This week (ending 13 December 2015) I watched the TV personality Steve Harvey interview a young person struggling to find a job. She said that she had put in 800 applications: and that for her to find a job was a job in itself! Steve Harvey said to her that his own motto for his evident success was this: Although he had been through many difficult times, he always made it a priority to keep a positive attitude. (Fortunately, that young woman he was talking to did get a job, just a few minutes after the discussion between the two of them.)
Jeremiah 8:10 (and John 15:11, and Ps 5:11) says that the joy of the Lord is our strength. In both cases (the contemporaries Jeremiah, and our prophetic reading today, Zephaniah 3:14-20) God’s strength enabled those two prophets to bear their testimony in a difficult and contrary period. Today’s Canticle (Isaiah 12:2-6) also comes from the same period: “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.”
Our Zephaniah reading has a tremendously positive tone to it. But this selection from the book of Zephaniah comes after a woeful couple of chapters before it. The woeful part and the positive ending both fit in with a particular historical setting: That of a declining nation of Israel just before the reforms of King Josiah. The joy of the Lord was the strength of Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Amos, Isaiah, and also (later on) John the Baptist (Luke 3:18).
Joy is the theme of the third Sunday of Advent: particularly, the joy of the Shepherds.
This echo of the joy of the Lord being our strength in times of difficulty appears again in Church History: for we remember St Ambrose about this time (Dec 7th). Ambrose gave his wealth to the poor and wrote a number of (perhaps 20) hymns that are still in our hymnal (after 1600 years), particularly the world famous canticle, Te Deum, which we read weekly at Morning Prayer.
Ambrose became the Bishop of Milan by acclamation; he converted the great Augustine; he was very influential in community affairs; and he died in 397 AD/ CE. He is called one of the great four Latin doctors of the church.
As it was for all of those people – Steve Harvey, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Amos, Jeremiah, John the Baptist and St Ambrose – so too the joy of the Lord can be your strength and my strength. This is very relevant in this time when there are so many fears and anxieties that swirl around us in violence and in the decline of the atmosphere (climate change). The joy of the Lord is our strength.
Just as we may borrow from God’s faith when our faith is too small, borrow from God’s forgiveness when our forgiveness is too little, so we may borrow from God’s joy when our joy is lacking. Approaching the crucifixion, the ‘Suffering Servant’ Jesus himself was strengthened by the joy or satisfaction that lay before him (Isa 53:11).
As we journey through Lent, we journey through life strengthened by the joy of the Lord, and it enables us to continue to act in faith and in joy.
Let’s read Ambrose’s hymn, the Te Deum together. Let’s appreciate again the great wonder that resonates in these words which are so fitting for the season of Advent:
Canticle 21 You are God Te Deum laudamus (Book of Common Prayer page 95)
You are God: we praise you;
You are the Lord; we acclaim you;
You are the eternal Father:
All creation worships you.
To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you;
Father, of majesty unbounded,
your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,
and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free
you did not shun the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
bought with the price of your own blood,
and bring us with your saints
to glory everlasting