As you’re being seated, if you would take your Bibles and turn with me to the book of Zephaniah. It’s in the Old Testament. If you’re looking for it, it’s okay. It’s a very short book. It’s on page 790 if you’re using a pew Bible; 7-9-0. And we will be studying verse 17 of chapter 3 of the book of Zephaniah. Before we hear God’s Word, let’s go to Him in prayer.
Even down to old age, our great God, You have promised us that Your people shall prove Your sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love. As we stand at the threshold of the most amazing words we’ve ever heard tonight, we pray that they would land with us in our hearts, that they would change the way we view You and the world, and that the Holy Spirit would make them alive for us so that we might see Jesus. And we pray this all in His mighty name. Amen.
Zephaniah 3, verse 17. This is God’s holy, inspired, and therefore inerrant Word:
“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever.
A few years ago the best-selling and top Broadway musical was a musical entitled, The Light in the Piazza, which told the story of a – I’ve got to get these names right – Fabrizio Naccarelli, who was an Italian tie salesman who fell in love with the beautiful Clara Johnson, an American on vacation in Italy. And there’s this scene in the musical where they sing this love song called, “Say it Somehow.” And the crescendo of the love song is they can’t really even express themselves in words so they just sing the word, “Ah!” And it’s joyful and it’s exultant and they rejoice in each other that way. And there was a New York Times review by one of the great theater critics, Stephen Holden, and the title of the review said it all – “Love Songs that Speak When Words Fail.” “Love Songs that Speak When Words Fail.”
The Barrier Between God and Us
And you see, as we come to Zephaniah 3 tonight, we’re in that same position as these two lovers in that song. There’s a language barrier between God and us. He is holy and we are not. Just like there was a language barrier between the Italian and the American, there’s a language barrier between us. And yet we come to a Bible verse tonight that could share the title of The New York Times review – “Love Songs that Speak When Words Fail.” Zephaniah. This book can be summed up pretty easily I think. The first few chapters, the first two chapters rather, are universal judgment. And then there’s a turning point when God begins to talk about the universal work of salvation He will do from every tribe, nation, and tongue. And the book culminates in this verse before us – chapter 3 verse 17. One commentator has rightly called it, "The John 3:16 of the Old Testament." It's almost too much to take in. We need to approach this with fear and trembling. It's so good. It's so overwhelming. There are words, not really words we can say but we're going to try this evening. And the main point is very simple. In Christ, God is with us to rejoice over us. In Christ, God is with us to rejoice over us. And those will be our two headings – God with us and God over us. God with us and God over us.
God With Us
Look at the first part of verse 17 again. “The Lord your God is in your midst; a mighty one who will save.” From the fall of mankind onwards, we have been alienated from God, we have been alienated from ourselves, we have been alienated from this creation around us, we have been alienated from all our fellow creatures and our fellow men and women. Alienation is what is the hallmark of fallen mankind. And yet, again and again, the Bible is a story about a God who seeks those who are alienated from Him. He pursues them relentlessly, tirelessly, over and over again no matter what they do; no matter how far they fall. And so the love song God sings begins with His pursuit of us, with His desire to woe alienated creatures back to Himself. That’s shocking. We can search all the world’s religions, and when we do so we can refute Sigmund Freud. It was Freud, after all, the founder of modern psychology, who said that belief in God is mere wish fulfillment. We’re projecting our best hopes into a God that doesn’t exist. The problem that Freud has, and that every other fallen religion has and that every other worldview outside of Christianity has, is none of us would dream up a God like this, friends. We never have, apart from the Scriptures there’s no other God like this in the world, and we never would. It’s too good to be true, in one sense.
He is a God Who Sings
So at the outset here, we realize we’re meeting a God who is totally different than we expect. And this will come to a head here in a moment because we’re going to meet a God who sings. But before we get there, experts agree – and when it comes to music, who are the experts? I think we’re all experts in one sense. But experts who find a metric to measure these things agree that maybe the greatest love song ever is the Righteous Brothers, “Unchained Melody.” It’s a beautiful song. And it starts out slow and works into this amazing crescendo. And it’s really what the Bible is all about. We’re coming to right before the crescendo of God’s love song. It started out in the Garden when God came to our first parents and provided atonement for them and covered them in animal skins, and then for the rest of the Old Testament God has been singing this one divine love song and it’s been clearer at points and it’s been less clear at other points. And it comes to a crescendo when the sky breaks open over Bethlehem and angels are singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men!” It comes to a crescendo in Christ.
