Lectionary Commentaries for December 12, 2021
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 3:7-18

Audrey West

Like Israel’s prophets before him, the mission of John the Baptist is “to turn … the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). His words sound harsh, but the promise is sure: “One who is more powerful than I is coming … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.” (Luke 3:16). Into whose ears is this news supposed to land? Some ears will hear it as good; others, as bad.

What do people need?

Luke does not explain why crowds have come out to be baptized by John in the wilderness, but across the biblical witness the wilderness is often a place where human need encounters God’s gracious provision (for example, Exodus 13:21; Deuteronomy 8:16).

It is worth asking: what do the people need, then and now? 

Perhaps the crowds who gather around John recognize the ways they have fallen short, how they have broken covenant with God and with each other, including the command to love God and neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; see also Luke 10:27). If people are honest with themselves, most know in their hearts that their actions, inactions, and attitudes often fail to demonstrate love for others. Is there any hope for change?

Perhaps the people fear the costs of their failures and they are looking for a way out. (John hints at this when he compares them to snakes wriggling away from danger.1) Maybe they desire to live more faithfully but they do not know how. Perhaps they are overwhelmed or frightened and have nowhere else to turn. 

Whatever their reasons, the crowds leave the relative comfort of home and venture out to the wilderness to be baptized by this prophet and hear him speak—even if his speech is severe and challenging.

Brood of vipers! 

John’s first words in Luke sound harsh to modern ears, but they make clear John’s place within the Jewish prophetic tradition. His mission is to warn the crowds of the consequences of their current path and call them back to the ways of God (see also Jeremiah 1:9-10).

John cautions against abusing the privilege of a family tree that has a long prior relationship with God: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” If any think that ancestry, ethnicity, place of origin, language or any other status-marker or identity—including, today, within the church or outside of it—allows them to lord it over others or lets them off the hook, John severs those notions at their root. 

Indeed, if the [family] tree does not produce good fruit—if the community does not live in such a way that its life illustrates its relationship with God—it might as well, metaphorically, be kindling for a bonfire (Luke 3:9). 

It is good to be reminded that John’s message is meant for a people who wait with eager longing for a Savior, then and now. If those who came to see John are called snakes, so are we. If they cannot claim special privilege based on their heritage, neither can we. If they risk cutting themselves off from God, if the ax is ready to fall on them … so it is on us. 

At the same time, among those who gather this year for worship during Advent, many are all too familiar with the (figurative) blow of the ax. They know what it is to be cut off from friends and/or family. Some are experiencing the world as if it were without light, wondering where God is in the depth of their suffering. Some can feel in their bodies the blunt cut of illness, injustice, or disease. All have been touched by traumas associated with the pandemic. 

John’s threat of separation is not just a threat; it is already a realized experience in the lives of many.

What should we do?

The question of what to do appears almost as often in Luke as in the other three Gospels combined.2 In our passage, the people ask this question in response to John’s instruction to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). 

Repentance (metanoia = literally to change one’s mind; to turn) is a significant theme in Luke-Acts, signaling a new or renewed relationship with God (for example, Luke 13:3; 16:30; Acts 3:19; 20:21). It is closely tied with forgiveness, such as in Jesus’ charge to the disciples just before his ascension: “ … that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31).

Repentance actualizes the gift of forgiveness that is already offered by God.

In response to the peoples’ question, John speaks directly to temptations inherent to each group—particularly that of grasping after “more” at the expense of others (a temptation that is familiar enough today). He admonishes the crowds to share resources. As for the tax-collectors, don’t be greedy. Soldiers, don’t abuse power. 

John’s instructions suggest that it is not enough simply to be sorry (one of the ways we often think of repentance); repentance is lived out in the everyday practices of life, no matter one’s vocational calling. 

Preparing the way of the Lord

John the Baptist’s mission in the wilderness is to call God’s people to repentance and to show what that looks like. However, neither his preaching nor the baptism he offers can actually empower lives to be changed. If John’s message were the end of the story, the people would leave the wilderness with little more than a story to tell and a to-do list that cannot sustain them in a life lived fully before God.

