Lectionary Commentaries for December 13, 2015
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 3:7-18

Judith Jones

In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist issued a ringing call to prepare the way for the Lord.

He proclaimed a baptism of repentance leading to forgiveness of sins. In today’s reading, John spells out what repentance looks like: when peoples’ hearts and minds are changed, their actions change too. Words are empty if they don’t result in deeds. Fruitless trees will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

John’s rhetoric is neither polite nor gentle. In Luke (as opposed to Matthew) he doesn’t specifically target the religious leaders. Instead, he calls the whole crowd that has come out to see him “you brood of vipers” and warns them: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” His message is clear. Don’t assume that because you have a religious heritage, you belong to God’s people. God can create a new people from stones. We let ourselves off the hook too easily if we make this merely a historical remark, a saying that sets the stage for the inclusion of the Gentiles among God’s people. Although it certainly does fit with Luke’s interest in redefining the people of God, John’s message needs to be heard by baptized Christians as well. It’s as shocking as if a preacher in a liturgical church today were to say, “Don’t presume to say, ‘We’re baptized!’ Show your faith by your actions, or get ready for the ax.”

It’s notable that John addresses this threat not to individuals, but to the group as a whole. The ax imagery prefigures Jesus’ parable in Luke 13:6–9 about the unproductive fig tree that is given a good dose of fertilizer and another year to live. But if it doesn’t bear fruit after one more year, then what? The ax. With these stark images both John and Jesus warn God’s people against complacency. If the community that identifies itself as God’s own people does not bear the fruit that God desires, God is always capable of beginning again with people who are willing to listen and obey.

John’s challenge to fruitful living prompts a series of questions from his repentant hearers. “What then shall we do?” The first question comes from the crowd in general, and John replies to the whole group. Do you own two shirts? You have more than you need. Do you have food? Give some away. He leaves no wiggle room for those who might be tempted to say, “But I’m not rich.” The command is absolute: some people in your community don’t have enough to survive, so if you have anything at all, share it.

The next two queries, from the tax collectors and from the soldiers, move beyond sharing to address behaviors that cause poverty. John tells the tax collectors and soldiers to stop abusing people in order to make more money. Don’t take more than the minimum, don’t shake people down, and don’t blackmail them. Be content with your wages.

John’s words show that he views poverty neither as an accident nor as the fault of the poor. In his time, as in ours, the earth produced more than enough goods to feed and clothe everyone. The problem then and now is that the resources have been grabbed up by a very small percentage of the population. John called not only the wealthiest but also the merely comfortable to treat their accumulation of goods as directly related to the seriousness of their repentance. How we get money and how we use money exposes what we value. Economic issues are spiritual issues. If we ignore God’s commands to practice social and economic justice, how can we claim that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? If we prioritize our pleasures above our neighbors’ basic necessities, how can we claim to love our neighbors as we love ourselves?

Though John’s message seems radical to his hearers, he is quick to remind them that he is merely a messenger preparing the way for the stronger one. That one will baptize in the Holy Spirit and in fire. The imagery suggests not only the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, but the refiner’s fire prophesied in Malachi 3:1–5. But what will the fire burn up? Is John saying that some people will be destroyed, and others will be saved? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s perceptive remark about human nature suggests a truer and more difficult answer: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Which one of us can claim truthfully to be all wheat and no chaff? When the stronger one winnows the wheat and burns the chaff, he will sift out and destroy the impurities within every person (cf. Luke 22:31). Like the water of baptism, the promised fire is a gift that cleanses.

George MacDonald, whom C.S. Lewis credited with baptizing his imagination, meditated at length on the idea that God’s love is a consuming fire. He taught that God’s mercy and God’s justice are not opposites, but one and the same: “When we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of Him is groundless? No. As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more … The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear … ” (George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons).

John calls his hearers to let God burn up our selfish desire to hoard our food and clothes even when our neighbor is hungry and shivering with cold. All that gets in the way of love for God and neighbor must go. Then we can live as God’s own people, aflame with love and committed to justice.


