A Reflection on the readings for Advent 3C: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6) Philippians4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy
Once again Advent is moving past us quickly. This third Sunday is focused on joy. This is the point where we pause for a moment in our Advent waiting and rejoice and give thanks for the abundance of God’s love. Our readings reflect the theme of the joy that comes from faith and trust in God’s steadfast care and presence with God’s people. We have Zephaniah….. ”Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”…and Isaiah….”Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.…Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation…..Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world. Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy.” And Paul who writes from his prison cell…”Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice….Do not worry about anything...” And of course, John quoted in Luke, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” What! Wait a minute here! What on earth does that last bit have to do with it? How does that fit in here? It seems a bit out of sync with the all the rest of this joy and reassurance.
Yes, with all these sure and certain voices telling us to sing and rejoice because God is near and we need not fear, John seems to strike kind of a discordant note. But if we look closer perhaps he really is singing a closer harmony than it might seem. Like Paul and the prophets, each of whom had a deep sense of God and God’s action in their lives, John too knew who he was in relation to God’s plan. Jesus, the Incarnate One was coming and it was John’s job to clear the way, to ready the people, to say what needed to be said to make a way for the true joy and light and God to manifest in human history in a way that had never happened before. As Eugene Peterson says in The Message, in the Incarnation "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood."
There is no doubt that John gets our attention…and it appears he got theirs. “What then shall we do?” Not a bad thing to ask when preparations for a big event need to be made….what can I do? What is my part in the bringing about of the kingdom? The crowds asked. The taxed collectors asked. The soldiers asked. No matter who we are….from the poorest and least to the most powerful….all are called to be a part of this transformation.
John’s answers were not complex….to the poor…”share what you have with one another,” to the tax collectors….”take only what is right and fair,” to the soldiers, “don’t misuse your power to get money, be content with what you have.” It almost sounds a little like Paul…. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.”
So maybe what John is saying is really not all that different from what we hear in Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul after all.….. maybe it is the same message “God is right here in the midst of us, loving us exultantly and doing great things for us, and if that is the case, maybe we need not be quite so worried about everything. We know that when we come from a place of trust we feel secure. And when that is the sure and solid footing from which we base ourselves, it is much easier to be generous in sharing whatever we have with one another, as we aren’t feeling so worried that there is not enough to go around. Maybe we can even begin to repent of that…to turn from it… from the hoarding and holding on. From all that living in fear and zero-sum thinking that we are so prone to. Maybe we can release ourselves just a bit from that upside down, fear-based worldview that tells us that the only important things are how much we get and how much we keep. Stuff. Money. Power. Maybe we can repent of that too. Because it really isn’t life-giving. It really isn’t joy-giving. In fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s really quite deadening. We see examples of that all the time. Of the way it destroys our joy and relationships and love and peace. Of the way it saps the life right out of us. In The Message translation, John says to the people, “What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire." Harsh words in some ways, but words that can also wake us up. Words that can move us toward the kind of repentance he is talking about and bring us to a place where we can find real joy. “What counts, John says, “is your life.” Your life, my life, one and precious, is what counts to God. Zephaniah says God rejoices over us, exults over us with loud singing. That’s quite a thought, isn’t it? That life, that one….yours, mine, his, hers, each individual one….is the one that Jesus the Incarnate one broke into history for…each individual one…..
God’s vision for the world and for God’s beloved ones is always so much bigger than ours, filled with so many more possibilities for transformation than ours could ever be. God’s vision never reflects the world as it is, but as it could be….or already is in God’s time. People like John and Zephaniah, like Isaiah and Paul manage somehow to understand that vision and pass it on to us. And hopefully we too get moments when we have glimpses of it too and are able to see the world with God’s eyes for a moment. To see ourselves as we could be, and the world as it could be, transformed by God’s redeeming love manifested in the radical lived daily Christianity of the followers of Jesus. Imagine if….if we shared what we had, collected no more than was needed and were satisfied with what we had….if we did not live in fear, were gentle with another. If we were thankful. If we were at peace. If we loved one another the way that the God who exults over each of us does. How would it change the world? How would it change us?
“What counts is your life.” What then should we do?