And that’s what God tells us here. He says, “The Lord your God is in your midst; a mighty hero” – we could translate it. It’s battle imagery. We don’t often think of our salvation as a battle, but from the moment Jesus was baptized till the day He was crucified it was a battle. He fought Satan in the wilderness, and He fought Satan on the cross. And at every step of the way, there was warfare against disease, against emotional disruption, against death, against all the powers of hell and all the effects of sin because the God who comes to us is the God who comes to save us. And He is a God who fights for His people. I just learned this week – no surprise, it happens every summer – that three of the top five grossing movies are superhero movies. We love them. We can’t get enough of them. And not just here, around the world. Our superhero movies that we make and send them all over the world, they’re the top grossing movies. Why do we love superhero stories so much? I think it’s because all of us know deep down inside we cannot save ourselves and we long to be rescued. I think that’s why they’re always the top grossing movies. We cannot save ourselves and we long to be rescued. And what God is saying through His prophet right now is, “There is a mighty hero coming who will fight for you, who will save you, who is better than any superhero story we could ever dream up. And He will rescue you. And the only qualification is, you have to know that you can’t save yourself. That’s all that’s required.” That’s where God begins with us. The ultimate superhero is coming – Jesus. That’s God with us.
God Over Us
And then, I’m going to be honest, very honest with you, when I was studying for this and praying and wrestling with the text, I had to keep walking away from it. I read commentaries, I searched and listened to other sermons and read other sermons and I was very, very comforted to find that I am not alone. Because these next verses are staggering. This is God over us. Look with me there at verse 17. “He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Now we have human analogies to all of this. We have felt joy. We have been so happy we have shouted for joy, most of us I think. But here we come to God doing that. And that’s where everything falls apart. That’s where we really don’t even know what to do. We can’t even conjure up emotion to feel this because it’s so mind-blowing. It’s so different from our everyday experience with God to think of Him rejoicing over us.
God Rejoices Over You
And did you notice he uses the same language he used that we studied last week in verses 14 to 16 where he says for us to do this to God? And then, he turns right around and says, "Not only does God command us to rejoice, to joy in Him, to shout and sing and be filled with joy to Him, here's where everything changes. He says not only does God say for us to do that, the prophet says, "God does that over you." Rejoicing. Stop right there. You and I know, with little encouragement, how bad off we are in our most honest moments. Don't we? We know we are very sinful. God gives us mercifully as much as we can handle when He shows us that, but we know how bad we are in our best moments of being honest with ourselves. And then we come to a verse like this. And notice where this is situated. It's right here at the end of a book where God has been saying to His people, "You've left Me. You've gone after other gods. I am going to rain down judgment on you and everybody." And we go from that to this – to God rejoicing over sinful, idolatrous, broken, fallen, God-hating people like you and me.
And it gets better. “He will quiet you by His love.” That’s good as far as it goes, but a more literal rendering would be this. It’s not God doing something to us in the original; it’s God doing something about us. We could better render it this way. “He will be quiet over you in his love.” So what the prophet is doing for us. This is, again, staggering. God rejoicing and just, “Yes!” over you. And then, stopping and, like we do if we can put it that way, when we’re contemplating someone we love. The only illustration that came right to me is two-fold. Callie and I had a long distance relationship. We started dating her freshman year at Carolina, my second-junior year! And when that relationship began, I graduated before her, much to my parents’ delight. And I would drive down – I could drive it blindfolded now – from Greenville, 385, to I-26 into Columbia. And when I would drive back, up 26, I would think about her – how beautiful she was; how much I loved her. I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of my life with her. And then we had our first child and, you know how that goes if you’re a parent. The first one comes and you’re filled with all kinds of emotion, but then there’s times you just sit there and hold the child and watch him or her sleep and you’re quiet. And your love over that child – there’s no way to put it into words, is there? You’re just quietly contemplating the fullness of emotion, the overflowing fullness of love and delight that you have in that child. And God says, “That is how I am with you. That is how I feel towards you.”
