Lectionary Commentaries for December 16, 2018
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 3:7-18

Michal Beth Dinkler

Luke depicts John the Baptist’s message as a clarion call to repentance.

His proclamation can be divided into roughly three sections: First (verses 7-9), he addresses potential excuses. He has harsh words (“You brood of vipers …!”) for those who think baptism will exempt them from the coming judgment. This is not just a message for Gentiles. It’s true for Jews, as well, John insists. It’s not enough to claim Abraham as their ancestor (Luke 3:8b). They must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8a). Those who do not bear such fruit will experience the swift, harsh judgment of being “cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9)

This is just the first of several instances of “bearing fruit” imagery in Luke. Jesus later tells a parable communicating the same message about repentance, culminating in the following pronouncement: “Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:9). Elsewhere, Jesus uses this imagery to connect one’s actions to the state of one’s heart:

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43-45)

As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience (Luke 8:15).

John, too, implies that fruits “worthy of repentance” will be evident in our behavior. This applies not only individuals, but to communities, as well. Just as the nation of Israel is called to repentance and restoration (see also Isaiah 40.3), so does John suggest that his baptism is not just for individuals; it has communal implications, as well.

In the second section of his message (Luke 3:10-14), when “the crowds” ask what they should do, he says to provide generously for those in need. Then, two groups — tax collectors and soldiers — ask the same question. Notice that both groups worked for the government, keeping order in the name of the Roman emperor Tiberius (who ruled 14-37 CE). Luke’s context of imperialism is unmistakable.

Tax collectors, for their part, were known to “skim off the top,” filling their own pockets with others’ hard-earned money. John reminds both groups not to push beyond the limits of the authority they’ve been given. They are not to use fear (such as extortion or threats) to coerce others into giving them what they want. Rather, bearing fruits worthy of repentance means pursuing economic justice. For them, this means doing only the job they’ve been given (Luke 3:13) and being content with the compensation they receive (3:14b).

These themes are carried into one of the most famous examples of a repentant tax collector, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. After meeting Jesus, this “rich” chief tax collector (19:2) declares, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Zacchaeus recognizes his wrongdoing, repents, and makes amends. Jesus’ response echoes and reinforces John the Baptist’s preaching. John had warned the Jews that it wouldn’t be enough to claim Abraham as their ancestor (3:8b), and with Zacchaeus, Jesus proves the point: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (19:9). 

The third and final section of John’s proclamation in the wilderness (Luke 3:15-17) depicts him doing exactly what he has just advised. That is, he shows that he knows his role, and he refuses to push beyond the bounds of the authority he’s been given: When the people wonder whether John himself is the promised Messiah (3:15), he responds by underscoring his subordination to the one who is coming (3:16), and the ultimate authority that one will wield (3:17). John the Baptist thus embodies his own advice; he is content with what he has received. Luke draws the section to a close with a final summary description of what John has been doing in the wilderness: “he preached good news/the gospel (euaggelizo) to the people.”

“Preaching the gospel” is a familiar phrase to most Christians. But it’s important to remember that the Greek word euaggelizo and the noun form euaggelion (eu = “good” + angelos = “messenger”/angel) were not originally Christian words. In pre-Christian usage, in the Roman Empire, this could refer to any kind of “good news.” Typically, such news would be proclaimed orally by a town crier (an “evangelist”), and often, this good news reflected an imperial agenda; the evangelist would announce, for example, Roman victory at war or an imperial birthday.

Early Christians adopted and adapted these terms, using them to refer specifically to the proclamation of good news about Christ. My point is that Luke’s use of euaggelizo to describe John the Baptist’s message about Jesus (and to announce Jesus’ birth in Luke 1:19) is not neutral. In the Roman Empire, these words had clear political connotations.

This passage might lead us to ask: What does it mean to bear fruit worthy of repentance today? Are we content with what we have, or do we use our authority like the tax collectors and soldiers who coerced and cheated others? Further: How do or should Christians engage in political discourse? What is the “good news” in contexts of imperialism today?


First Reading

Commentary on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Jin H. Han

Rejoice! Here comes a happy prophet.

We usually do not associate a prophet of the Old Testament with joy and jubilation. Zephaniah 3:14-20 makes a delightful exception. Gladness engulfs God, as well. God is happy for the redeemed who will now experience evil no more. What a lovely ending of a book that begins with the threat to wipe away everything from the face of the earth, eerily recalling the Flood! After that primordial deluge, God promised not to destroy the earth ever again with a flood (Genesis 9:11).

