the joy of a people redeemed and restored, but also the joy of a God who is deeply invested in the life of the world. God sings. God shouts. God rejoices. And we, we who are wondrously and inexplicably God's beloved, join in the celebration.