Advent Reading Day 25 – Embrace Encouragement

So sing, Daughter Zion!  Raise the rafters, Israel!  Daughter Jerusalem,  be happy! celebrate!  God has reversed his judgments against you and sent your enemies off chasing their tails.  From now on, God is Israel’s king, in charge at the center.  There’s nothing to fear from evil ever again!  Jerusalem will be told: “Don’t be afraid. Dear Zion, don’t despair. Your God is present among you, a strong Warrior there to save you. Happy to have you back, he’ll calm you with his love and delight you with his songs. Zephaniah 3:14 – 17 (MSG)

What keeps you going?  What helps you when life seems overwhelming or unmanageable?  What keeps you encouraged when there only seems to be discouragement around you?  What helps when there are no real hopeful signs on the horizon or when it feels like the enemy is winning and you are forgotten?

It was into this kind of world that Jesus came to bring change.  And it is into this kind of world that Jesus still comes to us.  Zephaniah’s prophecy was given about a judgement day that was coming in which God would sort out His true followers from those who were pretending.   Sin had corrupted His people.  They were chasing after false gods while still on the surface seeming to follow Him.  Justice was not being acted out, but rather a selfishness had taken root.   Comfort, complacency and apathy had taken over as life had become too easy. As Zephaniah writes in 2:15 “This is the carefree city that lived in safety.  She said to herself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me.’”  People were connecting with God while ignoring their neighbors thinking that somehow they could love God without loving others.  Things had gotten bad as God had begun to look beyond surface religiosity and had considered where people’s hearts truly were.   It was into this scenario that Zephaniah warned that a very intense judgment was coming, so it was time to turn to The Lord.  It would require a repositioning of the hearts and minds of the people of Judah, but with God’s help it was possible.

It was a dark time, yet God’s compassion shines through.  We see a call to Jerusalem to rejoice and shout because while The Lord will bring correction and discipline, He will also take away their punishment and He will turn back the enemy.  A purification will come and as a result, those who were once far away and disobedient will call on His Name.   And right in the middle of this we get a glimpse into God’s heart for His people, “Do not let your hands hang limp.  The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”  God is calling His people out of despair and sending them a love letter to remind them of His desired relationship with them – as the One who protects, who takes great delight, who quiets with love and who rejoices over His people with singing.   It is a promise that God makes to His people…and it is a promise that finds its fulfillment in Jesus’ coming.

In Jesus we find The Messiah, The King, The Warrior who once and for all takes on the punishment and defeats the enemy.  In Jesus we see the fulfillment of God being with us, rescuing us,  taking great delight in us, quieting us with his love,  and rejoicing over us with singing.   Within This Kingdom there is not reason for the despair of our hands hanging limp, but rather there is much to celebrate.   The King has come and The Kingdom has been inaugurated.  The power of despair has been broken because now there is a True Hope.

This is a powerful message for you and I today as we find ourselves sometimes weighed down by life and plunging into the depths of despair.  It is easy to lose sight of any way we would be rescued, or that there could be anyone who delights in ugly me.  Sometimes it is difficult to feel a quieting with love because there is so much peripheral life static around me, and impossible to imagine that there could be any kind of rejoicing over me occurring.   Life takes its pound of flesh and then keeps on taking.  Life comes at us fast and distraction very easily sets in.  We don’t set out to purposefully get off course, but in a very short time we can find out that we ran off the road along the way and are driving through the wilderness.  Just how did we get here anyway?  To us this is a powerful message to consider that comes straight from God’s heart to us as a promise from Zephaniah, but that then finds its fulfillment in the coming of Jesus.   God wrapped in flesh expressing the fullness of what it means to be blessed of God rather than cursed.

While I struggle at times to not fall into despair because it seems like everything around me is going to hell in a handbasket and I’m not helping the situation, I am struck by the deeper reality of despair for the poor.   I have mentioned before that the people who live in Kore are considered cursed.  One root for this is that the Orthodox read in the Old Testament that lepers should be outcast, so therefore they felt that lepers needed to be removed from society and cast off.  This is a Biblical reality that continued to find expression here in Ethiopia well into the 20th Century.   On top of this people are sick, they are told that they are less than human, they are ignored, their daily scenery is the garbage dump, they are unemployed, they sleep on a dirt floor, they are hungry, they are not well educated and this is the best that life will ever get for most of them.   There are no safety nets or escape strategies – this is it.   It doesn’t take long to start to think that “Yes, we are cursed.  Yes, we are under God’s judgment.  Yes, we have been forsaken by God. So, we might as well do the best we can and make our own way.”

It is right into this scene that God’s heart through the prophet Zephaniah speaks so loud and clear.   The trumpet of hope sounds!   Yesterday as I stood on top of the garbage mound with some foreigners and looked around at the tons of garbage and the fire and smoke I was taken back to meet 6 young men who are living in the garbage dump doing the best they can.  They sort through garbage breathing in the toxic fumes living a life filled with danger (of crime as well as machinery that easily kills and maims) in search of something…anything…of value.   The one guy Joe proudly showed me a vial of unused perfume which he had found – something that will fetch him at least a couple of Birr.  I am struck by what Jesus’ coming means for them.   The fullness of God’s presence with us, His might to save us, His delight in us, His quiet love for us and His pleasure in us to the point of rejoicing over us.  If this message was internalized, what kind of change could it mean for these young men?   The circumstances may not change much, yet the enemy’s tool of despair would be broken over their lives.  What if they knew that Jesus didn’t just come to save their souls, but rather He came as The King who changes everything?

What does this mean for you and I as we sit 3 days out from Christmas?  Gratefully we sit on the other side of God’s promise through Zephaniah.  Jesus’ coming changes everything and we can know the fullness of God’s message and His compassion for us as our judgment has been taken care of through Jesus.   However, Zephaniah’s warnings also still ring true for us today.  There is that calling back for us to trust in God fully, to not be so easily distracted from our trust in The Lord alone, to lay aside the other gods we serve, to be full on passionate in our pursuit, to not take comfort in our security becoming apathetic and complacent and to be people who love all around us and deal justly with others…even those we feel don’t deserve it.   The King and His Kingdom have arrived!  Now, we get to respond with hearts full of love for Him out of response to Him.  There’s no need for any kind of religious paint jobs or attempts to impress, but rather we can bring a full hearted response out of gratitude to the One who gave it all so that we might know Him and know life.

Prayer: Jesus, thank you for your coming.  Thank you for breaking into a world full of discouragement and brokenness with your life and wholeness.  I pray that you would help me to taste that wholeness today…and spread it to others.  Amen.

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