And yes, I’m aware and I don’t want to get the board members of RTS concerned. I know what our confession says. It says that “God is free from passions.” And so how do we square that, because that’s right? And what the confession is saying there is that God doesn’t have to react to things. He knows everything that’s coming. What it’s not saying is that God does not have these kind of, if we could put it this way, emotions over us. Because if you read the people who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, they’re the ones who are saying things about God’s love and His passion and His desire for His people. And all we can say at this point is, “Really? Are you sure, God?” He says, “Yes!”
God Sings Loudly
And then He goes even further at the last part of this verse. We go from rejoicing to quiet singing to quietness over us to exalting over us with loud singing. Step back. Do you see why we could never invent a God like this? You can search high and low in the world. You will never meet a singing God; a singing God is who saves us. The very heights of all of our poetry and love songs and all that we pour forth to try to express that greatest of emotions that we feel as human creatures, utterly fail us and become nothing but dust and ashes when we come to this verse, and we meet a God who comes to rebellious people like us and sings! Loudly! Because He is rejoicing over us! Can you take it in? That this holy, triune Creator – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who has always been there, loving one another as the persons of the Trinity mutually indwelling one another. And that, in and of itself is a mystery that we can’t even get our minds around. This God sings!
Let’s go to the mosque and ask and inquire, “Tell us about your god. The only question we need to ask, ‘Does he sing?’” “No, no that would be improper.” Very well, let’s go to the Hindu temple. “Do your gods sing?” “No.” Let’s go to the altar of secular postmodernism and say, “Give us your god, chance. Does he sing?” “No.” The universe is full of sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s that or singing! That’s the choice before all of us tonight. Deaf, dumb, mute, idolatrous gods or a God who sings. Do you see why the Gospel is not just true, but supremely beautiful? It captures us. It speaks to the deepest needs of our hearts and the deepest emotions we can feel. It’s not just true; it’s beautiful.
We Sing Because of the Man of Sorrows
But we can never forget why this is good news, why we get singing. It’s because we follow the One who is called the Man of Sorrows. It’s because when Jesus went to the cross, there was no more joy and gladness. There was no more, “This is My Beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” The battles that He had been fighting as our mighty Hero, came to that point on the cross when Jesus’ screams were met with the holy, majestic, just, silence of His Father. He got silence so that we could get singing. There is no way to get to the singing God unless you go through the screaming Savior who endured the silence in our place. That’s how we get the singing God. And it was because God is love, love, that He sent His Son to scream, that He held His peace as He poured out His wrath upon Him. Because after Good Friday, He knew the love song would reach its final stanza that would go on forever. And that’s where we’re living right now. That’s why God is singing over us.
What do we say to all of this? I thought of some reasons why we might have a hard time with this verse. So many times, when we think about God's love, we can say, "Yeah, but it's not for me." Do you ever feel like that? "It's not for me. It's for everybody else. I can rejoice in other people's joy, but that's not for me." Don't water this down. This is in the context of God saying to Judah, "I'm going to call people from everywhere. In this case, it's not just for you, Judah. It's for people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. So it's for you." Well, then you might say, "But you don't know what I've done. You don't know how I think. You don't even know what I'm thinking while you're talking right now!" God says, "What have you done that is any worse than My people did over and over and over and over again? Was My grace enough for them?" Was this promise made in the context of people who had let God down, broken His law, fled from Him, hated Him, cursed Him, worshiped idols, burned incense in His temple towards false gods? Then there's grace for you and me. It doesn't matter what you've done. His love is greater than your sin. All you need is nothing. All you need is to know that you can't save yourself.
God is Near in Christ
“Yes, but God seems distant from me.” That’s a hard one. I know what that feels like. I hate it when I live there. I hate it when I feel like I’m just going through the motions when I pick up my Bible. Yes, that’s what preachers do. Yes, sometimes on Sunday mornings. Feeling distant from God. But what we have to come back to in this verse again and again and the verses previous to it – He is in our midst. He is near to us in Christ. And His distance is never forever because the whole impulse of this singing God is to move towards broken people like us, towards sinful people like us. He never keeps His distance. The incarnation showed us that. God becoming man in Jesus shows us that He never keeps His distance.
