The reading from Luke for this week follows on the heels of the summary of John’s preaching of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and the claim that his proclamation, which sets the table for the arrival of Jesus, was what Isaiah promised centuries prior.
John’s preaching is harsh and perhaps surprising; it is jarring, particularly as an approach to the Christmas season; and it is challenging. His preaching of repentance is a direct assault on human living that in any way ignores the appropriate orientation of the believer (any believer) towards her neighbor.
Unique to Luke’s account of the Baptizer’s ministry is the response of the crowds (compare Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8; John 1:19-28), a point to which I return below.
“You Brood of Vipers” as Sermon Intro A lot of preachers begin their sermons with what is essentially a liturgical formula: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, to which an “Amen” from the congregation is, if not expected, at least accepted.
Others begin with: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19:14, which is actually the end of something and not a beginning, but that’s OK), which is an invitation into the shared experience that good preaching is. Others still may open with: Peace…the Lord…God (etc.) be with you, which invites an “Also with you.”
John starts a little differently. He opens his homily on repentance with a broadside: You brood of vipers! What this is meant to invite, who knows, but John goes on, asking why they are even listening and who they think they are, with the answer clearly being, “Not all that.” John’s homiletical approach — at least his introduction — was, no doubt, effective; though I’m not sure I would recommend it. If you try the full-on “brood of vipers” approach let me know; I’d like to come and listen…and watch to see how “the crowds” respond. One thing is certain in John’s case: his audience knew where they stood with the preacher. John asks them a pointed question: Who told you to flee from God’s wrath? Reminiscent of God’s “Who told you you were naked?” the question is rhetorical, serving to emphasize both John’s accusation (You are vipers!) and John’s challenge (Bear fruits worthy of repentance!). John then presses the case, telling them that their ethnic and religious heritage, based on Abraham is meaningless.
We have a tendency, I think, to skip past this part of the text a little too quickly, so let us be clear: THIS IS HUGE. One of the central elements of the Old Testament covenant is the generational promise, which begins with Abraham, continues with Isaac and Jacob, and is extended through them to all of their descendants (cf. Exodus 3:6; Jeremiah 33:26). But John says that this promise is meaningless, apart from repentance. In other words, claiming promise of Abraham without the faith of Abraham simply doesn’t work. John is changing the game, and his preaching challenges his hearers to get into it.
Abraham’s Descendants The claim that John makes about the descendants of Abraham is striking, and its application to a modern congregation or context can be as well. If God is able to raise up children to Abraham from stones, what then does that make us? Images of hardened hearts, the reality that God’s chosen are all-too-often faithless people, the chosen-ness of sinners, all rush to mind (mine at least) when thinking about the “children of Abraham.” We who have come to believe in the one who is more powerful than John are those newborn children (cf. Paul in Romans 4:13-25; Ephesians 3:6-7; etc.).
What John is doing in Luke is radical in a sense; he redefines to a large degree what it means to be a child of Abraham, including all who believe. But notice also that John does not reject Abraham’s ethnic descendants out of hand or absolutely. This is no supersessionist claim. Rather all are called to repent, to bear fruits worthy of repentance, and to believe.
The Recurring Question of the Crowd: What Then Should We Do? It must also be insisted that John’s message is not simply a call to belief or trust. John challenges his hearers to right relationships not just with God, but with their neighbors as well.
Following his bombastic opening, the crowds respond to John’s preaching. The nature of that response is unique to Luke’s account. The “crowds” as a whole, then (even) the tax collectors specifically, and finally the soldiers each ask, “What then shall we do?”
John responds to each reiteration of this question by offering specific action that equates to “fruits worthy of repentance.” To the crowds as a whole, John says: If you have more than you need, whether in terms of food or clothing, you must share. To the tax collectors, who were often guilty of adding a little extra taxation on the top of regional and Roman taxes, John says: Stop stealing from your neighbors. And to the soldiers John says: No more using your power to take advantage of simple citizens. No hoarding, no skimming, no extortion. Broadly speaking, then, John’s action-oriented fruits of repentance have to do with depriving our neighbor of what they need. Repentance here is not just (or perhaps even primarily) about the dialectic of faith and sin; rather it is about how we are living out the love of our neighbor.
The question which John’s advent, John’s preaching, and by extension our own, encourage us to ask is just this: “What, then, should we do?” How shall we respond to the Advent of the Messiah, which our preaching hails? What are the fruits of repentance, which we might bear? How can we meet the promise of the season, with real, meaningful expectation (cf. Luke 3:15)?
