Lectionary Commentaries for December 13, 2009
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 3:7-18

David Lose

It would appear, according to Luke, that John is an “old school” preacher, delivering in these verses a sermon composed of “three points and a poem.”

     Point 1: Eschatological warning (verses 7-9).
     Point 2: Ethical exhortation (verses 10-14).
     Point 3: Messianic expectation (verse 15-17).
     Poem — Okay, this is from the pen of Luke, not the mouth of John: All of this is “good news” (verse 18).

Luke varies little from Matthew in his first and third points, except that in Luke’s account John preaches not to the Pharisees and Sadducees but to the “crowds” (a point that will take on greater significance later).

Otherwise, John’s message is standard prophetic fare, material that one would anticipate from any prophet worthy of the name.  Regarding eschatological warning: judgment is near, and that judgment will not be determined on the basis of religious, cultural, or ethnic identity but rather on the conduct of one’s life.  Regarding messianic expectation: one who is greater and who baptizes not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire is coming, and his coming will initiate the eschatological judgment.  In both of these regards, John stands as the latest — and, according to the New Testament authors, last — in a long line of Israel’s prophets.

In narrating for us John’s second point regarding ethical exhortation, however, Luke goes far beyond Matthew.  Rather than either shrink back from or be angered by John’s warning (common responses to prophetic discourse), the crowds instead ask a refreshingly pragmatic question: “What then shall we do?”

It is the same question the crowds listening to Peter on Pentecost ask (Acts 2:37) and, as in Acts, Luke uses it to provide the preacher an opportunity to get to the heart of his sermon.  In Acts, Peter invites the crowd to repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus, and receive the Holy Spirit.  In these verses, John gives concrete ethical instruction to those gathered, and the content of that instruction is rather surprising.  After announcing impending eschatological judgment with some vim and vigor, John’s counsel seems fairly ordinary, even mundane.  To the (presumably poor) crowds: “Share.” To the tax collectors, “Be fair.” To soldiers, “Don’t bully.”

This feels more like the stuff of Kindergarten than Apocalypse.  Which may be Luke’s point.  Fidelity does not have to be heroic.  There are opportunities to do God’s will, to be God’s people, all around us.  These opportunities are shaped by our context: the roles in which we find ourselves and the needs of the neighbor with which we are confronted.  But make no mistake, opportunities abound.  John may have come from the wilderness, but the crowds — and we — live in the towns, villages, and marketplace, and these, too, can be places of testing and the arenas in which we offer our fidelity to God through service to neighbor.

More surprising than the content of John’s ethical instruction is his audience.  They are more than ordinary; they are, at best, the riff raff: poor crowds with little to offer, despised tax collectors who profit from the oppression of their countrymen, mercenary soldiers known for extorting the vulnerable.  Yet they are not excluded from John’s attention or the possibility of “bearing fruits worthy of repentance.”

This explains Luke’s variance from Matthew in his depiction of John’s unlikely congregation.  Luke is less interested in contrasting the ministry, mission, and message of John and Jesus with that of the Pharisees and Sadducees than he is of stressing that their message is for all people.  If John instructs, rather than condemns, the lowly poor, the corrupt tax collector, and the bare knuckled mercenary, then who, one might reasonably ask, is excluded.  The answer, as it turns out, is no one.  John preaches to all, Jesus comes for all.  Apparently, when Luke quotes Isaiah as saying that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” (3:6), he really means it.

Most peculiar still, perhaps, is the “eschatological location” of the good fruits.  Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism.  Even in light of impending eschatological judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions.  By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid eschatological warning and messianic expectation, Luke’s John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.

In the city museum of Braunschweig, Germany, hangs a painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger depicting just this scene.  Cranach’s John is a hairy, muscular, roughhewn man who stands on a gnarled and burnt tree stump pointing toward Christ with one hand and lecturing the crowds with the other.  But while John is portrayed fiercely, those listening to him are eager, even glad, to receive what John offers.  Why?  Cranach explains by stretching a banner beneath the scene that contains the verse that inspired his work: “And soldiers also asked him, ‘And what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Caught between eschatological judgment and messianic consummation, the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play.  It demands neither renunciation nor asceticism, neither pilgrimage nor sacrifice.  Rather, participating in God’s new kingdom is available to them where they are, requiring only the modicum of faith necessary to perceive the sacred in the ordinary.  It is, in short, entirely within their reach: “Share.  Be fair.  Don’t bully.”

It may not be heroic, but it is something they can do.  It is something, when you think about it, that anyone can do.  Which means that it is something we can do, too.

“So with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”  Good news, indeed.


