THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the preaching of John, that, rejoicing in your salvation, we may bring forth the fruits of repentance; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure in the New Testament. I read a commentator recently who lamented the fact that we have lost the “historical” John in the mists of history and all that remains of him is the gospel portrayal of a literary character whose only role is to magnify the ministry of Jesus. Would that we were all so “lost!” Would that all of us disciples could die so thoroughly to self that others see in us only Jesus magnified. Would that we were a people whose lives are a total mystery apart from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We are never more real than when our lives are lived out of our relationship with Jesus. That beats the hell out of whatever “historical” existence there might be for us.
In last Sunday’s gospel John announced the Lord’s coming and urged us, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Luke 3:4. This Sunday he tells us concretely what that looks like. In response to John’s bold proclamation that the reign of God is immanent, the people begin to ask “what shall we do?” vss. 10; 12; and 14. The answer is starkly simple. Live now as though God’s reign has already come. Share your food and clothing. Stop exploiting your career and social standing to enrich yourself at the expense of others. This is not just whinny exhortation or even a cry for social justice. It is the good news of the arrival of God’s reign. Vs. 18. One either believes John and begins orientating one’s life toward the priorities and patterns of the world to come; or one rejects John’s good news and continues living under the old order of hierarchy, patriarchy, class distinctions and violent oppression.
Advent is that one time during the church year when the radical nature of the good news threatens to break through all of our ecclesiastical efforts to domesticate it. I have listened ad nauseam to theologians in my own Lutheran tradition harp on the paradoxical relationship between the “already” and the “not yet” in the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus. What irks me is not so much their pointing out the tension between these two seemingly contradictory assertions concerning the kingdom. That is real enough. My objection is that we Lutherans have always laid far too much emphasis on the “not yet.” Announcing the “already” rattles us. We are suspicious of the unexpected and disruptive. Revolution terrifies us. Being American protestant ever white and ever polite progressives, we prefer gradual, evolutionary, incremental change. The Sermon on the Mount is fine as long as it can safely be understood as an unattainable ideal designed to drive us to the despair of ever attaining it and to send us fleeing to the throne of grace for a dispensation from it. Or we can tolerate it as God’s expressed intention for life in the “not yet” side of things, but certainly not applicable to the “real world” as we now experience it. For now, we must be satisfied with modest tweaks to late stage capitalism and a kinder, gentler nationalism because the sort of world in which the Sermon on the Mount can actually be practiced is “not yet.”
John the Baptist doesn’t see it that way. For him, there is no “not yet.” It’s “already,” period. Why else would you empty your closet to clothe a stranger or raid your refrigerator to feed somebody you don’t even know? Why would a wealthy tax collector or a soldier of the king begin to doubt the legitimacy of their life’s work? Only because the “already” is eclipsing the “not yet.” John’s preaching made the impending reign of God more real to his hearers than the world driven by survival of the fittest. John is living in the “already.” Let the “not yet” be damned.
The “already” is meant to be lived in the midst of the “not yet.” To be sure, “already” takes the shape of the cross as long as it is still “not yet.” To a world thoroughly conformed to the “not yet,” the lives of those living in the “already” are something of a mystery. They seem impractical, ineffective and nonsensical. Yet if you are convinced that God’s reign is immanent and has indeed already broken into the present moment, conforming your heart and behavior to that reality is about the most pragmatic step you can take.
Here is a poem by Wendell Berry that captures what I think it must be like to live the “already” in the heart of the “not yet.”
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world.
Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit.
Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world.
Laughter is immeasurable.
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade.
Rest your head
in her lap.
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
From The Mad Farmer Poems, (c. 2008 by Wendell Berry). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. You can read more about him and his many works at the Poetry Foundation website.