First Reading

Commentary on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Anne Stewart

What would happen if God interrupted us?

What if God barged into the midst of our daily lives, if God made God’s presence known? How would you feel? How would you respond? What change would God’s presence bring? The prophet Zephaniah wrestles with these very questions. In Zephaniah’s visions the presence of God brings both judgment and joy. The oracles in the majority of the book announce cosmic destruction as divine judgment for the sins of Israel and, specifically, the priesthood. With vivid and at times disturbing language, the prophet envisions the arrival of the Day of the Lord, the time in which God will act to restore justice and to bring judgment on faithless, sinful nations. The Day of the Lord, promises the prophet, “will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Zephaniah 1:15-16). The arrival of the Day of the Lord represents a calling to account that demands repentance and humility before God’s mighty judgment.

It is in this context that the final oracle of the book has such striking resonance. Its tone shifts dramatically as the arrival of God’s presence brings celebration and cause for joy. It is a grand reversal as the expected judgment instead becomes overwhelming mercy that leads to new life: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more” (Zephaniah 3:14b-15). The arrival of God’s presence dispels fear. It opens the door to a new future.

The book of Zephaniah is set in the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE), Israel’s reforming monarch, though some of the visions in the book, including the final oracle, may reflect a later exilic or postexilic perspective. In the context of Josiah’s reign, God’s presence is disturbing; it upsets the complacencies and faithless habits of the people. It undermines hypocrisy and indifference. God vows, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’” (Zephaniah 1:12). God’s presence will surprise those who assume that God is a benign, indifferent deity who is of little consequence to the reality of daily life. God’s presence will also disturb the ones who vow faith in YHWH in one breath, but in the next breath worship other gods: “I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests … those who bow down and swear to the Lord, but also swear by Milcom; those who have turned back from following the Lord, who have not sought the Lord or inquired of him” (Zephaniah 1:4b-6).

This language sounds harsh to our modern ears, but have we too succumbed to indifference? Do we too worship other gods while professing faith in YHWH? What if God interrupted us in the midst of daily life? What would God find? Do our actions match our faith commitments? Do we live in a state of readiness of God’s presence to enter our midst, or instead do we live in the indifferent conviction that God will do neither harm nor good?

It is tempting to jump right to the final oracle of the book and proclaim the good news that God’s presence brings joyful celebration. And indeed this is the message of the book, of the Advent season, and of Christian faith: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst … he will renew you in his love” (Zephaniah 3:17); “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John 3:16). Yet this message has its deepest significance when set in contrast to what has come before. Despite the people’s indifference, despite their hypocrisy, despite the cause for cosmic judgment, God’s entry into the world brings celebration, restoration, and new life.

If the final oracle was penned in the exilic or postexilic era, it addresses Israel at a time in which they had experienced great shame on the world stage. The nation had been ravaged by conquering armies of foreign nations. Its people scattered, Israel lived in fear and disorientation. To this hurting people, God promises a new world: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more” (Zephaniah 3:15). Jerusalem, which earlier in the book was described as a violent and unfaithful city, is here personified as a woman rejoicing in song (Zephaniah 3:14).

Not only does God’s presence bring a joy that casts out fear, but it also brings the restoration of justice and aid to the poor: “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19b). God’s presence brings a new way of life in which the way that people relate to God and to one another is fundamentally different.

What would happen if God interrupted us? What in our world would change? What fears would be dispelled? What injustices overturned?


Psalm

Commentary on Isaiah 12:2-6

Rolf Jacobson

Why We Sing Carols, Psalms and Spiritual Songs

Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
     let this be known in all the earth. 

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
     for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Not all of the psalms in the Bible are located in the Book of Psalms. And not all of the good news in the Bible is located in the New Testament. Today’s “psalm” is a song of good news located in the Scroll of Isaiah.

A psalm for those who mourn in lonely exile

Based on the style, genre, vocabulary, and theology of the passage, it is most likely a composition of the anonymous prophet we call “Second Isaiah” — who served God in Babylon during the time of Israel’s lonely exile there (around 540 BCE). That prophet’s work of hope is largely contained in Isaiah 40-55, but it can also be found in Isaiah 12, 25-27, and 34-35.