First Reading

Commentary on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

The third Sunday of Advent traditionally has a focus on joy. And, indeed, almost all the texts for this Sunday speak of joy.

Our reading from Zephaniah sets the tone: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (3:14). The prophet piles on the exhortations to joy: exult, rejoice, sing, shout!

Why this invitation to sing the Hallelujah Chorus? Because the LORD has issued a pardon and commuted Israel’s sentence. The judgments against Judah and Jerusalem are turned aside, and the nation (or at least a remnant thereof) is set free (see Zephaniah 3:12-13).

According to the superscription of the book (Zephaniah 1:1), Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE), before the Babylonian exile. The passage chosen as the reading for today, however, may have been added after the exile. It differs markedly in tone from the earlier parts of the book (which are largely about judgment) and it speaks of “gathering” the outcasts (3:19-20).

Whether the passage is exilic or pre-exilic, the message is clear: God is for Israel. God has forgiven her iniquities, which are detailed earlier in the book–syncretism (1:4-6); complacency (1:12); corrupt leaders (3:3-4); injustice (3:1, 5). And not only is “daughter Zion” forgiven, but the LORD himself is with her. Therefore, says the prophet, “Fear not!” (3:16). It is the injunction spoken to everyone who encounters the near presence of the LORD, or the LORD’s angel, a presence gracious but nonetheless terrifying. In this Advent season, Zechariah and Mary both hear those words: Fear not!

Fear not. Do not be afraid. Why? Because “the king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst” (3:15). If this oracle is indeed exilic, it is addressing the loss of a Davidic monarch. Israel has no need of a descendant of David, the prophet seems to say; the LORD himself is Israel’s king. And this king will not leave. He dwells in the midst of his people so that they need not fear disaster anymore.

The image shifts, from God as pardoning judge and king, to God as savior and warrior, one who rescues Israel from all her enemies. It is striking that in this verse (verse 17), some of the same words for “rejoicing” come up again; but this time, it is the LORD who is the subject of the verbs! Human beings are not the only ones who are filled with joy; God, too, bursts into song! Why? Because the relationship is restored. The love between God and Israel is renewed. We hear in verse 17 strong echoes of the biblical metaphor that pictures the relationship between God and Israel as a love affair, a marriage.

In the last few verses, the image shifts one more time, to God as shepherd, gathering the lame and the ones who have strayed, and bringing them home again. The LORD will give them a “name” (renown) and change their shame into praise, in the sight of “all the peoples of the earth” (3:19-20).

Any of these images, of course, could provide fruitful reflections for a sermon: God as forgiving judge, God as saving king and warrior, God as tender shepherd. Perhaps one of the most powerful images, however, on this Sunday devoted to joy, is the one that depicts God as the one who bursts into song with joy over God’s beloved: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (3:17-18).

Such joy is not subdued; it is not quiet or dignified. The Hebrew words used in verse 17 are used elsewhere in the Bible to describe great jubilation. The LORD rejoices over his beloved, over Judah and Jerusalem, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (Isaiah 62:5). As David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant, in exultation, so God rejoices over God’s people (2 Samuel 6). As the morning stars sang at the creation of the world, so God sings with elation over God’s beloved (Job 38:7).

We are accustomed to images of God as judge. (Indeed, much of Zephaniah uses such imagery.) We are accustomed to images of God as shepherd, gathering the flock into the fold. But how often do we imagine God as one who rejoices? One who sings? Yet here, in our text, God and God’s people alike are caught up in a joy that overflows into song, a joy that springs from love renewed, relationship restored.

This joy is not one-sided. It is not simply God’s people who rejoice because God has forgiven and restored them. That is an altogether understandable reaction to God’s redemption. It is not simply God’s people who rejoice. God, too, sings and shouts with joy over this love restored. The divine heart overflows with jubilation!

This image of God bears no resemblance to Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” or, indeed, to many people’s image of a divine watchmaker who sets the world in motion and lets it go. (I think of the song, “From a Distance,” made popular nearly twenty years ago by Bette Midler: “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us…from a distance.”)

No, this God is moved, is deeply affected, by human attitudes and actions. This God does not watch from a distance, but enters into the life of the world. This God enters even into human flesh, in the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation.

This Sunday, we speak of joy, the joy of a people redeemed and restored, but also the joy of a God who is deeply invested in the life of the world. God sings. God shouts. God rejoices. And we, we who are wondrously and inexplicably God’s beloved, join in the celebration.


Psalm

Commentary on Isaiah 12:2-6

Audrey West

“I will trust, and will not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). These words were spoken by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than twenty seven hundred years ago, when the Assyrian Empire was the dominant power, and Judah lived in the shadow of its might.