The book of Zephaniah is one of the twelve Minor Prophets. They are so called not because they are any less important than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (Major Prophets), but because these prophetic collections are much smaller. Zephaniah is only three chapters long. The name, “Zephaniah” means “Yahweh
Hides” or “Yahweh is concealed.” “Sophonias (Zephaniah),” Catholic Encyclopedia (c. 2012 by Kevin Knight). In the opening verses, Zephaniah’s ancestry is traced through Hezekiah. Zephaniah 1:1. It is not known whether this reference is to King Hezekiah who reigned over Judah between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E. Hezekiah was one of the few kings that gets a favorable rating from the books of Kings and Chronicles. The prophets Isaiah and Micah both were active during his reign and it seems that he was somewhat receptive to their preaching. According to the opening verses of the book, Zephaniah’s preaching took place during the reign of King Josiah from 640 B.C.E. through 609 B.C.E. It is therefore possible that Zephaniah could have been sired by Hezekiah through one of his concubines. On the other hand, because Hezekiah was such a well-regarded king, it would not be unusual for the name to become popular. The Hezekiah named as Zephaniah’s father is not identified as a king or given any royal appellation. Consequently, Zephaniah’s royal lineage is not a foregone conclusion.
It is also thought that Zephaniah’s prophetic ministry must have come prior to the reforms introduced by King Josiah ten years into his reign that are reported in II King 23:4-25. Zephaniah criticized severely the idolatrous worship of Baal and Asherah in Jerusalem, all traces of which Josiah rooted out of the city in the course of his restoration and purification of worship at the Temple. Zephaniah 1:4-6. Zephaniah was also unsparing in his criticism of “the officials and the king’s sons.” Zephaniah 1:8. It seems unlikely that he would have leveled such criticisms during a period of time when the King was implementing the very reforms Zephaniah was demanding. Thus, it is likely that the prophecies we have from the prophet Zephaniah date from between 640 B.C.E and 630 B.C.E., the first decade of Josiah’s reign prior to the institution of his reforms.
The book can be divided into three sections corresponding to its three chapters. The first chapter focuses chiefly on the corruption of the royal court and priesthood in Jerusalem. Zephaniah threatens the nation with divinely wrought destruction for its sins. In the second chapter the prophet expands the threat of judgment to Israel’s enemies. The third chapter begins with what appears to be further indictments against Judah, but the prophet’s tone changes abruptly after chapter five. Beginning with Zephaniah 3:6, the prophet begins to prophecy judgment against “the nations,” and words of comfort directed to Jerusalem. This is the section from which our lesson for Sunday is taken. The prophet promises that God will rescue Judah, restore her fortunes and defeat her enemies. Instead of bringing a judgment of destruction, God now declares a removal of destruction. Some scholars have explained this abrupt change by attributing these verses to a prophet other than Zephaniah who preached during or shortly after the period of the Babylonian Exile. Montague, George T., Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Lamentations and Obadiah, Old Testament Reading Guide (c. 1961 by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) pp. 22-23. This is quite possible. Like other prophetic books, Zephaniah is a compilation of prophetic utterances given at different times under different circumstances. As was the case with both Isaiah and Jeremiah, it is possible that the work of one of Zephaniah’s disciples or an editor might have found its way into the book. But I am doubtful for the following reasons: First, there is there is no mention of Jerusalem’s destruction, Babylon, the Exile or the return from exile. Second, the theme of the nations being cleansed and united by the glory of God shining forth from Jerusalem is part and parcel of the earlier prophecies of Isaiah. This week’s lesson reflects these same themes that are entirely consistent with the earlier prophetic tradition of Isaiah and so fit into Zephaniah’s period of ministry in the late seventh century.
God’s promise to “live in the midst [of the people]” reflects the longing of Advent. Like Israel, the church is a people formed by its longing for God’s reign. We struggle between the reality in which we live on the one hand that is characterized by violence, injustice and cruelty and on the other hand an alternate reality proclaimed to us by the scriptures in which God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. For us the latter reality is the more real and compelling even though we cannot see it yet.
