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Be glad and rejoice with all your heart! “Why? What is there to rejoice about,” is the answer God’s people often give.
For the people of Zephaniah’s day, the future didn’t look rosy. They had lived through the wicked and oppressive rule of Manasseh and Amon and now their ruler was a child. The Assyrians had destroyed the kingdom of Israel and would have destroyed Judah if God had not intervened. Would Assyria try again? If so, how would they be able to defend themselves? Their lives were too filled with worry about the evil that they saw around them every day and the fear of what Assyria might do to rejoice with all their hearts.
Do you wonder what there is to rejoice about? Each day we feel the effects of inflation and supply chain issues. Every day we hear people arguing about vaccines and mandates and race, and the list goes on. We hear about school shootings and natural disasters. We wonder what will happen if China moves on Taiwan, or Russian moves on Ukraine, or Iran attacks Israel. We worry about our kids and grandkids and if they will be able to stand firm in their faith in the midst of rising anti-Christian sentiment, secular indoctrination, and the powerful temptations that surround them every day. Even at Christmas time it’s hard to be glad and rejoice with all your heart.
On top of all these worries, as we heard last week, the Lord comes near to humble us. He lets us hear the message of John the Baptist calling us to repentance. He reminds us that no matter how good we think we are, it’s not good enough in God’s eyes. God demands perfection, and since we are not perfect, we deserve only his eternal wrath and punishment. There’s nothing in that message to be glad or rejoice about.
But throughout the Bible, God points out that those he comes near to humble he will also help. He humbles us for our good. He brings us to despair. He removes any thought that we can do anything to save ourselves from our mind, so that we realize that he is the only one who can save us. John pointed those who had been humbled by his call to repentance to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who had come to save them by paying for their sins and the sins of the world.
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart… Why? The Lord has removed the judgment against you.
Imagine what it would be like to be facing execution for your crimes. Like the criminal on the cross next to Jesus, you know you are getting what you deserve. But mere hours before you are to be taken to the execution chamber you receive word that your sentence has been commuted and you are to be set free. No one would have to tell you to be glad and rejoice with all your heart. No one could keep you from rejoicing. Your heart would be overflowing with joy and gratitude to the person who commuted your sentence.
It shouldn’t be that hard to imagine. After all, God has issued a judgment against you. He has searched you through and through and found you wanting. You have broken his laws and the judgment you rightly deserve for doing that is worse than execution. The judgment you rightly deserve is to be sent off to eternal suffering with Satan.
But God has commuted your sentence. He has removed the judgment against you. He has declared you forgiven. He has not only set you free, he has invited you to live in eternal glory with him. Because Paul knew that God had removed the judgment against him, he could rejoice in the Lord always. Because he knew that God had removed the sentence of eternal death that he knew he deserved from him, no one had to tell him to be glad and rejoice. His heart was filled with joy, and peace, and gratitude every time he was reminded that God was not going to give him the Hell he deserved. Because of Jesus, God was giving him the heaven he didn’t deserve.
The circumstances of our lives aren’t always going to be happy. As long as we live on this earth there will be incompetent and oppressive rulers. There will be natural disasters and threats of war. There will be temptations and attacks on our faith. But when we are reminded that God has removed his judgment against us our hearts are filled with joy and a peace from God that surpasses all understanding.
How can God do it? How can he commute our sentence? Doesn’t that make him unjust, after all we were going to get what we deserved. The wages of sin is death, eternal punishment. God can’t just ignore his own law, can he?
Paul explains it very clearly in Romans 3. He tells us that the way in which God is able to remain just; the way that he is able to commute our sentence without ignoring his own law; is Jesus. It is because Jesus came near to us in flesh and blood. It is because Jesus became a second Adam. He placed himself under God’s law and offered to keep it in our place. He satisfied God’s demand that his law be kept perfectly. And then, as a sinless, unblemished lamb, he offered himself to God as a sacrifice of atonement. He took our place on death row. The sentence we had received was carried out on Jesus. Jesus took on himself the punishment we deserved. That’s how God is able to be just, and at the same time justify, declare us not guilty. God commutes our sentence; he removes the judgment against us because Jesus took the judgment for us.
The Lord comes near to humble his people, to call us to repentance, for our good. Sometimes he uses extreme measures to do that. It wasn’t long after the days of Zephaniah that God used, not the Assyrians, but a new world power, the Babylonians, to humble his people. Because his people had turned away again to idols and had put their trust in earthly kings to save them, he sent Nebuchadnezzar to humble them, to conquer them and take them as captives to Babylon. But the Lord would also come near to humble his enemies.
As Belshazzar king of Babylon pridefully celebrated his power using goblets taken by his forefathers from God’s temple in Jerusalem, the hand of the Lord wrote on the wall- mene, mene, tekel, parsin- numbered, numbered, weighed, divided, your days are numbered, you have been weighed and found wanting, your kingdom has been divided and given to others. That very night the armies of Cyrus breached the walls of Babylon and Belshazzar was killed in his palace. When Cyrus began his rule, he decreed that any of God’s people who wanted to do so could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed.
That’s just one example of how, even though the Lord comes near to humble his people for their good, to bring them to repentance, he also comes near to humble his enemies. The Lord is in your midst. You no longer need to fear disaster… The Lord your God is with you as a hero who will save you.
What God did for Israel when he humbled their enemy, Babylon, was a reminder of an even greater deliverance. Jesus came to turn back our worst enemies. He came to go one-on-one with the Devil. He entered the strong man’s house, tied him up, and set his captives free. He came into this world to destroy the devil’s work. Because of his life and death in our place all our enemies have been put under his feet. They have all been defeated. And the last enemy to be defeated is death. We will experience the results of that victory when Jesus returns in glory and calls all the dead from their graves.
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart. Why? What reason do we have to rejoice when this world, and sometimes our lives, are such a mess? How can we rejoice when the Lord comes near to humble us, and we see that he has a judgment against us? Because the Lord has removed the judgment against you. He has come near in flesh and blood and taken your judgment upon himself. In him you are justified, declared not guilty, set free from the prison of guilt and the fear of eternal punishment.
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, because the Lord has turned back your enemy. He has come near and humbled Satan. He is defeated. His greatest weapon, his demand that we be punished, has been made ineffective because Jesus has been punished in our place. Even the last enemy we face, death itself has been defeated because just as Jesus rose from the dead, we too will rise.
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart because the Lord is in your midst. He is with you as a hero who will save you. You are his dear child, purchased with his own blood. He quiets you with his love as he daily proclaims his love for you through his word and sacrament. As he looks at you, covered in the robe of Jesus’ righteousness, He rejoices over you with singing.