Foreign invaders, political instability, and crises of one kind or another formed the context of Isaiah’s proclamation. The people to whom he was sent and those for whom this book was originally composed lived in a world that was unpredictable and out of their control.

The front page of the newspaper and the crawl at the bottom of the television newscast suggest that in many ways our own world is quite similar to theirs. To be sure, the details are different — the Taliban was not a threat to Judah in the days of Isaiah, and Assyria does not dominate our own headlines — but the news of the day reminds us that always there are events happening on a scale far beyond our reach and our ability to control them. Whether the threat is widespread, such as the worldwide economic crisis, or whether it is personal, such as illness, the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, it is no small thing to stare the menace in the face and say, “I will trust, and will not be afraid.”

Isaiah 12 is composed of two songs, each beginning with the phrase, “You will say in that day” (12:1, 4): “that day,” when the pride of everyone shall be humbled and the Lord alone will be exalted (2:11, 17); “that day,” when people will throw away their idols of silver and gold (2:20); “that day,” when God will bring judgment against the women and men of Zion (3:16-26), when those who remain are called holy (4:2-3). “That day” is a day of judgment and salvation, a day that calls God’s people forward, beckoning us to live into its reality in the present moment, no matter the circumstances.

The first song in this passage (verses 1-2) is sung by an individual (the “you” addressed in verse 1 is singular, as are the pronouns in verses 1-2), offering thanksgiving for deliverance by the God who is “my salvation” (verse 2). Although the individual is not identified (could it be Isaiah, whose own name means “God is salvation”?), the end of the song hearkens back to the deliverance from Egypt, quoting Exodus 15:2: “The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (verse 2b; cf. Psalm 118:14). The image is one of a great warrior, one who is strong enough to defeat even the armies of Pharaoh in order to free the people from slavery in Egypt. To anyone who is caught up in fear, this echo from the Exodus and all the events attending it is a reminder that earthly powers cannot defeat the power of God.

The second song (verses 4-6) offers a refrain of Thanksgiving to the “Holy One of Israel” (verse 6b), the one whose “name is exalted” (verse 4) and who “has done gloriously” (verse 5). Isaiah calls on the people to lift their voices in praise to God: “Give thanks…sing praises…shout aloud and sing for joy!” This is a communal song (“you” is plural, as are the verbs in this section), as if a whole choir has joined voices with the soloist who sang in the first two verses. No longer is there a lone voice singing out against fear, as though whistling in the dark, but rather a chorus of voices offering praise for all that the Lord has done. “Make known his deeds among the nations,” they will sing, and “[the Lord] has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth” (verses 4-5). This reminder of past experience with God, how the Lord has already acted for the benefit of God’s people, is a strong defense against the grip of fear. So, also, is our association with a community of faith that witnesses to God’s saving deeds. How much easier it is to “trust and not be afraid” when a whole community is present to join together in the refrain!

The verse that ties these two songs together is addressed to the gathered community: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (verse 3). In its historical setting, the verse probably refers to a ritual activity, most notably during the Feast of Tabernacles. As it connects the two songs, however, verse3 is a reminder that God’s salvation is fundamental to life, as basic to survival as the water that falls from the sky and springs forth from the earth. God’s offer of salvation is what the Lord “has done gloriously” to be made “known in all the earth” (verse 5); it is this saving power that makes it possible for God’s people to choose a stance of trust instead of fear when the day brings situations and events beyond their control (cf. Isaiah 41:17-20). The “wells of salvation” suggest an abundant supply, spilling over to soothe tongues that are parched from fright, moistening lips so that they might sing melodies of praise to “proclaim that [the Lord’s] name is exalted” (verse 4).

During this season of Advent, as dark nights grow longer and media outlets continue their relentless proclamation of the world’s bad news, we wait — like the people of Isaiah’s time–for “that day” when God’s salvation will come to us in all its fullness. “Do not be afraid,” the angel will say, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). We are drawn toward that future, ready to “shout aloud and sing for joy” together with the whole people of God who will proclaim, “Great in [our] midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:6).


Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7

Michael Joseph Brown

It’s an exclamation we’ve heard time and time again, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

But why? Today’s epistle passage is an intriguing composition of seven sentences ranging from two to twenty Greek words long. The sentences have no connecting words except “but” (alla) in 4:6 and “and” (kai) in 4:7. As I said, an intriguing series of exhortations.