This reading from Zephaniah is marked by hope, rejoicing, and reprieve, but it comes from the end of a three-chapter book in which the first two chapters consist of horrific warnings.
Zephaniah prophesied early in the 7th century BCE, about 50 years after Isaiah and before Jeremiah.1 The rulers previous to Zephaniah’s time had generated unjust social and political policies, leaving Judah in great need of a prophet who would call the people to make changes.
Zephaniah blares out judgment against worship of false gods, rulers who act like foreigners, violence, fraud, complacency, and the faithless assumption that YHWH is powerless. Image after image builds up a portrait of the destruction that will come on the Day of the Lord: “the people… shall walk like the blind… their blood shall be poured out like dust… the whole earth shall be consumed…” (1:17-18).
Although reading the entire book does not take a long time, it will take you a vast distance into the possibility of utter annihilation. What humans have done in choosing infidelity to YHWH’s steadfastness will result in Earth itself being punished.2 All of creation will be obliterated on the Day of the Lord. This is not a new idea in scripture. We first hear of this day of power in Isaiah 2 and Amos 5 when “a day of clouds and thick darkness” is to come, accompanied by God the warrior who will make things right again. Because this is the third Sunday of Advent, Zephaniah’s words lay down a perspective in which to appropriately receive the savior.
This Sunday — ¾ of the way through Advent — begins to prepare us for rejoicing by promising the end of judgment. The Day of the Lord is coming. It is a festival day. The babe in the manger (who is naturally on our minds) is radiant. The cattle are lowing. Mary and Joseph care for their son. Zephaniah’s prophecy is as comforting as the smell of hay. Speaking directly to the people, YWHW says, “I will renew… will exult over you… will remove disaster from you… will deal with all your oppressors… will change shame into praise… will bring you home… make you renowned and praised… restore your fortunes…” (Zephaniah 3:17-20). This is certainly gospel news.
But we are not allowed to assume that this coming is all sweetness and light. Zephaniah’s announcement of the Lord’s resolve to save the people carries line-by-line descriptions of why this renewal is necessary. The promise rests on the need for rescue. The flip side of the joy that is to happen on the Day of the Lord is present as each phrase of promise is coupled with the negative it implies, reminding the hearer that disaster has come as reproach for failings, oppression exists, the lame and the outcast suffer alone, shame needs to be changed into praise, an in-gathering is required because the people are scattered and fortunes have been taken away. This is an accounting of the inevitable inability of human life to follow the commands of the Lord. This is an accurate depiction of our need for God. Law is not just command but reality.
The Day of the Lord is not simply one thing. “Yahweh’s ‘Day’ was/ is/ will be so fearful/ wonderful, so hideous/ beautiful, so warlike/ peaceful that attempts to place either its origin or its exact chronological development into a historical box seem doomed from the outset.”3 It is a day perfectly suited to the complexity of Advent itself. Ultimately, the Day of the Lord promises that disapproval will be revoked, the bad guys will get theirs, the wounded will be cared for, everybody will go home, and the marks of stability will be set in place.
The reading from Luke sharpens the meaning of this renewal. John the Baptist rebukes the crowds for their presumptions, sternly asserting that God’s power is not restricted to those who assume their lineage saves them; God “is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3:8) John charges the people to bear good fruit, focusing on relationships between to all people. Regarding the poor, he says share what you have. To the wealthy, he says do not cheat others. To those in power, he demands the just use of influence.
Just so, Zephaniah announces that the condemnations pounded out in chapters 1-2 are not the last word. The prophet declares that despite the fact that nations have been laid waste and corruption has continued, “my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation…” (3:8) so that “all of them may call on the name of the Lord” (3:9). And from that point on, Zephaniah’s words are the joy that we hear first in today’s reading: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion… the Lord has taken away the judgments against you.” (3:14-15)
One missing piece in Zephaniah’s move from denunciation to rejoicing is the people’s orientation. Have they repented? We do not know. The book is a compilation of texts neither definitely attributable to only one prophet nor organized as a whole. The removal of judgment (3:15) is, however, proclaimed. Nothing in Zephaniah indicates repentance, yet “true repentance bows in helpless submission in the face of this great forgiveness.”4 Perhaps the gift of Zephaniah is the utterly unmerited release that comes like the Day of the Lord without warning and is yet complete.