Zephaniah’s oracles compel one to concede that the water may not be the only way to cleanse the world. In 1:14-18, the prophet calls attention to “the day of the Lord” (yom Yahweh; see also “that day” in verse 10), which will wreak havoc on the world (see also Amos 5:18-24). The oracles of the nations in Zephaniah 2 provide little relief. God, who punished those foreign places, is now going to reprove Jerusalem for being no better than they are and for failing to heed the lessons of history (Zephaniah 3:1-7).

Precisely at a time when there is no ground for optimism, Zephaniah dares to hold that things will take a radical turn for the better — thanks to the Lord (verses 8-13). Building on the gleam of hope, the prophet bursts into the song of joy in verses 14-20. The world is a total mess, but though the people have failed God, God will pull them through.

Once an object of condemnation and chastisement (1:4. 12), Jerusalem is now addressed with the tender appellatives like “daughter Zion” and “daughter Jerusalem,” and these words of endearment are paired with “Israel,” a traditional term that encompasses the entire people of God (3:14). They are told to “sing aloud” and “shout” (verse 14a) and “rejoice” and “exult” (verse 14b). These doublets of verbs may well be cases of hendiadys (the ancient rhetorical device of saying one thing with two words), yet their repetition effectively simulates rounds of sustained celebration.

What can account for this sudden jubilation? The prophet attributes it to the Lord (Yahweh), the guarantor of salvation (verses 15 and 17). God has removed the guilt, and those who used to bring charges against God’s people are there no more. Yahweh the king of Israel is going to shield the people of God from “disaster” (verse 15; literally, “evil”).

In the new state of bliss, the forgiven sinners receive words of encouragement and are told not to fear (verse 16). Elsewhere in the Bible, “Fear not” is often used as the formula that announces God’s appearance (commonly known as theophany; see Genesis 15:1; 21:17; Exodus 20:20 and so forth). Zephaniah reminds the people of the coming of the gracious Lord, who will save them from the debilitating effect of fear (Zephaniah 3:16b).

The prophet’s explanation of what God does is based on who God is. In verse 15b, the prophet lifts up the compassionate God as the king of Israel. Although most modern people may have to struggle to imagine what it must have been like to live under the rule of a king, the king takes an all-encompassing role in the monarchic society and determines the quality of life of the people who live in the realm. The prophet proclaims that Yahweh, the king, will make a peaceable world for the redeemed (verses 15-16).

In verse 17a, God is presented as a warrior. The depiction of God as a militant figure may sound antiquated or jarring or even dangerous. This warring figure, however, does not go to war to pillage and plunder. The Divine Warrior comes and delivers the people of God who have nowhere else to turn except to God.

God’s work profoundly affects the divine being, as well. Verse 17 speaks of divine elation, echoing verse 14, in which the prophet instills gladness in the heart of the people who are about to hear what God has done. Based on the Greek and the Syriac, the NRSV’s translation depicts God’s joy resulting in the renewal of the people of God. In the Hebrew, God is “silent” — a scene that draws out the gentleness of divine love.

God’s love soon gives way to “loud singing” (verse 17b). This singing God takes delight in the forgiven. Zephaniah’s prophetic imagination of God who is glad to forgive the sinful nation may remind us of a fascinating exchange recorded in the Talmud. A question is raised as to whether God prays. “What does God pray?” According to Rav (Abba Arika) in the portion of the Talmud called “Berakhot,” the Lord prays, “May my mercy overcome my wrath!” (b. Berakhot 7a). In other words, God prays that divine desire for compassion be greater than divine demand for justice.

God’s joy has tangible outcomes for the broken people of God. The people who have been scattered will be brought back home (verse 20a). Once they were subject to shame, and now they will enjoy fame (verse 20b). This vision of restoration will not be relegated to a distant future, for it is going to come true “before [their] eyes” (verse 20b). If it is not already in sight, it will come true very soon.

In the liturgical calendar, this OT lesson is assigned for the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as the Gaudete Sunday (so named after the introit of the service, which begins with the following words: Gaudete in domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”; see also Psalm 84:1-2 and Philippians 4:4-5). On this joy Sunday, we light the pink candle, so that we may not lose sight of the delight of Christmas during the somber penitent period of Advent. After all, this first season of the church calendar is not about self-mortification but about craning toward the good news of the birth of Christ. The people are to hear this: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst” (Zephaniah 3:17). Joy to the world! The Lord is come.