The good news is that God sends One who is more powerful than John, with gifts greater than the crowd can imagine. This Messiah brings a baptism of spirit and of fire: the very breath and power of God to change everything. That is very good news, indeed.


  1. In Matthew the invective is used against Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7; see also Matthew 12:34; 23:33), while in Luke, it is directed at the crowds. Those who hear and read Luke’s Gospel today have an opportunity to imagine ourselves standing among those crowds who are gathered in the wilderness to listen to John. 
  2. For example, in Luke 10:25 the question prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan; see also the parable of the man with the barns (Luke 12:17) and Jesus’ encounter with the [rich young] ruler (Luke 18:18). The textual variant represented by Luke 23:34 is also worth noting: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

First Reading

Commentary on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Margaret Odell

For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine, then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart. – Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day”1

As we have been moving through Advent in preparation for the joyful celebration of the revelation of God’s love for the world in the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament lessons have resounded with the reality that it has ever been so with God’s love for Israel. Zephaniah 3:14-20 fully captures that moment of shared joy in its reclaiming and reframing the ancient tradition of the Day of the Lord. It is widely acknowledged that this tradition had existed long before the first biblical reference to it in Amos 5:18-20. Although its precise meaning is difficult to reconstruct, it is clear from Amos’ inversion of expectations that the Day of the Lord was always meant to be a day of celebration and joy. Whether that focus was on the victory of YHWH the warrior-king over the enemies of Israel, or on the acclamation of YHWH’s renewed presence in the Temple, it was a day to celebrate YHWH’s saving love for Israel. 

Beginning with Amos, however, the Day of the Lord became more closely associated with the terrors of divine judgment, as the prophets warned that it would be a day of darkness, not light, an inescapable day of judgment, not salvation. What made that Day so terrifying was that God appearing would shatter human expectations, as God’s radical otherness was revealed. Zephaniah understands that divine otherness well. Throughout the book, the prophet declares a great “sweeping” as God comes to rid the land, temple, and people of all the foreign and idolatrous ways that have estranged Israel from their God (see especially Zephaniah 1:2-3). 

Just as suddenly, Zephaniah 3:14-20 reverses expectations yet again. YHWH removes the judgments, vanquishes Zion’s foes, and comes once again to dwell in Zion’s midst. Zion and YHWH exult in this reconciliation. If Zion rejoices because of YHWH’s mighty acts on her behalf, YHWH rejoices over her. It is a shared joy that reverses a long and difficult history of shame and dishonor, as even the nations are summoned to sing Zion’s praise. 

This unit explicitly engages with Zephaniah’s overall message of judgment in order to overturn it. For example, the pervasive emphasis on YHWH’s presence in Zion’s midst explicitly reverses the earlier emphasis on the presence of wickedness in Zion/Jerusalem (see Zephaniah 3:5, 11).2 In addition, the personification of Zion/Jerusalem as YHWH’s daughter reflects a conscious appropriation of prophetic themes from later texts like Ezekiel (chapters 16, 23), Lamentations, and Second Isaiah. Similarly the emphasis on gathering the lame and outcast (Zephaniah 3:19) reflects a post-exilic theme of gathering the scattered exiles and appears to have been developed in conversation with Micah 4:6-7. The presence of these exilic themes suggests that the book of Zephaniah was revisited and reshaped for a post-exilic audience—an audience who had survived the judgments of the previous generations but still awaited the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises of restoration. 

What is distinctive about the use of these themes is that they are compressed into concise, concrete images, as if to provide fleeting glimpses of a substantially new reality. By contrast, other exilic texts develop these themes far more lyrically in order to dwell at joyful length on Zion’s restoration (see, for example, Isaiah 49:14-26; 54:1-14). Zephaniah’s ancient readers may well have been familiar with this broader tradition, and the few brief references to Zion’s restoration may have evoked a rich memory of these other texts. For modern readers and hearers who may not know these biblical traditions, Zephaniah’s compressed imagery invites us to imagine why these particular motifs were chosen to encapsulate the new reality that Zion and YHWH now share. 

