“When It’s Hard to Be Joyful”

Advent 3

December 13, 2015


Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7


          The time of the year connected with Christmas is, we are told, supposed to be a joyful time. There is good reason for this, of course—the birth of Jesus was announced by the angels to the shepherds as good news of great joy. We sing Christmas carols about joy—in fact, two of our three hymns this morning are among those. And for many people, this holy season is a time for happiness, joy, and celebration.

          But sometimes it is hard to be joyful. It is often hard to be joyful when we are grieving the death of someone we loved and cared about, especially when grief is fresh because the death happened recently, or when the death coincides closely with Christmas, or when the death was untimely or tragic. I would expect that at least some of the people who were closest to Drew Jacobsen will find being joyful rather difficult this year. And even after many years have passed, sometimes there are times when the sad and painful feelings reappear. For instance, Christmas Eve is hard for me. You see, that was my mother’s birthday. She died in 2002. Even after all these years, I still find myself feeling a bit wistful on that day.

          It also can be difficult to be joyful when one is anxious and afraid. The present climate in our nation and world is one of fear and anxiety, thanks to the large number of mass shootings and terror attacks that have happened in recent weeks. Some politicians and some within the news media have been all too happy to whip these feelings of fear and anxiety into a frenzy, and some people are buying into the frenzy by engaging in or clamoring for violence against and/or exclusion of certain ethnic and religious groups. There is nothing joyful about that. Meanwhile the angel’s message of great joy to all peoples was delivered with the words “Do not be afraid”, and also included a message of “peace on earth, good will to all people”.

          In that light, hear again what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather bring up all your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.” Paul wrote these words at a hard time in his life. He was in prison for preaching Christ. Yet he admonished the Philippians and us to “rejoice in the Lord always”, both in happy, pleasant times and in times of pain and struggle and anxiety. For Paul, the antidote for anxiety was not removal of the source of the anxiety. Instead, it is trust that God is near, and willing and able to help us. He tells us to bring the things about which we are anxious and afraid to God in prayer. He tells us to be gentle with others, which I find is a lot easier when I am not feeling anxious. He tells us to remember to be thankful, even in the face of trouble and hardship. He assures us that if we place our trust in God, we will be given peace too great for us to comprehend in our hearts and minds.

          The prophet Zephaniah, source of our Old Testament lesson today, also was active in a difficult time. His ministry was during the time of King Josiah of Judah. Now Josiah himself was a good king who wanted to please the Lord, and did much to bring reform and renewal to his people. However, the evil that had been done in Judah had gone on so long that God had decreed Judah’s destruction. Thus for two and a half chapters the prophetic oracles in Zephaniah warn of the destruction and judgment that God was about to bring against his people. It is only in the last half of chapter 3, which ends the book of Zephaniah, that we find any hope of restoration for God’s people once the punishment was completed. It is in this section where we find today’s passage, calling on God’s people to rejoice because of God’s plan to restore his people. Once again, the people were urged to trust in God for their eventual deliverance. They could not deliver themselves. They could not forestall the bad things that have happened and those that are yet to happen. Although they had plenty of reason to be afraid and anxious if they took the prophetic oracles of Zephaniah seriously at all, they could still rejoice because God gets the final word, and God’s ultimate intent is to restore his people.

          So the word for today is this: When it’s hard to be joyful, when we struggle with sadness, fear, anxiety, and the other related conditions that make it hard for us to be joyful, let us remember to trust in God. Let us give our sadness, fear, and anxiety to God in prayer. Let us trust that God is near and is more than willing and able to help us. Let us receive with gladness the indescribable peace that God offers to us, and the assurance that God’s ultimate purpose for us and for all humanity is for good. And let us be gentle with ourselves, with one another, and with all, especially the people we are tempted not to treat gently.

          Let us rejoice, for our Savior has come in the Christ Child, continues to come to us each day through the Holy Spirit, and will come again to set everything right in God’s good time.


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