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“A Theology of Joy”

Zephaniah 3:14-20    A Song of Joy

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18     as on a day of festival.[e]
I will remove disaster from you,[f]
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 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.
20 At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

 

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice[c] in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[f] these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

“What does joy mean to you?  What does joy look like?”

I posed these two questions to friends, family, and PCM students as I was researching joy this week. Their responses were illuminating:

There was clear consensus that there’s a distinct difference between happiness and joy. One said, “You feel joy in your bones.” Another declared joy is sustained while happiness is fleeting. There is a depth and grit to joy that happiness lacks. Joy was described as unshakable, persistent, unexpected, unplanned. Joy includes a sense of wonder or of being awestruck.

~ Folks told me that:  Joy looks like a baby discovering bubbles for the first time.

Joy looks like my cat laying on my chest and purring.

Joy looks like kids canoeing at camp, and their delight when they dip their paddle in the water for the first time and propel themselves forward.

A friend shared, “When I think of joy, I think of my mom’s eyes and her amazed expression when she is surprised by something she wasn’t expecting.”

 

Wendell Berry, a writer and theologian, describes the joy found in nature when he writes:

I sat one summer evening and watched a great blue heron make his descent from the top of the hill into the valley. He came down at a measured deliberate pace, stately as always, like a dignitary going down a stair. And then, at a point I judged to be midway over the river, without at all varying his wingbeat he did a backward turn in the air, a loop-the-loop. It could only have been a gesture of pure exuberance, of joy — a speaking of his sense of the evening, the day’s fulfillment, his descent homeward. He made just that one slow turn, and then flew on out of sight in the direction of the slew farther down in the bottom. The movement was incredibly beautiful, at once exultant and stately, a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me. It seemed so perfectly to confirm the presence of a free nonhuman joy in the world.[1]

 

These glimpses of joy are not scheduled in your Google calendar; you can’t plan to feel a sense of joy beginning precisely at 3:15 pm this afternoon. And yet, both the prophet Zephaniah and the apostle Paul instruct God’s people to sing with exultation, to let go of worry and fear, to rejoice. On this third Sunday of Advent, in this season of waiting and watching, our scriptures today charge God’s people to join their voices and attune their hearts with the joy and peace of the loving God.

 

At first, this may seem like a forced call to follow Pollyanna’s way in the world and not Christ. These passages may strike you as a better fit for a Hallmark card than a command on how to live. But the full context of both directives creates a clearer understanding.

 

The book of Zephaniah was likely written in the seventh century BCE, during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. The prophet Zephaniah catches God’s people following false gods, surrounded by widespread corruption and rampant injustice during their time of exile and oppression by Babylon. The majority of the book can be described as judgement oracles.  Dr. Angela Bauer-Levesque writes that these warnings are “invoking the day of the Lord (Zeph. 1:2—3:8), a special day when all will be judged and found in breach of the covenant. Indeed, the prophet Zephaniah announces cosmic destruction.”[2] Our text today reminds the people that God is still in their midst, despite their disobedience. The prophet proclaims good news, that the “divine presence will bring universal liberation from oppression, illness, and social ostracism.”[3] The proclamation to sing and rejoice with gladness gains its gravity within the “context of judgement and impeding destruction.”  God’s promise to gather the people and bring them home is not a Disney-esque dream world. The Lord’s declaration to change shame to praise and a renewal of God’s love bridges “Jerusalem [as] the unfaithful and corrupt placed alongside Jerusalem the city of universal rejoicing and justice.”[4] Pain and hardship are acknowledged with joyful singing and promised liberation.

 

Turning to the New Testament, Paul’s circumstances are dire as well. He is writing from a prison cell. In the verses right before our passage begins, Paul names the tension between two different female leaders in the congregation, urging them to work together in peace instead of continuing in conflict. Earlier in the letter, Paul warns against opponents (1:28) and false teachers leading the flock astray (3:2). Instead of dwelling on their own strife and division, Paul exhorts the church to be gentle to each other and to serve their community, noting that the Lord is near, both temporally and spiritually. After naming their difficulties, Paul prays that the peace of God will be the core of the church’s experience and their mission.

 

The fullness of today’s scripture passages speaks to the whole picture; the Lord is near, even in times of struggle and hardship. People of faith are called to trust in the presence of God, in the joy that will come in the morning, in the amazement of finding an infant beneath the star, in the peace that surpasses understanding in finding the tomb empty.  This theology of joy does not ignore nor diminish the brokenness we face.

God is in the midst of the famine and warfare in Yemen.[5] The Lord is in the midst of the protesters in yellow vests in Paris, and the Lord is in the midst of the police they face in the streets.[6] The Lord is near to the family grieving the death of a seven-year-old girl from Guatemala, who died this week in the custody of the US Border Patrol.[7] God was there with the families of our own two church members, who experienced death and grief this week. Just like the people who heard the prophet or those who read Paul’s words for the first time, our hearts may be heavy with heartache and fear.