Take, for example, the portrayal of newly delivered daughter Zion. Julia O’Brien has noted that the motif of Jerusalem as “daughter” is often employed in the prophetic literature to emphasize both Jerusalem’s vulnerability and dependence on YHWH.3 This vulnerability has its counterpart in the portrayal of YHWH as a mighty warrior king, a motif that is also present in this unit. In response to Zion’s apparent helplessness, YHWH drops the charges against her4 (NRSV: “taken away the judgments against you”), repulses the enemy, and returns to dwell in her midst. 

But it is worth noting that this rescue need not imply that Zion remains vulnerable and dependent on YHWH’s gracious deliverance. Note, for example, that she is not only freed from her enemy, she is also freed from fear. By combining the exhortation “fear not” with a physiological expression of panic, “let not your hands drop,” Zephaniah employs a concrete visual image in order to characterize Zion’s new stance. The image of dropped hands is relatively rare in the Old Testament, but it is always an indication of paralyzing fear. Interestingly, it is never used of women; when it is used of men, however, it can imply that their fear and anguish are so overwhelming they are like women in labor (see especially Jeremiah 6:24; 50:3)5 It also appears in descriptions of the inescapable Day of the Lord and is occasionally accompanied by other shameful physiological symptoms of overwhelming terror.6 The image of dropped hands almost always implies such utter despair that warriors shrink away from battle. 

In the somewhat gender-bending use of the expression in connection with Zion, Zephaniah 3:16 envisions a new way of being. To be sure, Zion is strong because YHWH is present; at the same time, her strength is fully her own. Zephaniah does not appear to suggest that all evil has been vanquished from the land, or that YHWH’s return means that Jerusalem can be at ease. Rather, now strengthened by YHWH’s presence, Jerusalem need no longer find herself paralyzed by fear. To be without fear is to be ready, and able, to act.

Zephaniah gives a new glimpse into divine reality as well. Verses 17-20 continue to elaborate on God’s deliverance of Zion, first mentioned in verse 15. The Hebrew in these verses is so obscure that there is little scholarly agreement about their meaning. What is clear is that YHWH rejoices over Zion, and that it is his love for Zion that motivates his actions. 

Although NRSV emends verse 17b “he will be silent in his love” to read “he will renew you in his love,” the emphasis on YHWH’s vocal expressions of joy in the surrounding lines invites a reconsideration of the original Hebrew. If YHWH is singing and rejoicing elsewhere in the verse, how does being “silent in his love” fit?  If verse 15 has declared that YHWH has “removed the judgments” against Zion, keeping silence out of love for her would indicate a decisive end to judgment of any kind.7 And, since this silence is surrounded by song and rejoicing, we can conclude that this silence is not simply divine forbearance but rather full acceptance of Zion as she is. Past conflicts, past complaints, remain definitively in the past. What now bind YHWH and Israel together is joy in one another, and song.


  1. Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day.” Luke 2:1-14. December 25, 1530. https://mail.mcm.edu/~eppleyd/Luther2.html Accessed 9/21/2021.
  2. Adele Berlin, Zephaniah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 25A; New York, London: Doubleday, 1994), 143.
  3. Julia M. O’Brien, “Jerusalem as (Defenseless) Daughter,” pp. 125-151 in Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
  4. Compare NRSV: “The Lord has taken away the judgments from you” (Zeph 3:15). For the reading of the meaning of this line as “drop the charges,” see Berlin, Zephaniah, 142.
  5. See also 2 Sam 4:1; Ezra 4:4; Neh 6:9; 2 Ch 15.7.
  6. Ezekiel 7:17; 21:12; for these references, see Berlin, Zephaniah, 144.
  7. Berlin, Zephaniah, 145.


Commentary on Isaiah 12:2-6

Adam Hearlson

Isaiah 12 is the culminating hymn of the first section of Isaiah’s prophecy.1

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.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 16, 2018.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7

Carla Works

Finding joy in a period of waiting is not easy. For Paul the waiting is occurring in a prison cell, and the outcome does not look promising. For the Philippians, the waiting occurs as they long for news of their beloved church leader, their pastor and friend, their partner in mission. They have even been waiting for Epaphroditus, one of their own, whom they sent to minister to Paul and who came close to death, risking his life for the work of Christ (2:25-30). They have been eager to hear news and hoping for a good outcome. 