As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters of Isaiah 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters of Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters of Isaiah 56-66 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. So it appears that the words from our lesson, which fall within the chapters attributed to First Isaiah of the 8th Century, are more likely from a later time. Most likely, they were placed by the editor as a poetic doxology to the collection of prophetic utterances by Isaiah in the first eleven chapters of the book. Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N. attributes these verses to the prophet who gave us Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). See Commentary on Workingpreacher.org. I believe they also fit into the context of disillusionment and despair following the return from exile addressed by Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). There does not appear to be enough in terms of historical references to date it with any certainty. The call to praise God and acknowledge God as savior is naturally appropriate for Advent which looks back to Jesus who came and forward to the Christ who is to come.
As I pointed out last week, the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Phillipi at different times. These letters were collected together and over time became integrated as a single document. The three letters in their likely chronological order are as follows:
- Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
- Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
- Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
See the post for Sunday, December 6, 2015 for more particulars on this letter.
As was the case last week, so this week the reading is from the second of these three letters and constitutes its conclusion. Paul reminds the Philippian church that the Lord is near and encourages them to rejoice. Once again, it needs to be emphasized that for followers of Jesus the announcement that “The Lord is at hand” (Vs. 5) does not conjure up images of terror, divine wrath and damnation. It elicits rejoicing. Advent is above all a season of joy. We do not face the future with dread. We look to tomorrow with hope, but not out of some blind optimism that everything will work out in the end. No, our hope is grounded in the promise of Jesus’ return to reign in gentleness and peace.
Last week’s lesson introduced John as the voice crying, “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” This week, we come face to face with John the preacher. Luke’s account of John’s preaching differs significantly from the Gospel of Matthew in one respect. In Matthew, John addresses only the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism with the scathing words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In Luke, this stinging rebuke is directed at the “multitudes that came to be baptized.” Vs. 7. We don’t know much about John’s audience. Luke does not tell us who was among the multitudes. We learn a few verses later, however, that there were soldiers and tax collectors among them. We can safely assume that the folks who sought John out and came to receive his baptism were looking for a renewed Israel, perhaps along the lines of Zephaniah’s vision. That would have involved an end to corruption within the priesthood and worship in the Temple-just as rampant in John’s day as in that of Zephaniah. They might also have been looking for restoration of Israel as a great kingdom. Or they may have expected some miraculous transformation of the present world into a world in which Israel would be glorified rather than downtrodden. Again, this last expectation would have been consistent with the hope expressed in our reading from Zephaniah. But whatever they were expecting, John makes clear to them that the change they are hoping for must begin with them. Submitting to John’s baptism without repentance would be an empty and futile ritual exercise. It is not enough to be a descendent of Abraham (or a confirmed Lutheran). It is fruits, not roots that matter.
Understandably, the people respond, “Well then, what are we to do? What are these fruits you are talking about?” John does not have to look far for an answer. His reply concerning the fruits of repentance is squarely within the framework of prophetic tradition. See, e.g. Isaiah 58:1-9:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Repentance that is all about ritual formalities like fasting, wearing of sackcloth and ashes falls far short of what the Lord requires. Repentance is turning back to the Lord and one cannot do that without turning toward the sister or brother in need. One of the most ancient and urgent commands in the Mosaic law is that “You shall open wide your hand to the poor in the land.” Deuteronomy 15:11.
The temptation here is to jump too quickly from John’s admonitions here to a more generalized charity that reduces the poor to an abstraction. Note well that both the prophetic passage from Isaiah and John’s preaching is directed toward Israel, not the world at large. These proclamations make sense only to people living in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel such as Israel itself or disciples of Jesus who are united with that God through baptism. This is particularly important for us American Christians to keep in mind as we frequently confuse America with the people of God. The Bible was written to shape the life of the church, not to reform the structures of American society. Furthermore, the sharing that John speaks about is to take place within the frame work of a covenant people called out of the rest of the world to be a “light to the nations.” So the “poor” here are not the starving masses, but the fellow in the next pew who lost his job and cannot afford coats for his kids. John is not asking us to immerse ourselves in the war against poverty. He just wants the extra coat in our closet for the brother without one.
