In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Caivre sfo/dra, qu/gater Siwn. “Rejoice greatly, O Daugher of Zion,” exclaims the prophet Zephaniah in the Septuagint, that is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. It is the counterpart to the Hebrew’s “Sing aloud,” with the connotation “sing aloud [for joy].” Joy and rejoicing that is the repetitive refrain throughout our lessons today this 3rd Sunday of Advent, because of that it is traditionally marked by a rose candle and rose paraments and called Gaudéte Sunday. Gaudéte from the Latin word for “Rejoice.” Gaudéte in Domino semper. “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Joy and rejoicing surrounds our Advent and as we draw closer to the celebration of our Lord’s nativity. We know the reason for the season and that brings us to the reality of joy that our biblical authors point us to. But are we aware of the context to which these words from Holy Scripture come to us? Paul urges the Philippians to “Rejoice always”, while he himself is under arrest in a Roman prison, likely awaiting execution. Surrounded by darkness, he gives the word to rejoice! For Zephaniah the situation is not any less bleak.
He is prophet during the reign of King Josiah in Judah, proclaiming the word of the Lord from about 627-626 BC. We heard this morning only a brief snippet from his book, yet we got nothing of the context. If all we knew of Zephaniah were these final verses, we might think nothing but happiness and sunshine were abounding during his time. But that couldn’t be further from reality. The Lord has raised Zephaniah up to proclaim a most distressing message, Judah will be overthrown and Jerusalem will fall. Zephaniah spends 2½ chapters of his 3 chapter book, warning of the impending destruction that is to befall the kingdom and the king. The Daughter of Zion will lose everything she took pride in. The temple, the city of David, and the land that had been promised to them. Zephaniah’s prophesy will come to pass 40 years later as the Babylonians sack the Holy City, putting an end to the Davidic kings.
But at the end of Zephaniah’s dire prediction, a word of hope and joy comes. Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion! Cry aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Be glad and rejoice with your whole heart, O daughter of Jerusalem Why? For the Lord has taken away your iniquities and ransomed you from your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. Why? Because the Lord will act. He will redeem the Daughter of Zion. Babylon will fall and those exiled will return and see their holy city again. The temple will be rebuilt. Though they will walk through darkness, the day of their redemption will dawn. Their joy will be renewed in the power of the Lord and His salvation from the hands of their enemies.
Yet the words of Zephaniah are not spoken just for ancient Israel. We see how the prophesy from the ages finds a refrain centuries later in another daughter of Jerusalem, the blessed Virgin of David’s line. The parallels between Zephaniah and the Annunciation are striking. Zephaniah begins Caivre sfo/dra, qu/gater Siwn, Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! The angel Gabriel speaks to Mary, “Caivre, kecaritwme/nh.” “Rejoice! O highly favored one.” For both Daughters the word is the same, Rejoice! Zephaniah and Gabriel both tell the Daughters, to “not be afraid,” “that the Lord is with them”, “The King of Israel is in their midst”, and that “the mighty one will come upon them”.
Yet with all their joyous similarities, we too see that their context will not be that much different. For Mary’s own life will be filled with heart-wrenching sadness as Simeon foretells that a sword will pierce through her own soul. What evil she as a mother beheld hearing of the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents! What anguish she held watching each lash from the whip tear into her Son’s flesh and as each nail pierced Him! Yet she, like Israel is given a word: rejoice. Even with what she will endure, rejoice, because she will see Zephaniah’s prophecy ultimately fulfilled. She will see the Lord taking away the world’s judgment against her Son and clearing away the enemy of God, that is death, in His resurrection. She will behold with her eyes what Zephaniah never was able to see, the restoration and salvation of Israel.
An Orthodox hymn for Easter picks up on the language of the Annunciation and sings, “The angel cried to the Lady full of grace: Rejoice, rejoice, O pure Virgin. Again I say: Rejoice. Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb. With Himself He has raised all the dead. Rejoice, rejoice, O ye people. Shine! Shine! Shine! O New Jerusalem! The glory of the Lord has shone on you. Exult now, exult, and be glad, O Zion. Be radiant, O pure Theotokos, in the resurrection the resurrection of your Son.” The language of the hymn moves from one daughter of Zion, Mary, to the next and final daughter of the New Jerusalem, the Church. For Zephaniah not only speaks to Israel and to Mary he speaks to the new faithful remnant of Jerusalem the Body of Christ, the Church. St. Paul echoes Zephaniah’s refrain: REJOICE! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice! The Church is called to be filled with holy and abiding joy, even though we too like Israel, like Mary will encounter bitter sadness.
The events of this past week are a devastating reminder that the Church is always surrounded by suffering and pain. The Church lives smack dab in the middle of a fallen world, under the influence of the evil one. And yet she is called to rejoice, bless and praise the all holy God. We are called to rejoice and to find our true joy not in the fleeting and fragile things of this world, but in the salvation of the Lord. Thus even today in the midst of a community and entire nation’s grief we sing hymns and lift up our prayers to Almighty God. Because it is only in Him that we have any hope of redemption for this fallen world. Because here is profound joy watching God’s redemption take place again before our eyes in the washing of Baptism, welcoming another daughter into the Daughterhood of Zion. For in that water Christ has removed our iniquities and saved us from our enemy and He gives us the assurance of everlasting life now in Word and Sacrament, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Here we need not fear, because the Lord is with us. For this is His feast and in the Holy Eucharist we are brought into the paradise of God, surrounded by the saints and angels. Christ the King is with us! Therefore we rejoice, for we are His and no evil of this world can separate us from Him! Rejoice in the Lord and keep the feast always even as we wait for Him to come again. Rejoice for He will bring judgment to this world and our enemies and give us the Kingdom of His peace, love and joy, together with the Father, and the Holy Spirit unto the ages of ages.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.