 

But we don’t have to pretend that we’re fine here in church. We don’t have to hold it together for the hour in the pew. The joy of the Lord is not forced or fake. During this season of glittering lights, silly sweaters, and smiling family photos, you don’t have to force a smile or pretend to be joyful in church. I love the way writer Glennon Doyle Melton says it, “Acting like everything’s all right at church is like getting really dressed up…for an x-ray.” Ideally, church is a safe space to be real and raw, to be honest and vulnerable. So, if you are not feeling like joining the heavenly chorus this year, that’s okay. If the wonder of the season is overwhelmed by grief in your heart, you are welcome through our doors. There is a place for you here; God has space for you too, just as you are. Tonight, you are invited back, to acknowledge the suffering and the grief through a special worship service. Tonight, we will gather in this same space at 5 pm for our Service of the Longest Night. We are not immune to the heartache and hurt of the world, to the brokenness in our bodies and relationships, to the longing to be gathered together and to feel at home. Today’s texts are a reminder that God is in midst; the Lord is near no matter what. If joy is too much to ask of your heart today, if your spirit is too weary to sing, then come back tonight. The oppressed exiles in Jerusalem will guide your way; God is not a stranger to the wilderness. The disgruntled, fighting folks of the early church in Philippi will understand your search for peace, and Christ Jesus will guard your hearts and your minds.

 

While we can hold on to the assurance that God is near no matter how our heart feels, ultimately there is good news in God’s theology of joy. Yes, God is in the midst of our suffering. Yes, God meets us where we are, no matter what we do or leave undone. And yes, God ultimately calls us beloved and gathers us home; the Lord will turn our shame into singing and our despair into rejoicing.  The final word is one of hope and peace. A peace that surpasses all understanding, according to one biblical scholar, such a “peace is nonrational, suprarational, or perhaps, even irrational.  … It is a peace that may pass our understanding, but in God’s realm, is blessedly within our reach.”[8]

I’ll close with one final glimpse of joy from my family. My mom’s cousin Carolyn was recently featured in The New York Times. Carolyn is a retired psychologist who lives up in Ithaca, NY. The newspaper headline read, “2 New Yorkers Erased $1.5 Million in Medical Debt for Hundreds of Strangers.” Carolyn and her friend Judith

heard about R.I.P. Medical Debt, which purchases bundles of past-due medical bills and forgives them to help those in need. So [they] decided to start a fund-raising campaign of their own to assist people with medical debt in New York. Over the summer months, the[y] raised $12,500 and sent it to the debt-forgiveness charity, which then purchased a portfolio of $1.5 million of medical debts on their behalf, for about half a penny on the dollar.[9]

Through their efforts, cousin Carolyn and Judith made a difference for “1,284 New Yorkers who had their debts forgiven [and who] live in 40 of the state’s 62 counties, from Westchester to Chautauqua.” Slim, yellow envelopes were mailed with the good news.  Can you imagine the joy of receiving such a letter, out of the blue, that your medical debt has been paid for by a group from Ithaca? Can you picture the faces of parents, teachers, and waiters after they realize that the letter is not junk mail, but a release of worry and financial anxiety? My cousin Carolyn and her friends sent joy and liberation through the post office this Christmas.

According to Zephaniah, God intends to restore our fortunes, to take away our fear, and to call us all home, singing songs of praise and joy. According to Paul, who was in prison and faced a menacing future, we can rejoice in the Lord always. The Lord is near! Our God promises restoration and wholeness through the power of Jesus Christ. Our God gives us faith to live joyfully, sustained by God’s promises and power, even when we face difficult days. The Lord is near! And we eagerly await the day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. And that’s joy—for you and for me and for the world.

Benediction:

May joy and nothing less find you on the way.

May you be blessed and may you continue to be a blessing.

And may light, love’s own crucified, risen light,

guide you and countless others all the way home.  Shalom.[10]

 

 

[1] Berry, Wendell. The Art of the Commonplace. quoted in https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/02/wendell-berry-great-blue-heron/

[2] Bauer-Levesque, Angela. “Zephaniah 3:14-20” Feasting on the Word. Year C, vol. 1.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 53.

[3] Ibid, 55.

[4] Bauer-Levesque, Angela. “Zephaniah 3:14-20” Feasting on the Word. Year C, vol. 1.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 55.

[5] “Yemen on Brink of ‘Worst Famine in 100 Years’” BBC News, On the Ground. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06nxzzx

[6] “France ‘yellow vest’ protesters defy government to gather” BBC News. December 15, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46577598

[7] “7-year-old migrant girl taken into Border Patrol custody dies of dehydration, exhaustion” The Washington Post. December 13, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/7-year-old-migrant-girl-taken-into-border-patrol-custody-dies-of-dehydration-exhaustion/2018/12/13/8909e356-ff03-11e8-862a-b6a6f3ce8199_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fe4ca3267853

[8] Evans, Jr. James H. “Philippians 4:4-7” Feasting on the Word. Year C, vol. 1.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 66.

[9] “2 New Yorkers Erased $1.5 Million in Medical Debt for Hundreds of Strangers” The New York Times. December 5, 2018.  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/nyregion/medical-debt-charity-ny.html

[10] Dr. Carson Brisson’s benediction after teaching Hebrew classes at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Used with permission.

Kate Fiedler , Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries

Email: kate@upcch.org

Phone: (919) 929.2102 ext. 130

Bio:

Kate joined the staff in November of 2014 as the Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries. She focuses her energy on strengthening the adult education program, coordinating congregational life events, and extending warm hospitality to new members. Kate grew up in Virginia and North Carolina, and she has moved back and forth across the state line seven times. She is a graduate of Davidson College and Union Presbyterian Seminary. Before arriving in Chapel Hill, Kate served as the Associate Chaplain at Trinity Episcopal School in Charlotte–teaching third through eighth graders–and then as the Director of Admissions at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Kate enjoys road trips, live music, reading, exploring new restaurants, and cheering on her favorite sports teams: the Bears, the Cubs, and the Tar Heels.