Waiting is hard. In an age before social media, instant news, and cell phones, this little letter must bear the hopes, longings, and dreams of the apostle as he writes to spur the church on to faithfulness even under the threat of suffering and in the face of uncertainty. What consumes the apostle’s final advice to this faith community in the midst of such hardship and anticipation?  Nothing less than pure joy.

Like a person reflecting on a long, loving relationship, Paul recounts memories of how the Philippians have cared for him when no one else did (4:15). They have supported him and his ministry from the earliest days. They have even sent Epaphroditus to care for him while he was in prison awaiting trial (4:18). They have done nothing short of partner with Paul in ministry. 

Paul refers to their relationship as koinonia, a fellowship that connotes an investment in a common cause, the goal of proclaiming the gospel. And it is for that gospel that Paul is now in chains and their beloved brother Epaphroditus has nearly died. This is a special letter indeed, and it comes at a difficult time. Death looms in the letter (1:12-30; 2:25-30; 3:13-14, 20-21; 4:14).  The stakes are high for Paul, for Epaphroditus, and for the church whom Paul will call to exhibit the mind of Christ (2:1-11).

In this week’s passage, Paul is closing the letter with final exhortations, and these exhortations stem from Paul’s certainty in what God is doing to rectify the whole world. He will urge the Philippians to rejoice, twice in verse 4, but in the letter there are sixteen instances of Paul employing the language of joy or rejoicing. 

Joy, for Paul, is not a feeling that is dependent upon circumstances. It is a theological act. It is choosing to reflect on God’s actions to redeem the cosmos even when all the present circumstances might indicate that some other power had won. Joy stems from his vision of God’s super-exaltation of Christ after his super-humiliation with death on a treasonous cross. Joy stems from the vision that all the world will recognize the sovereignty of Jesus when he returns. “The Lord is near,” Paul reminds them (verse 5). Whatever they are suffering now, whatever grief they are experiencing as they long for his safety, whatever fear they have for their own futures, the apostle reminds them that the real King is near. Their citizenship is not from this world (3:20).  

Have no anxiety. Be worried about nothing, says the apostle from his prison cell. The naysayers will come (3:2). The believers’ faith will be tested. They may suffer as Paul has suffered. But Paul urges them to think like Jesus who stood in solidarity with the oppressed by taking on the form of a slave (2:7). Yes, Jesus died on a cross. Yes, the powers killed him. But a far greater power exalted him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name. This is the God whom they serve. This is the reason that they can rejoice.

This God did not abandon Jesus and will not abandon them. “The Lord is near.” The Lord is so near that they can speak to God and take their concerns to this All-Powerful King.  

The peace of God will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. This peace is not simply calmness or the absence of anxiety. This peace is better than understanding. A more literal translation of hyperecho in verse 7 would be to have power over. In other words, peace has power over, excels, and surpasses reasoning. It is superior to human understanding because peace comes from God. It stems from the work of God’s Spirit to bring about God’s new creation. Peace, after all, is God’s shalom—wholeness, restoration, and goodness. The presence of this peace can give joy even in the most difficult of times.  

This is why the apostle can urge the community to be peaceable to all: “Let all people know your gentleness” (verse 5). How the believers behave in the hard times reveals a lot about their vision of good news. If they have to bring about their own justice, the Philippians are doomed. Epaphroditus nearly died, and the future does not look bright for Paul. They are in a system and a situation that seems hopeless. Paul places the believers’ hope back in God whose power is greater than that of Rome or any powers that might try to thwart this good news.  

In this season of Advent, in a time of waiting and longing, we read the exhortation to rejoice.  Rejoicing does not negate or turn a blind eye to despair. Rejoicing does not somehow make the suffering go away or minimize the injustice. Rather, rejoicing acknowledges that we are serving the one and only God who can rectify the wrongs, who can—and has—stood in solidarity with the oppressed. Rejoicing in the face of gross injustice is a courageous act, a theological hope lived out in the present that stems from a vision of God’s shalom—a shalom so glorious that it is transforming and claiming life even in the present.

Rome does not get the last word. The suffering of the prison cell does not define or end this good news. The koinonia in the gospel will carry on because the work never rested on Paul or even on the church, but on God. Praise be to God. The Lord is near.