Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.
The LORD has removed your judgment;
he has turned away your enemy.
The LORD, the king of Israel, is in your midst;
you will no longer fear evil.
On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem:
Don’t fear, Zion.
Don’t let your hands fall.
The LORD your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
He will create calm with his love;
he will rejoice over you with singing.
I will remove from you those worried about the appointed feasts.
They have been a burden for her, a reproach.
Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time.
I will deliver the lame;
I will gather the outcast.
I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth.
At that time, I will bring all of you back,
at the time when I gather you.
I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples
when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the LORD.
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Common English Bible
Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7, Common English Bible
Two weeks ago I was in Shanghai, China, attending Grace Church. It was founded in 1942 as a Baptist congregation, and is now part of the China Christian Council, the Protestant church of China, which hosted our United Church of Canada delegation. Now, much of the service was very familiar. The first hymn was He Leadeth Me, and the second was Blessed Assurance, so I knew both of those, and the words were printed in English in the bulletin even though most people were singing in Chinese. There was also simultaneous English translation with headsets. There were opening prayers, Scripture reading, a choir anthem, a sermon – 40 minutes long – and a closing prayer and benediction. But this church didn’t mark the first Sunday of Advent, although that isn’t that unusual as the season of Advent only began appearing in United Church of Canada worship 40 years ago or so.
And after the service we met with the head pastor, and he told us about Grace Church. It has 8,000 members, with between 600 to 800 at Sunday services and others worshipping in smaller meeting points around Shanghai. There are 200 in the youth group, and 300 children in the five Sunday school classes. So, coming from rural Eastern Ontario, numbers like these were unfamiliar to me.
In the 1960s China went through what is called the Cultural Revolution. In the chaos millions of people were persecuted, historical sites were destroyed, and churches and temples were looted. Chinese churches were closed until the late 1970s. And the pastor of Grace Church told us that, when the church reopened in 1978, "the brothers and sisters were so happy." Imagine that, the church was closed for a decade, and Christians were unable to worship publicly. They had to keep their faith a secret. Imagine the joy they felt when they were finally able to gather together and praise God. We heard this all over China, about cleaning up and reopening churches after the Cultural Revolution, and the first worship services taking place. I visited the site of the first church in Beijing to start worshipping again. It began again in 1979 with a congregation of 30 seniors. That was it - that was the church in China’s capital city. Today 100,000 people attend worship in Beijing churches every Sunday. The head of the Christian Council said, “We are very sure that it is due to God’s grace that we have this growth in our church.”
In Beijing I attended Sunday worship at Haidian Church. It has 10,000 members and 17 staff. In fact, they had to demolish the original building and erect a new one to accommodate the crowd of worshippers, about 4,000 each Sunday. I went to the third service of the morning, and there were people lined up to get in, and many of them were young, so that was certainly unfamiliar. The service was so full there were people standing along the walls, and even sitting in the front pew. And we went back that night for the annual Christmas tree lighting. There are actually Christmas trees and decorations in stores and shopping areas everywhere in Chinese cities, even though Christmas is not a public holiday. Haidian Church had a huge Christmas tree made of wire outside on the sidewalk, and a thousand volunteers from the church took part in the service, with an enthusiastic choir in Santa hats, and dancers in costume, and thousands of spectators. The only Christmas carol I recognized was Angels We Have Heard on High, but that was fine. I don’t think I have ever seen as many happy people in one place as at that Christmas tree lighting in Beijing.
On this Sunday of Joy, the prophet Zephaniah says, "Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem." The letter to the Philippians says, "Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks." Our Christian brothers and sisters in China are living out these words, rejoicing in the Lord always, exulting with all their hearts, giving thanks to God - even though their religious freedom is not the same as here, even though the church may be the size of Canada’s population but is still a tiny minority in a country of a billion people. Are we rejoicing, with our freedoms and privileges? When we sing Joy to the World, are we just reciting a much-loved Christmas carol, or do we really mean that the coming of Jesus is joy to the world? Are we like that choir on the street in Beijing, showing everyone around us how happy we are that Jesus is born and the Saviour reigns? Are we genuinely glad that the divine has become human in Jesus Christ, or are we just putting on the brave face our culture wants at Christmas? Be glad in the Lord always! Again, I say, be glad!