I might be criticized here for lack of a social conscience. One irate person who heard me make this point responded, “Don’t you think Christians should be concerned about social justice?” My response was that I think everyone should be concerned about social justice whether they are Christians or not. But social justice is not enough. Jesus did not merely feed the hungry. He invited them to the messianic banquet. Jesus did not simply make donations for the care of lepers. He touched them. The prophet Isaiah did not call upon Israel to build homeless shelters. He told them to “bring the homeless into your house.” There are disciples of Jesus who do just that. I know, for example, of families that have taken on several foster children, some of them with serious emotional problems and physical disabilities, all in an effort to provide for them a secure and loving home. One example of precisely this thing is Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. This is an intentional Christian community dedicated to “freely sharing life and resources with one another and with our neighbors in order to demonstrate God’s peace and justice in the world.” I encourage you to check out their website.
I have been told repeatedly that, while these individual efforts are commendable, the problems of homelessness and poverty are systemic and that we need systemic reform of one sort or another to solve them. That might well be true, but so is the converse. Systemic change will never overcome poverty as long as we continue to view the poor as social problems to be solved rather than as sisters and brothers precious both to God and to us. The church is called to be a community where the poor are welcomed as valued partners rather than tolerated as burdens. Let me add here that I think we could be and should be doing a far better job with this. That is one reason why we need to hear John’s preaching so much.
How, then, does John prepare the way of the Lord? Our lesson concludes, noting that “With these and many other exhortations, [John] preached good news to the people.” But in what sense is this good news? John tells us of this “coming one” that “his winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is an unsettling image, but maybe that is the point. Can you really expect to be baptized with fire and not get burned? If repentance is about a radical change of direction, it stands to reason that some things are going to have to be left behind-like the notion that you can ride into the kingdom of God on the proper pedigree. Some things must be given up-like the extra food in the pantry and the extra coats in the closet. But the promise of health is well worth the pain of the cure. The judgment John proclaims is not one of doom, but of promise. The unquenchable fire is for purifying, refining and renewing-not for destroying. That flame is lit each time Jesus calls another disciple to follow him. Throughout the way that leads finally to the cross, that flame burns to strengthen, purify and refine the new creation.
I think a word or two should be said also about John’s words to the soldiers and the tax collectors. In all likelihood, the soldiers belonged to Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee under leave from Rome. Ellis, Earl E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 by Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 90. We should not think of these folks as disciplined members of an armed service doing a patriotic duty for the good of their country under a strict code of military ethics. These “soldiers” to which Luke refers, were more like armed thugs hired to protect a local warlord. Their wages were meager, but that did not matter because they had a license to take whatever they wished from the local population to supplement their income. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by G.B. Caird, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 73. The tax collectors were not civil servants. They were free agents who, through payment, patronage or some other means obtained the right to collect taxes for Rome within a given geographical area. They were told generally the amount they needed to collect for Rome and whatever else they could manage to extort was their living. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 73. The tax collectors most frequently encountered by Jesus, and probably John as well, were at the very bottom of the food chain. They were Jews recruited by regional tax collectors to do the dirty work of extracting revenue from their neighbors. Naturally, they also had to make a living and so collected a premium of their own. Thus, one must wonder how John could expect a soldier of Herod to make do with his wages or a tax collector to extract no more than what his principal required. In both cases, obedience would result in poverty.
Some scholars have suggested that Luke, who was writing in a time long after these events took place, was projecting into the story a more respectable means of taxation and a more developed military ethic than existed in the time of Jesus. In other words, we have an anachronism. I don’t find this explanation convincing. Luke consistently takes a very radical view of discipleship throughout his gospel. Sometimes the shape of discipleship is poverty, persecution and even death. I believe therefore that John knew full well that he was calling the soldiers and the tax collectors to a life that would put them at odds with their professions and their loyalties. But, once again, like the priceless pearl or the treasure in the field, the reign of God is worth letting go of everything else to pursue. Along with the rest of the multitude, the soldiers and tax collectors are promised a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.