1 Jose D. Rodriguez, “From Memory to Faithful Witness: The Power and Ambiguities of Religious Narratives (Zephaniah 1:7,12-18),” in Currents in Theology and Mission 35:4 (Aug 2008), 264.2 Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 173, 265, 344 n. 59.3 Michael S. Moore, “Yahweh’s day,” in Restoration Quarterly 29:4 (1987), 208.4 Andrew H. Bartelt, “Third Sunday in Advent,” in Concordia Journal 11:6 (Nov 1985), 227.
Many of us have a greater appreciation for water lately.
The drought of 2012 left many with withered lawns and watering bans, left farmers without crops, and left animals both wild and domestic in danger of starvation and dehydration. Others of us, however, have seen too much water in recent months, with homes, crops, businesses, and communities devastated by flooding.
On this third Sunday in Advent, Isaiah’s language in 12:2-6 of the wells of God’s salvation speaks both to those who suffer water’s absence and those who feel drowned in the waters of destruction. God’s salvation flows and overflows, fulfilling the deepest need of parched souls with the very presence of God in their midst.
Chapter 12 provides a transition between Isaiah’s narrative of Judah’s history, marked by periods of obedience and disobedience to God’s will, and oracles of judgment against the nations. The chapter reflects the context of chapters 1-39, with Judah living under the grip of Assyria’s domination, and it points to the theme of God’s comfort for those returned from Babylonian exile in chapters 40-66.
It also points toward the day of God’s judgment and salvation — a day of joy, exaltation, and praise. That day, which is referred to twice in chapter 12, is described gloriously in 2:2-4: the peoples of the world will stream to the mountain of the Lord, where God will instruct and judge, and they “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” The day of which Isaiah 12 sings is the day when the peace of God will finally be established upon the earth, and the nations of the world will wage war no more.
Two distinct voices can be heard in Isaiah 12, possibly reflecting the linkage of two hymns for the purposes of communal worship. The chapter begins with an individual’s song of thanks for God’s anger being turned away (verse 1), and of praise for God’s salvation (verse 2). In this verse an almost exact echo of the song of Moses following the deliverance of the people of Israel from Pharaoh’s army is heard: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation” (Exodus 15:4).
The speaker demonstrates that God continues to provide deliverance of God’s people from all that may enslave them. In verse four, the song continues in a communal voice, praising God’s glorious acts of salvation and calling on the people to make that glory known through all the earth (verses 4 and 5). The singer calls upon the people to live in expectation of the day of salvation and, in so doing, to make the kingdom of God known here and now.
Zion is exalted because the ineffable and majestic God, the “holy one of Israel” (verse 6), has actually chosen to live in her midst. The two parts of the song are linked by verse three. The verse is a promise to the people that on the day of judgment they will know in abundance the joy of God’s salvation.
Water is a common motif in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are narratives of God’s miraculous provision of water for desperate persons (Genesis 21:19) and communities (Exodus 17:1-7). Water is often used as a metaphor for salvation (Isaiah 35:6-7 and 55:1; Ezekiel 47:1-12). And water represents the very presence of God with individuals (Psalm 42:1 and 63:1) and with communities (Isaiah 44:3).
Here in Isaiah 12:3, the “wells of salvation” from which the people will draw seem to reflect both salvation and divine presence, as the reference to God’s indwelling with Israel suggests. Another passage in Isaiah speaks beautifully of the salvation and presence of God as water for those who thirst:
When the poor and needy seek water,and there is none,and their tongue is parched with thirst,the Lord will answer them,I the God of Israel will not forsake them.I will open rivers on the bare heights,and fountains in the midst of valleys;I will make the wilderness a pool of water,And the dry land springs of water. . . .so that all may see and know,all may consider and understand,that the hand of the Lord has done this (Isaiah 41:17-20).
The wells of salvation, the water of God’s gracious presence, are bottomless, endless. These are the waters that give life, restoring vibrancy to a world that is dying of thirst, and seeking wholeness for those overwhelmed by the floods of destruction.
The water of forgiveness, of liberation from all that holds us in captivity, of refreshment of souls that are parched for grace, is the same water of which Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well: “those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). The water of salvation that flows with the very presence of God is coming again to the world in endless supply for our deepest need.
Cinnamon rolls are one of my favorite desserts.