And so how do we get this? Let’s fast forward to what Jesus said in John 15 around verse 9. “Abide in My love.” What does that mean, Jesus? And He tells us. “If you love me, you’ll keep my commandments.” And that can terrify us. Except verse 11 finishes this way. “These words I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and your joy would be full.” So here’s what He’s – “abide, keep My commandments, joy!” How does that fit with what Zephaniah is telling us? How do we abide in this love of God? How do we experience it? Jesus says we put into practice what He tells us. But – and this is crucial – we must always remember that our disobedience does not change God’s love for us. Yes, it diminishes our capacity to enjoy it. When I find myself distant from God, I can assure you, at least some of the time, one of the major problems is I’ve been indulging in sin; I’ve been doing what I want to do. His love for me hasn’t changed. My capacity to enjoy it has.
And Jesus says, “If you catch what I’ve been telling you,” and if we read verses like this, what is God asking us to do when He says, “Keep my commandments. Obey Me”? Is He saying this to crush us? Or is He telling us, “I love you enough to bring you close and tell you how to stay close because I don’t want you far from Me.” It’s the latter, isn’t it? “Stay close to me. Walk with me this way. Don’t stray off the path. Let Me keep My arm around you,” as it were. Would you ever not want to obey a God who sings? This isn’t a harsh, distant deity who lays out arbitrary rules and says, “Go thou and do likewise to earn my favor!” The singing God says, “Stay close. Come to Me.” We do that by obeying. That’s one way.
And then, we refuse to listen to lies about God. We refuse to listen to lies about God. That affects us. This is one of Satan’s chief designs. He wants you to think about God differently than Zephaniah 3:17. He wants the silent God to be the God you think about all the time. He wants the distant God to be the God that is on your mind. He never wants us to think about the singing God. Refuse to believe it; refuse to buy into it. Let this word correct you. Come back to this promise again and again. And you’ll say, “Well I don’t feel it! I want to feel it, but I don’t!” If you want it, that is because He has given you that desire. Don’t give up on that. Don’t give up on that. Keep coming back to it and plead with Him, “God, let me experience more of Your love. Let me know You better.” And wait for Him. Wait for His timing. He will bring you close. David said, “I waited upon the Lord,” Psalm 40, “and He heard my cry.” He’ll say the same thing to us. He’ll hear our cry. And you say, “Well isn’t it hypocritical to do this when I don’t feel it?” No! That’s the very essence of faith, friends. It’s to keep going to Him when you don’t feel it. That’s not hypocrisy; that’s faith! Faith says, “My feelings of distance don’t have the final word. My faith in the God who sings and loves me in Christ has the final word.”
We were back in South Carolina at the beginning of June for my dad’s retirement. He’s 80 and to no one’s surprise at his retirement party he announced he’s taking up another job! So that’s how my dad works! But right when he announced his retirement, a few days later a package came in the mail. And as I opened that package I saw bubble wrap and before I even took off the bubble wrap I knew what it was. It was a photograph. It’s one of my most prized possessions. It’s a photograph that’s been in my dad’s office for as long as I can remember. And it’s a picture that was taken when I was very young, probably about Dorothy’s age. My dad was a college professor and it was the summer time, we were at some party – he was the dean of his department and they’d hired a new faculty member and there was some party. And apparently, the story went that I, again, to no one’s surprise, took an extra cookie. And one of the parents there put their hands on me and yelled at me. And that is just not something you did to one of my dad’s sons! And I did, what I think any two-year-old would do. I ran to my dad and somebody happened to have a camera and they caught the picture of me with tears streaming down my face with my dad’s arms around me and the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. And ever since I’ve been a little boy, that picture has said to me, “Your father loves you. No matter what you do, no matter how far away you get, he rejoices to show you love.”
And what God has done for us tonight is given us a picture that says to us, “I love My children and I rejoice over them.” And it’s only in the Bible that we find this God and it’s the only picture of God that will change everything for us. Let’s pray.
Father, we sang this morning about a poor, lisping, stammering tongue. And I feel that so keenly right now, Lord. Please, please, do not let the magnificence, the splendor, the glory of this verse be lost because of a frail explanation. O Lord, open our eyes to the glory of Your love, the boundlessness of it, the freeness of it, the vastness of it. Let it change us, we pray. In Jesus’ name, amen.
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