Psalm

Commentary on Isaiah 12:2-6

Adam Hearlson

Isaiah 12 is the culminating hymn of the first section of Isaiah’s prophecy.

The first 11 chapters of Isaiah contain some of the most beautiful and treasured imagery of scripture, some of which also shows up in our advent lectionaries (Isaiah 9:2-7). Isaiah 11 culminates Isaiah’s assurance that a road of return is being prepared for the restoration of Israel. Even the far-off remnants will find their way back to God’s holy city.

After terrible trouble, salvation is finally being initiated for Israel by the mercy of God. Of course, in the coming chapters, Israel will hear a withering critique of its leadership in Judah during the arrival of Assyrian power. But suspended between the visions of fulfillment and the coming critique, is a brief interlude of Thanksgiving. Only six verses, Isaiah 12 gives Israel an opportunity to respond to the visions of fulfillment provided in the previous chapters.

I would encourage those interested in preaching this text to add back the first verse of the chapter. For one, it preserves the structural integrity of the hymn, allowing the symmetry of the direction, “You will say on that day,” a chance to communicate the imperative force of the hymn. By removing the first verse, we lose the balance where the first imperative is given to an individual and the second given to the collective.

Additionally, the direction in verse one is so wonderfully clear and direct, “You will say on that day: God, I thank you. For though you were angry with me, your anger has abated and you have consoled me.” Verse one makes plain the purpose of the hymn: thanksgiving. As a song of Thanksgiving it belongs in the company of the thanksgiving songs sung on the banks of the Red Sea in Exodus 15.

Another striking detail in this hymn comes in verse 3. Suspended between the two songs of thanksgiving, the water-drawing image suggests a ritual liturgical processional during the Feast of Tabernacles. With the city lit up, priests would carry water from the pool of Siloam through the water gate into the temple court. With music and singing, the High Priest would pour water on the altar. The Talmud states that “he who has not seen the delights of the water procession has not seen any of the pleasures of life (Sukkah, V, II).”

Reading this hymn in light of the advent season in which it is provided, I am struck by the twin stage directions provided in verse one and four. “And you will say…” I cannot help but hear the Christmas pageant director whispering the lines to a child dressed up in musty old costumes. In a context where Israel had been held captive by the Assyrian armies and their worship and practice was threatened, I am reminded of the grace of instructions. When we lose our ways, forget the old stories, or our imaginations atrophy, it is a grace to have someone say, “And you will say…” The hidden figure of the director stands behind these two hymns, gently coaxing the people into a long-forgotten posture.

Some of the best of our liturgies come in the form of prompts. The Lord’s Prayer, notably, is a moment where Christ directs us in prayer. Communion liturgies regularly come preset with prompted responses. These responses are not there to stifle creativity but are the necessary scaffolding for the creation of more liturgy. The scaffolding gives rise to the extemporaneous and the extemporaneous solidifies into meaningful prompts. As I read the interlude in Isaiah 12, I hear the scaffolding being created for future hymns of thanksgiving.

One year when I was the minister of the chapel at a New England seminary, I decided that for the final December service before finals we hold an all-school Christmas pageant. A student tracked down 150 costumes so that everyone who showed up to the service would be able to choose their part in the pageant.

The President of the school donned a shepherd’s robe. Three women professors put on the crowns of the Magi. We had three virgin Marys and only one Joseph. We had a camel costume that required two people, thus forcing someone to play the part of the camel rump. As everyone gathered in the chapel, I took the role of stage director. Prepared with my script, I told the Christmas story encouraging everyone to act out their parts.

With each movement of the story, I gently told each character, “And then you say…” As everyone played their part and felt comfortable in their role, they stopped taking my stage directions and started to enact the story themselves. Suddenly, without planning the donkey started dancing with the blessed virgin and within moments, the whole of the pageant decided to join them. The musician broke into “Go tell it on the Mountain,” and without planning or foresight, on the eve of their finals, everyone danced and sang together.

The stage directions were a doorway into the pageant. They were a form of permission. The stage directions were the type of initial binding suggestion that leads to creative freedom. Isaiah 12 is a gift to the Israelite community who is learning again, as we all have to, how to worship a God who has called us back.


Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7

Holly Hearon

“Joy” and “peace” are themes we encounter throughout the season of advent: on cards, holiday decorations, and in music streaming forth from malls and churches.

Yet experience shows us that “joy” and “peace” are often elusive, especially at this time of year. Loneliness, family tensions, inflated expectations, unexpected crises, grief, and national events make them seem just beyond our grasp, except perhaps in the tinsel of holiday films.