I’m not talking about those out-of-the-can jobs we feed our children before we race out the door to make it to Sunday school in time. I’m talking about those delectable works of art you can only purchase at a bakery.
There’s something heavenly about the way the cream cheese frosting seeps down into the sugary, cinnamon-y crevices to produce that perfect blend of spice, tang, and sweetness; it brings a “hallelujah” to my taste buds.
There’s no wrong way to eat a cinnamon roll, but for my money there is a right way to eat one. Cinnamon rolls are made to be unfurled. You didn’t buy a cinnamon doughnut or a cinnamon cake — you bought a roll, so unroll it! When you start at the outside and slowly, lovingly work your way to that inner sanctum, that succulent holy-of-holies that is the center of the cinnamon roll it feels like Jesus has finally returned and decided to throw a parousia party in your mouth. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much; but you cannot deny that the best bite of a cinnamon roll is without doubt that culminating center bite.
What in the world, you may be wondering, does this have to do with Philippians 4:4-7? I believe that the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary, in choosing separate the lection the way they have, have given us the center bite of the Philippian cinnamon roll.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Yes. Rejoicing in light of the Lord’s goodness is good and right. “Amen,” we say.
Let your gentleness be evident to all. Who among us does not wish we could embody this instruction, leading lives that reflect the tender kindness of Jesus? Again we say, “Let it be so!”
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Oh that these words were tattooed on our hearts!
Our world produces anxiety. At every corner there is some new fear to haunt our dreams and burden our days. To exacerbate the situation, advertisers and news commentators do their best to keep our anxiety levels at code orange so that we will buy the latest gadget, imbibe the newest pharmaceutical wonder drug, or begin that new workout fad with a word like insanity or extreme in the title.
Paul’s words offer sweet, sweet relief for modern persons. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Wow! What I wouldn’t give for a taste of this peace. In all honesty, I don’t really know what this would feel like — peace transcending understanding, guarding both my heart and mind. In my own spiritual journey I have had glimpses of such peace, fleeting glances that tease me with the hope of something more. Oh to abide in such peace!
When you read through the scholarly literature in preparation to preach this pericope you will find that nearly every commentator will treat this lection as a proper division (sandwiched between verses 2-3 on the one hand and verses 8-9 on the other). This creates a haphazard lection of “miscellaneous exhortations” and “aphoristic dicta.”1
Why, you may wonder is the lection broken up this way? I argue it is because, not unlike myself, Bible scholars love cinnamon rolls. Verses 4-7 taste like that warm, gooey center that we crave. The themes of joy, gentleness, trust, and peace gush with theological sweetness. And this is how the text is usually preached, sending our folks home licking their fingers, savoring that small taste of tranquility.
But might we read this passage another way? Commentators argue that the imperative, Rejoice! (chairete) in verse 4, even as it is the theme of the letter (cf. 2:8; 3:1) seams to break with verse 3, which states that the names of Paul’s coworkers (synergon) are written in the book of life. Why? It makes perfect sense to me that this declaration is grounds for celebration.
Moreover, consider Paul’s words in 3:17. Those who have imitated (symmimetai) Paul’s example are freed from the destiny of the reprobate, who are bound for destruction (3:19). For these ones, their god is their belly and they are concerned with earthy things (hoi ta epigeia phronountes). I contend that 4:4-7 is the Christological (“in the Lord”) denouement of Paul’s argument for unity in the fellowship. Perhaps this text ought not be presented as that warm, gooey center that tantalizes the taste buds without providing any real nourishment, save pithy platitudes and utopic vistas.
Part of the allure of the cinnamon roll is the slow, methodical process one takes toward the center; the detour is the right way to experience it. Likewise, we will enjoy indulging in the succulent respite of these verses when we relish the experience of getting there. Paul’s concern is unity in the church, which can only arise once we recognize our redemption as coworkers for the Lord, giving us a spirit of gentleness, and thereby turning our sight from earthly matters that lead to petty squabbles, derision, and anxiety. Only then can we experience the peace that transcends all understanding.
This lection must be held in concert with the preceding verses for only when it is heard amidst the din of inner-congregational conflict and contentious power struggles does its theological resonance ring true: we are in this together; Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another. That is the core of Paul’s truth to the churches at Philippi and it is at once wholesome and delicious.
1John Reumann, Philippians: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible, vol. 33b (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008), 634.