Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Merriment of God

Zephaniah 3:14-20

I did a bit of research this week. I was curious about how and when the salutation, Merry Christmas, came into popularity. It is a curious and somewhat archaic expression. No one ever says, “Merry Birthday” or “Merry Thanksgiving” and indeed in many places, “Happy Christmas” is the preferred greeting. As it turns out, the earliest recorded use of the phrase is in a letter to Thomas Cromwell from one John Fisher written on December 22nd 1699 which says,
“And this our Lord God send you a Merry Christmas, and a comfortable, to your heart’s desire.”
Like so much of what we associate with Christmas today, the real popularity of the phrase, begins with Charles Dickens’ classic tale, The Christmas Carol. After Dickens used the expression, it was included, that same year, on the first commercially available Christmas card which read, 
"A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You."
I am going to takes sides on this, and declare that I much prefer Merry Christmas to Happy Christmas. It is a much more exuberant phrase. It suggests, loud jovial laughter and maybe even a bit of mild intoxication. It is celebratory.
As the carols and the greeting cards of the season remind us, joy is at the heart of our Christmas expectation. Joy is in fact a fundamental part of the Christian Faith. It is a commandment.

In our Epistle reading Saint Paul exhorts us,
 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
Today is Gaudete Sunday, which takes its name from the Latin translation of this scripture, "Gaudete in Domino semper!" Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple, but today, as you can see, the Church lightens the mood a bit with Rose colored vestments. The third candle in our Advent wreath is also Rose colored. We rejoice because our Lord is coming soon.

As the weeks pass by my daughter Helen becomes increasingly excited for the arrival of Christmas. She asks me every morning, “Is today Christmas?” And I respond, “No, it’s still Advent, but we are getting close!”

Our Old Testament reading from the prophet Zephaniah is also an exhortation to Joy. He writes,

 “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” 

Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the passage comes with verse seventeen,

“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 as on a day of festival.”

This is a picture of the merriment of God. If Christianity is a joyful faith, it is because we have a joyful God. Zephaniah depicts God in celebration. It is really quite a spectacle. God shouts in victory like a conquering hero, or to use an analogy more familiar to most of us, like a football player who just scoured the winning touchdown, he sings and dances in the end zone.

What is God so excited about? God is singing for joy over you and your salvation. God has more than just a grudging acceptance of you, he has a passionate delight in your joy and happiness. God rejoices over you with gladness, he celebrates you. You are his prize, his trophy, his great reward.

 Zephaniah is telling us that God will overcome every obstacle, defeat every enemy. He will allow nothing to come between him and his heart’s desire. He is jealous for you. He wants you all to himself, your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. He earnestly desires your love and your worship.

 At this point you may be thinking, “How could God possibly desire us so intensely? After all, he is God! He created us, what could we possibly offer him that he doesn’t already have?

Let me begin by saying, God created us to love and delight in him, but that is not because there was any deficiency in himself. For all Eternity God was complete and satisfied in the perfection of the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father, in the Holy Spirit, gives all his love to the Son and the son responds, in the same Spirit, with all of his love.

In eternity, the Father gazes upon his Son, who is the perfect reflection of his glory, and he is satisfied. The Son radiates God's own glory and expresses the very character of God (Hebrews 1:3) and the thing that brings God the most happiness, before anything else, is himself, his own glory and honor.

But, you ask, isn’t that awfully vain of God? He sounds like some sort of cosmic narcissist who commands that everyone praise and worship him. This is definitely not a characteristic we find very honorable when we see it in people!

You would be right. This kind of self-aggrandizement is certainly distasteful and sinful in everyone else, but God is in a different category. It is true that God models humility in the self-denial and sacrifice of the Son for the Father, but ultimately for God to have anything less than a total commitment to his own glory and worship would be sinful. God is the highest good, the one most worthy worship, if God were to prefer anyone or anything above his own glory, it would be idolatry!

But there is more, in being committed to his own glory, he is also committed to the happiness and highest good of us, his creatures. We cannot find ultimate joy and happiness in anything less than God. The delight the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have for each other, this happiness of God in God, is the source of our own happiness in God. The joy they have in one another is so full that it overflows in the joyful act of creation. We all know what this is like, when we really love someone or something, we want to express it, to share our love with others.

One of the books I love to read with my children is the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones. This is the way she begins the story of Jesus’ birth,
“That night, in amongst the other stars, suddenly a bright new stat appeared. Of all the stars in the dark vaulted heavens, this one shone clearer. It blazed in the night and made the other stars look pale beside it. God put it there when his baby Son was born—to be like a spotlight. Shinning on him. Lighting up the darkness. Showing people the way to him. You see, God was like a new daddy—he couldn’t keep the good news to himself. He’d been waiting all these years for this moment, and now he wanted to tell everyone.” 

Isn’t that beautiful?

The Same pride and love that the Father has for his own son, he has for us.  When God looks at us, he sees us in his Son, clothed in his perfect holiness. This is more than just a smokescreen or a deception, rather, our Baptism assures us that we are living members of Christ.

Before creation, God predestined that we would share in his joy, through Jesus Christ. He created us in his image so that we too might reflect his glory. He set mankind apart, to be the jewel of his creation. He chose us in him and even then he chose to become one of us.

In becoming one of us, God so bound himself to us in Christ, that God’s love for his own son--God's love for God--became inseparable from God’s love for us.

Although, we departed from God’s plan for us, he has redeemed us in Christ. When we sinned against him he forgave us in Christ. When we were oppressed by our sins and enslaved by our habits, he delivered us in Christ. He saved us for the praise of his glory. God can no more deny us than he can deny his own self, his own flesh and blood, his own son. Our joy is his joy. This is what makes Christmas so merry!

“Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 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.”

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