The allusiveness of “joy” and “peace” invite us to pause and reflect on what it is we are seeking when we speak of “joy” and “peace.” Is it an emotional high? A state of perpetual happiness? An absence of conflict? Or do “joy” and “peace” represent hopes that have become little more than a seasonal habit?

Philippians 4:4-7 offers a helpful framework for exploring “joy” and “peace” in relation to the life of faith. Although the verses are grammatically structured as independent clauses, they are thematically inter-related. Considered as a whole, they suggest that the substance of joy and peace is found not so much in the emotions they evoke, as in the attitudes, behaviors, and relationships in which they are grounded.

In verse 4, Paul urges the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always.” The use of the present imperative signals that “rejoicing” is a habitual attitude that informs behavior.1 The inclusion of the adverb “always” suggests “regardless of circumstances” (so 2 Corinthians 6:10). The critical phrase, however, is “in the Lord.”

There are many things that can be a cause of rejoicing: good news; an unexpected reprieve; achievement of a hard-won goal. In some cases, the “joy” will be fleeting; where the cause of rejoicing has an enduring impact, the “joy” will continue. To “rejoice in the Lord always” points to a “joy” that is not only enduring, but that sustains us even when we are worn down by life challenges. This requires something more than seasonal cheerfulness. It is a “joy” rooted in an ongoing relationship, built on trust, that is able to negotiate the moments of joylessness in ways that ultimately work for good (see also Romans 8:35-39).

Critical, here, is relationship: our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but also our relationship in community. For Paul, “rejoicing” is cultivated through mutual support:

  • “I am glad and rejoice with all of you — and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me” (2:17-18; see also Romans 12:15).
  • And, “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me” (4:10; see also 1 Corinthians 16:17; 2 Corinthians 7:16).

This does not necessarily mean that everyone always agrees or gets along. Rather, it reminds us that each of us has a role to play in creating the supportive relationships that are the foundation of “joy” and a cause for “rejoicing.”

In 4:5, Paul continues the theme of relationship with the command, “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Here he employs an aorist imperative, which emphasizes a specific, rather than general, kind of conduct.2 In English, “gentleness” is often associated with being “meek and mild.” In Greek, epieikes, is associated with tolerance, “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom.”3 To embody epieikes means to recognize that we have a choice in how we behave towards others. It is not just about being nice or kind; it is about the exercise of power.

Paul contextualizes this command by following it with “the Lord is near.” Elsewhere, Paul uses the word epieikes (“gentleness”) to describe Christ (2 Corinthians 10:1). It is paired with prautes, which is translated “meekness” but is better defined as “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance.”4 To choose not to exercise power, or to exercise it differently, requires self-awareness and humility. This is the power of Christ. It is in this way that Paul says we are to engage everyone.

We are sometimes tempted to insist on exercising every right of law or custom because of fear or anxiety. In Philippians 4:6, Paul counters these fears and anxieties with the command, “do not worry about anything.” The use of the present imperative is a helpful reminder that Paul is urging us to cultivate an attitude grounded in practice: “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Paul is not saying that there is nothing to worry about or that the things we worry about are unimportant. Rather he places our anxieties, fears, and concerns in the context of our relationship to God. We are invited to make ourselves known to God, and to ourselves, at our points of greatest vulnerability. Further, we are told to do so with thanksgiving. Before we know the results. Thanksgiving, in this way, becomes an expression of our openness to process, because we have confidence that we will be supported and sustained by the One who is faithful.

Paul concludes in 4:7 with the promise of peace. The peace that Paul speaks of is a gift because it is produced by God. Yet it is not a gift to be received passively; to be set on a shelf and admired. Nor is it an act of divine intervention that suddenly makes all things right (at least, from our perspective). It is a peace that pushes the limits of our imaginations, challenging us to constantly reconsider what it is that makes for peace, for whom, and how. Because God’s imagination is larger than ours.

It is also a peace that guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. To guard is to protect. There is no shortage of evidence that our hearts and minds, two powerful forces that drive our imaginations and shape our attitudes and behaviors, need protecting — not only from the influence of outside forces, but sometimes from ourselves. God’s peace protects us by drawing us deeper into relationship with Christ, the source also of our joy.


Notes:

  1. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 721-22.
  2. Wallace, 719-20.
  3. W.F. Bauer, W. Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 371.
  4. Bauer, Danker Arndt & Gingrich, 861.