December 12, 2021; Zep 3:14-18a; Third Sunday of Advent
Can someone order you to be happy? Is it possible to insist that you rejoice? This seems to be what the prophet Zephaniah is doing in today’s first reading. One command follows after another: Shout for joy. Sing joyfully. Be glad and exult with all your heart. Is Zephaniah merely being poetical or is he serious? Does he believe that he can command us to be happy? I think he does. He believes that he can order us to rejoice. The minute we realize this, the objections begin. “How can I be happy when my back hurts? How can I be happy when my spouse has died? How can I be happy when I see the violence and injustice of this world. If Zephaniah is commanding me to rejoice, he will have to show me how to do so.”
He does. Zephaniah tells us that we can be happy if we understand the depth of God’s love for us. The prophet describes God’s love vividly. God rejoices over us with gladness. God sings joyfully because of us. Zephaniah is telling us that if we could see God’s love, if we could take it in, it would lead us to joy. Now I know it might sound simplistic and perhaps naive to say God loves us. But it is the most important thing that we believe. It is the foundation of our faith. Love is the only way we can explain why God created us, why God saved us, and why God promises us eternal life. God loves us! But we have turned that truth into a cliché. We believe it in our heads, but we do not live off of its power.
Instead, we focus on ourselves. We focus on our fear: the fear of what will happen to our grandchild, the fear that we might lose our job, the fear that we may catch the coronavirus. Our life becomes about our fear rather than about God’s love. We forget that God has the power to protect us and lead us to life. We focus on our guilt: the mistakes that we have made, the people we have hurt, the prejudices we carry. Our life becomes about our guilt, rather than God’s love. We forget that God has already forgiven us for our sins and rejoices over us with gladness. We focus on our pain: the loved one who has died, the marriage that has failed, the arthritis in our hands. Our life becomes about our pain rather than God’s love. We forget that God blesses us each day and when God thinks of us, God bursts into song.
When we focus on our fear, our guilt and our pain, our lives become empty and sad. But when we remember the depth and greatness of God’s love for us, we can rejoice. This is why Zephaniah can be so insistent in today’s first reading. We cannot change our circumstances, but we can change our focus. And when we focus on God’s love, it changes everything.
So—be happy. That’s an order!