Apparently, the anonymous prophet reworked the scroll of Isaiah, adding passages of good news for the exile in Babylon in order to fan the embers of faith into flame. That metaphor is too weak. For most of the exiles, the fire of faith had gone completely cold. The prophet’s task was to preach a word so clear — to sound a certain note on trumpet of new life — so that faith could be reborn in the hearts of a people whose faith had died. To preach a word that could raise the dead.

Sound like a familiar task?

In order to create this faith, the prophet drew on a small library of literary genres. If the reading starts at Isaiah 12:1, the psalm is a song of thanksgiving (compare to Psalms 30, 40, 116, or 118). All of the traditional elements of Israel’s songs of thanksgiving are present in 12:1-6. One option would be to restore v. 1 to the lection and preach on the entire psalm. If one sticks with the lectionary’s curtailing of the psalm, it sounds more like a psalm of trust (such as Psalms 16, 23, 46, or 121). Here the emphasis is on trust. Either way — as a psalm of thanksgiving or a psalm of trust — the psalm works. It meets the rhetorical aim of the prophet by calling people to faith. But how does it do so?

Sing praises to the Lord, for He has done gloriously!

In this psalm, Second Isaiah’s rhetorical strategy for creating faith in the faith-empty exiles was to call them to praise God.

It was that simple. Well, not simple. But it was that clear.

Ask yourself this: Is it easier to say to a person who is struggling with their faith, “You just have to believe.” Or is it easier to say, “Let’s pray.”

Is it more effective to admonish someone, “Trust in God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength!” Or is it more effective to say, “Let’s sing this hymn together: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”

What Second Isaiah did in the psalm in Isaiah 12 was essentially this latter option. In the midst of exile — with all its physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma (I mean Trauma!) — the prophet invited the exiles to sing the familiar songs that celebrate Israel’s repeated experiences of God’s deliverance. Compare:

Isaiah 12:1a

Psalm 138:1a

I will give thanks to you O Lord

I will give thanks to you O Lord

 

 

Isaiah 12:2

Psalm 27:1

Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,

The Lord is my light and my salvation…
     Of whom shall I be afraid?

 

 

And most importantly, compare the Song of Miriam in the Exodus story with Isaiah 12:5:

 

Isaiah 12:5

Exodus 15:21

Sing praises to the Lord,
     for he has done gloriously!

Sing to the Lord, 
     for he has triumphed gloriously!

 

 

More comparisons could be made, but one can see in these three examples that what Second Isaiah does is, in the words of one of my favorite hymns, sing the old, old story. The prophet goes back to the hymnic well, draws up the old language and vocabulary of Israel’s experience with the God of the Exodus, and promises, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

And that’s why we sing. We sing of the coming of the Immanuel, of joy to the world, of the baby tucked away in the manger, of shepherds keeping watch by night, and angels from the realms of glory.

And in the singing, we come to believe what the songs say.


Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7

Edward Pillar

One of the blessings of preaching regularly to the same group of people is the joy of seeing folk journeying in discipleship.

Sometimes the signs are small, sometimes significant, but on occasion there is the very real need to encourage people to stand their ground, to keep going when the going gets tough, to keep on keeping on. And there is no hiding the reality that the challenges on the road of discipleship are many.

The passage before us (Philippians 4:4-7) comes in the context of an awareness that some of those who have not only begun well, but have journeyed well, and struggled for the gospel now appear to be having second thoughts. Perhaps they are counting the cost of following Jesus and are hesitating, and even now contemplating turning back.