The two-fold expression to rejoice echoes what the apostle said in 3:1, “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.” Rejoicing is a keynote of this letter. The inclusion of the pantote, translated in the NRSV as “always,” can also be rendered “at all times.” The statement calls for an ongoing activity, one not based upon the particular circumstances of the apostle’s readers. In one way, this adverb points to the future and its possible trials. The idea then is to keep on rejoicing in the Lord at all times, regardless of what may come upon you.

At this point, it is important to remember that Paul wrote this from prison. As portrayed in Acts, Paul and Silas, although beaten and in prison, sang hymns and prayed (Acts 16:25). Thus, the apostle has already demonstrated to his congregation what it means to rejoice in adversity. (At 2 Corinthians 6:10 Paul speaks of himself as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”)

The key to understanding Paul’s exhortation to rejoice is that it is “in the Lord.” This signifies that the Lord is either the object of our rejoicing or its grounding, the one in whom our joy thrives. This continuous rejoicing in the Lord is a very important concept for Paul. It is a distinguishing mark for Christians (see Romans 12:12) and a characteristic of life in the kingdom of God (14:17). It is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It becomes evident during times of suffering and trial (Romans 5:3-4; 2 Corinthians 6:10; 8:2-3).

In the third short sentence, the term to epieikes (NRSV: “gentleness”) is tricky to translate. Its use in the Greek language includes “what is fitting,” “magnanimity,” and “reasonableness.” It can also be understood to describe the clemency of a ruler. Undoubtedly, the Philippians would have been aware of the purported benevolence of the Roman emperors. If the Christian life is to be characterized by joy it is also distinguished by a gentleness that is known to all. It is akin to being merciful.

In a world where strict adherence to the letter of the law would lead to injustice, epieikeia knew how to act with fairness. The treatment of Jesus highlights for Paul what this gentleness is all about (see 2 Corinthians 10:1). Thus, the gentleness he describes is the response of a person who has suffered injustice and disgrace.

The “gentleness” that Christians have is to be made “known to all sorts of people” (Philippians 4:5). This idea harkens back to something Paul says earlier in the letter, “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Politeuesthe (NRSV: “live your life”) denotes life as a citizen. And so, the idea of living in two communities — the church and the civic community — is intoned with this exhortation to gentleness. It reminds us that the church should not be too preoccupied with its own interests.

The shortest sentence is the fourth: kurios eggus (“the Lord is near”). It combines ethics and eschatology, although its meaning is not entirely clear because of the ambiguity surrounding how eggus is supposed to be understood. Like its English counterpart, eggus can be understood spatially or temporally. Spatially, it means “near” or “close at hand.” If this is true, then “near” here signifies that the Lord is close to or present with the Philippians. Thus, the Lord is aware of their conduct as well as a ready source for their aid. Temporally, it means the Jesus’ second coming is imminent. The early Christians often would say, Marana tha (“Come, O Lord”). Thus, this statement would be a parallel to such exclamations (see 1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20), and fits well with what the apostle says in 3:20-21 about the readers eagerly awaiting Jesus’ return from heaven. The truth may be that both understandings are correct. Paul may have intended to include both ideas of time and space in his use of eggus: the Lord whose return is imminent is also continually near his people to guide them.

Why place this admonition here? Well, it could serve to connect what was said earlier about gentleness to what is said afterwards about anxiety. In other words, as he exhorts them to rejoice, the apostle commands them to let their gentleness to be known to all, and not to be anxious.

“Do not worry about anything” is brief and in Greek alliterative, mēden merimnate. It reminds us of Jesus’ statement in Matthew, “Do not worry about your life” (Matthew 6:35). It is not an easy thing to do. Paul urges his hearers to stop worrying. Yet, when confronted with poverty, hunger, injustice, and the other troubles of life, it is the natural human tendency to be anxious. Regardless of the circumstances that give rise to our anxiety, we are now urged to be anxious “in nothing,” an expression that excludes all exceptions. This is especially poignant given Paul’s imprisonment. As with Jesus, anxiety about these things shows a lack of confidence in God’s care for his children.

We are not only urged to stop worrying about anything, but also exhorted in every situation to make our requests known to God. In 4:6 three synonyms for prayer are heaped together. The Philippians are urged, as a corrective to their anxiety, to let their specific requests be made known to God. The expression, however, is unusual. It suggests that God is unaware of their petitions. Yet, if Paul is echoing Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, he should be familiar with Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:32, “your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” Paul may be urging Christians to cast all of our cares upon God (cf. 1 Peter 5:7). In doing so, we acknowledge our total dependence upon God.

The longest sentence is the last. Paul tells us that the result of laying out our cares to God is that God’s peace, which is more wonderful than anyone can imagine, will stand guard over our hearts and minds. While we are still vulnerable, we are also assured of God’s concern and protection.