God is Among You
Topic: You're Worthy - God's Sacrifice Scripture: Luke 17:20–17:21, Zephaniah 3:14–3:20
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the church season that precedes Christmas and culminates in the incarnation of Christ. This season is a time to prepare ourselves spiritually. It is a space given to us, to repent our sins, to reflect on our bad habits and try to change them, and to examine how we might have distanced ourselves from God. We seek a deeper experience of Immanuel - God with us.
The prophet Zephaniah began with a hard - extremely hard - word to the people of Israel. You’re done, he declared. God will wipe you from the face of the earth. He started with a word of no hope, but, commentators have observed he doesn’t stay there. He moved from no hope to a glimmer of hope, to full and astonishing hope.
In chapter one, he described Israel’s spiritual condition unsparingly. Two verses, in particular, examine the thought processes that resulted in judgment. “The people say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’” (1:12). In other words, they thought they didn’t need to consider God at all. God would do nothing, good or bad. God was irrelevant to their plans. They could get away with murder. Their theology was the opposite of “Immanuel.”
The second verse that jumps is 2:15.”Is this the proud city that lived secure, that said to itself, ‘I am, and there is no other’?” This is breathtaking. Human society, says Zephaniah, has taken the very name of God, and applied it to itself. God had revealed the name “I am” to Moses. Now, in a terrible twist, the city declares, “I am, and there is none beside me.” They are a deity unto themselves, in charge of their own destiny, or so they thought.
This society, placing itself on the throne and dismissing the true God, would soon be reduced to rubble. Grass would grow in its streets, and its ruined structures we become the haunt of rats and wild dogs. If Christmas had existed back then, nobody would have been feeling very Christmassy that year.
It’s all pretty devastating. Where then is the hope? Even a glimmer of hope? You’re not going to end this movie here, are you Zephaniah?
In Chapter 3, verse 12, we catch that glimmer. Thus says the Lord: “I will leave in the midst of you a people lowly and humble. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord—the remnant of Israel. They shall do no wrong, and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.”
He’s describing the fruit of repentance. It’s a turning away from sin and unrighteousness, and a turning to the living God. Twice in the third chapter, Zephaniah affirms: God isn’t distant. God isn’t busy with other things. God is closer than you realize. “Sing, O daughter of Zion, and exalt with all your heart.” Matt will lead our class on great songs and carols this morning, with attention to the cause for our singing. Why were the people encouraged to sing? “Because the Lord has taken away the judgments against you, and has turned your enemies back.”
This is gospel. We, of course, must turn and return to God, but our great hope lies in the fact that God has turned to us, in Jesus. Christ is our hope, by His wounds we are healed, and God has placed on Him the judgment that should have fallen on us. This is what it means to be justified in God’s sight. One way to remember its meaning is this: in Christ, and because of Christ, it is “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned—so I’m justified. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, declares the old song, how can I keep from singing? The Lord is with you, and among you, and will give you the victory over every challenge.
All that is miracle enough. But Zephaniah offers a final, startling image. We sing to God, of course. But here we find that God sings to us! Chapter 3, verse 17: “God will rejoice over you with gladness, God will renew you in his love. He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” Wow! God loves you so much and is so happy with you, that he sings about it, loudly. I tried to wrap my mind around that unexpected picture. What kind of voice does God have—basso profundo—or the sweet melody of a little girl? I thought of Justin Tucker, who plays for the Baltimore Ravens and is one of the best placekickers in NFL history. He is also an accomplished opera singer. Those two pursuits don’t seem to fit together. Yet there it is.
God, the creator, and redeemer of the universe sings over his people. What song is God singing to you? Remember that it is a song of joy, and it renews you in God’s love.
Sometimes we can be so angry with ourselves, or so guilty and ashamed, that we can’t believe that God takes delight in us: maybe others, but not me. I don’t deserve that kind of joy from God. I know a young person who got terribly mad at herself because she came in second on a math test instead of first. She felt completely unworthy. Next day her teacher assured her she was doing fine. When she heard it from this authority figure, she believed it. We can get so down on ourselves. God can sometimes seem far away, and the last thing we can imagine is God singing with delight over us.
Yet, the message of Christmas is just this: the One who was born in Bethlehem, and lived and died and rose and lives for us, is the most powerful sign that God loves you—on bad days, and good days, and everything in between.
So in these days of Advent, let us take stock of our lives, and invite Christ in once more. And listen to God’s song—God’s love song—to you.