Perspective, purpose, and pressing on

Earlier Paul has reflected on his own experience and has shared key factors in what it means to “stand firm” (Philippians 4:1). Paul has had to change his perspective on life, now acknowledging that he considers all things as loss compared to the great value of knowing Christ (3:8). Paul’s central purpose is now that he should know Christ and ultimately to attain to the resurrection from the dead (3:10-11). And third, Paul emphasises the need to ‘press on’ (3:12, 14) ‘for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’

“Stand firm”

Now, Paul addresses directly the believing community in Philippi and encourages them to “stand firm in the Lord in this way” (Philippians 4:1). In particular he addresses two women, Euodia and Syntyche. These two women have “struggled … in the work of the gospel” (4:3) alongside Paul, but now Paul has had to encourage them to “be of the same mind” (4:2), that is, to commit themselves again to follow his example” — found in chapter three — to “stand firm.” Many commentators assume that Euodia and Syntyche have disagreed with one another and that this is the fundamental issue Paul is addressing. But the context suggests that it is far more likely that they have stepped back from the challenge of discipleship, and no longer hold to the principles found in Paul’s example of perspective, purpose, and pressing on.

So, for those who are struggling in discipleship; for those who are reconsidering their commitment to walk the way of Christ, for those who no longer want to take up their cross daily and to love regardless of the cost, what does our passage have to say?

First, hold on to the joy to be found in God (Philippians 4:4). Paul specifically encourages them to “rejoice in the Lord.” It is not that they are to rejoice in spite of their circumstances. It is not even that they are to rejoice through gritted teeth, but rather than they rejoice in all the goodness that is found in God and in his blessing. In a similar context where the writer to the Hebrews is encouraging believers to hold on to their faith he says, “fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1) and “fix your eyes on Jesus” (12:2). It is in looking to God that we can truly rejoice. The road we travel may be difficult — even distressing — but we can look to God and rejoice. For He is good, He is kind, He is loving and merciful and forgiveness. His faithfulness never fails.

Second, hold on to the character of Christ (Philippians 4:5). One of the key challenges of following the Lord Jesus, and thus the aspect most likely to be put down when the going gets tough, is the commitment to adopt the character of Christ in one’s everyday life. Paul encourages the Philippian believers, and particularly those who are reconsidering their commitment, to continue to live in the spirit of gentleness. Gentleness doesn’t always go down well in our culture. To live in gentleness is to provide a stark contrast to the harsh, acrimonious, and sometimes cruel values that are the norms of the ethos of our culture. The character of Christ is our prime example of gentleness, and his gentleness was often met with hatred and violence. But Paul seeks to encourage the disciples to hold on to the character of Christ, because it is by living in Christ that we experience salvation.

Third, hold on to the nearness of God (Philippians 4:5). At the heart of the good news of Jesus is the announcement that God is near. God is not a distant and aloof deity, requiring sacrifice before he draws close to sinful humanity. In Christ Jesus God has come close. Whatever we experience in our lives, relationships, workplace, “the Lord is near.” Whatever we go through in the struggle to follow Christ Jesus and to witness to his Lordship, “the Lord is near.” This statement is intended to bring comfort and consolation, to encourage and strengthen the resolve of everyone who has ever stepped out on the journey of discipleship.

Fourth, pray with thankfulness (Philippians 4:6). The encouragement to pray is one that we all need, but so often overlooked when things get tough. Here, there are four key words of inspiration. First, in our prayers we can and should include everything. Don’t leave anything out. Some things spring quickly to mind, but particularly when it feels as though the cosmos and its armies are against us, we should include everything. Second, in prayer don’t worry; let anxiety drift away from us as we share our concerns and troubles and trials with our heavenly Father. Third, give thanks to God — not for the trials — but for God, for His goodness, for his presence, for his listening ear. Fourth, make your requests known to God. We might be reminded of the Israelite slaves in Egypt who cried out to God, making their concerns about the trials and trauma that they faced everyday known to Him (Exodus 2:23-25). God heard and responded with love, mercy, and salvation.

Fifth, God’s peace will be our guard. When the life of following the Lord Jesus gets tough we can so easily feel as though we are unprotected. It can feel as though our commitment to gentleness, love, and kindness has left us vulnerable. But, Paul is clear that if we hold on and we pray, then the wonderful, mysterious, peace of God will guard and keep safe our hearts and minds.