THE JOY OF EMMANUEL
By CARLO SOSA-ORTIZ
Sing, Daughter Zion, shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that
they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp.
The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight
in his love he will no longer rebuke you but will rejoice over you with singing.”
“I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which
burden and reproach for you. At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you.
will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame. At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortune
before your very eyes,” says the Lord (Zeph 3:14-20).
We find joy in the small things. Whether it is in the warm embrace of a lover, the long-awaited return of an old friend, or the feeling that comes only in the presence of those closest to us, joy can be experienced in the obscurest of places. The overwhelming sensations it brings cannot be replicated through any emotion, but its marks are so often misunderstood. Within a theological context, we joyfully celebrate the things that God has done and will do.
The melancholic cries of mourning we read in Zephaniah are nurtured and transform to overzealous, joyful dance. The exiles will become free from oppression. Fear breaks away into hope, sad hearts are outshined by joy, and the desolated city illuminates with God’s presence. But this joyful hope has not yet come. Zephaniah preaches a message of joy in a time when Judah’s monarchy is unstable and close to the end. This prophetic message is not yet fully realized but acts as a preemptive prophecy to provide the Israelites hope in a time of political and religious uncertainty. When that time of purification arrives and the dust surrounding the decimated walls and dilapidated Temple settle, it is at those moments of despair that the meek remnant is to remember the promise of Zephaniah’s words, because God has promised “to bring them home.” For an exiled person, there is no sweeter sound. To have what was lost restored and to be honored and lauded by those who scorned you no doubt reaffirms the lowest of them that Yahweh is not finished. The time of the exile is over, and the assurances of the future are just beginning.
Joy and hope intermix in this prophet’s song. Fear can no longer have a place when standing in the presence of Yahweh. The tattered realities of fear and shame of the exile are replaced with the blessings of fame and longing expectation. The Israelites have endured the challenging tribulations and are now prepared to receive the hopeful promise with the removal of their oppressors and burdens. But not only is this promise of salvation for the Israelites to revel alone, it is God’s promise for all the nations to be blessed: “For I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes.” The rejoicing they experienced would be spilled over into social realities where even the neediest could sing with creation.
But how can the prophet expect the people to rejoice in a time of such uncertainty? Verse 15 reminds the Israelites that “The Lord, the King of Israel is with you.” Again, in verse 17, Zephaniah tells the people to not be dismayed because “The Lord your God is with you. He will take delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you.” The exilic Jews had to be reminded that “the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” It is Yahweh’s nearness that inspired the small remnant to continue their efforts in rebuilding Jerusalem after its destruction. We read about the promise of God’s nearness in John 1 where the Word became flesh and dwelt alongside humanity as God’s ultimate plan of reconciliation and love for his people. No longer would his people live in fear and shame, but they would be replaced for faith, joy, and his presence as Emmanuel.
Today, Christians communally remember the divine presence through the incarnation of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us. May we join in the eternal song and sing with the heavenly choirs as we rejoice with all creation for the birth of the Son. May we be willing to move from our exiles of oppression and into the land of freedom where the Spirit of God dwells with humanity.
God of hope,
you call us home from the exile of selfish oppression
to the freedom of justice,
the balm of healing,
and the joy of sharing.
Make us strong to join you in your holy work,
as friends of strangers and victims,
companions of those whom others shun,
and as the happiness of those whose hearts are broken.
We make our prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Carlo Sosa-Ortiz is a seminary student at Logsdon Seminary and is currently working on his M.Div. He works as a writing tutor and with the seminary’s student services department.