Engaging the Word: Readings for 12/13/15 (The Third Sunday of Advent)

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By Barbara Klugh             

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18. Go to www.lectionarypage.net to read or print the weekly lectionary text.

The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for “rejoice.” At our worship services we light the rose candle on the Advent wreath and clergy may use rose vestments. This week’s readings call us to rejoice because God is near.

Prophet Zephaniah, 18th century Russian icon. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Prophet Zephaniah, 18th century Russian icon. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Zephaniah 3:14-20:  The prophet Zephaniah was a contemporary of Jeremiah and prophesied during the reign of King Josiah (641-610 BC). The major theme of the book is about God’s judgment against religious and moral corruption. He preached a prophetic wake-up call pronouncing  the coming “day of the Lord,” a day of judgment for Judah, Jerusalem, and the surrounding nations.

Our reading, however, is at the end of the book and Zephaniah sees the world that God will usher in after judgment. As God brought the enemy as the agent of his judgment, God is now bringing salvation. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart.”  God has intervened; The Lord is with his people and offers a series of promises. He will protect and keep them safe, banish their oppressors,  bring the exiles home, and Israel will be  honored by all people.

Canticle 9: We pray this canticle, The First Song of Isaiah, on Mondays after the Old Testament reading during Morning Prayer. The text is taken from Isaiah 12:2-6. Similar in tone to our reading from Zephaniah, the prophet celebrates the joy and praise of the people on the promised day of salvation. “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid….Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring our your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

Philippians 4:4-7: Paul wrote Philippians from a jail cell, yet he is full of contagious joy. In our brief reading, Paul urges the church to rejoice in the Lord. The Lord is near, so we need not worry but can make our needs known to God. God’s peace will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

St. John the Baptist Preaching by Pieter Brueghal the Younger, 1601. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

St. John the Baptist Preaching by Pieter Brueghal the Younger, 1601. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Luke 3:7-18: This week’s reading is quite a contrast to the call to rejoice in our other readings. We continue in Luke’s gospel with John the Baptist preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah by baptizing them for the forgiveness of sins. He said to the crowds, “You brood of vipers!” He accuses people of being baptized as an empty ritual, with no intension of starting a new, ethical life. If they think by being baptized, they will evade God’s judgment, they have another think coming. If they think that having Abraham as their ancestor gives them protection from the wrath to come, they’re wrong about that, too. Judgment is at hand—the ax is already lying at the root of the trees. Busted!

The crowd didn’t run away; instead they asked John, “What then should we do?” How could they bear fruit worthy of repentance? John gives specific directions. Those who have more then they need, whether food or clothing, should share with those who don’t have enough. John told tax collectors, who were notorious for overcharging people,  “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers wanted to know what they should do, and John told them to refrain from violence, blackmail, and discontent with their wages.

John’s teaching is so passionate and powerful, that some think he might be the Messiah, but John points to the one greater than he, saying , “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Using a metaphor from farming, John says the godly (wheat) will be gathered to Christ, but the ungodly (chaff) “will burn with unquenchable fire.”

I pondered the final sentence: “So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” John’s message sounds harsh, so how is this “good news”? The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible explains, “John’s note of doom has little to commend it as ‘good news,’ but by Luke’s time the word had become a technical term for preaching in the mission of the church.”

John taught kingdom living and the people crowded to listen to him and be baptized. Somehow his message resonated with great authority. And, although his manner of speaking  was dramatic, his teaching is still practical today—share your stuff, be fair to all, don’t take advantage. We can take John’s words to inspire us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. What better way to welcome Christ at Christmas?

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