Theme(s): Facing judgment through repentance and without anxiety / Judgment / Repentance / Rejoicing in the Lord / The Unsurpassed Peace of God / Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff.
Sentence: Bear fruits worthy of repentance (Luke 3:8)
God our strength and our hope,
grant us the courage of John the Baptist,
constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice
and patiently to suffer for the truth's sake;
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Psalm = Isaiah 12:2-6
We are not often in Zephaniah in the three year RCL so let's make the most of it!
Background: Zephaniah is the 9th of 12 "minor prophets", the last twelve books of the Hebrew Old Testament. Zephaniah prophesies in the time of the reign of Josiah, reforming king of Judah (d. 609 BCE), in the period between the exile by the Assyrians of the northern kingdom of ISrael/Samaria/Ephraim and the exile by the Babylonians of the southern kingdom of Judah. Zephaniah accuses Judah of idolatry (1:4-7) and its officials and princes of dressing themselves "in foreign attire" (1:8). The "day of the Lord is at hand" (1:7) so Judah should listen and act accordingly.
Our passage, 3:14-20, looks beyond the day of judgment (15) to the salvation of "daughter Zion ... daughter Jerusalem" (3:14). This salvation includes the turning away of enemies (15), a renewed love relationship with the Lord (17), removal of disaster (18), dealing with oppressors (19), transformation of the lame and outcast (19) and restoration from exile (20). This last expectation may reflect a final editing of Zephaniah after the Exile of Judah (597/587 BC).
From our perspective, Luke 3:7-18, prophecies of this kind lie in the background to John's prophetic call to repentance in order to be ready for the Day of the Lord, a repentance which means a new way of living which anticipates the new situation of God's people as God brings salvation through Christ.
Psalm = Isaiah 12:2-6
In these weeks of Advent we are making our way through Isaianic visions of restoration (here: see references to "salvation", 2, 3) at the end of all things ("in that day", 3). The mood is one of peace or calmness that comes from knowing all will be well: "Surely, God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid ... With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation", 2-3). The action is thanks and praise: this God who can be trusted, who brings salvation, let us "make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted", 3).
In keeping with the thoughts expressed above about the Isaiah reading, Paul expresses sentiments of joy ("Rejoice ... Rejoice",4), non-anxiety (6), and confidence in God's unsurpassed peace (7).
We could also say, In keeping with thoughts expressed through these Advent readings, of trials and tribulation before the Second Coming of Christ, of preparation for the coming of Christ in the ministry of John, and (today) of preparation for judgment through repentance and change, Paul says some things which encourage us, especially if we are tempted to be anxious and fearful. Not at all, implies Paul, as he encourages us to "Rejoice in the Lord always" (note this is not generally "grin and bear it rejoicing" but "confident of who the Lord is, and of the Lord's love for us, rejoice!", to live in gentleness (and not the anger which comes from insecurity), to not worry about anything (again, not a "stiff upper lip, grin and bear, nothing worries me" but a "I am not worried because I have taken all possible concerns to the Lord in prayer".
Above all, Paul says, when we are aligned with God through our prayers, we will find the Lord gives his peace, unsurpassed peace and that, most importantly, as we face the future "will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus".
If we read this passage feeling comfortable and self-satisfied then perhaps we have not actually understood the passage! John attacks the crowd who have come to hear him speak. He strays a long way from the guidance I would give in a Preaching 101 class on congregational rapport between preacher and people. "You brood of vipers" is not a chapter heading in How to Win Friends and Influence People. This vigorous message actually has a positive effect. After slam-dunking the crowd with a "You must repent NOW to avoid imminent judgment and, by the way, do not rely on your ancestry to see you through" message, they respond, "What then should we do?" (10, also 12, 14)
(That question, incidentally, is one every sermon should lead a congregation to ask.)
What the hearers should do is change their lifestyle. Sharing garments and food (11) is a new, communitarian way of life (as repeatedly encouraged through Luke and Acts). Tax collectors collecting tax (but no more than tax as prescribed by regulation) is a very new way of life for such agents of the Roman empire (13). Soldiers, seemingly underpaid, should stops extortion and learn contentment with what they have (14). What changes might we make to our lifestyles which demonstrate our readiness for judgment?
As the passage continues we get a sense that the crowd were as curious as to the (real) identity of John as they were to hear his invigorating message: "all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah" (15). John, however, denies that he is the Messiah and clarifies that his role is to be a signpost to the Messiah. John baptizes with water, the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit (16). Yet the Messiah will - relative to John and his message of judgment - also be a prophetic agent of God, sorting the wheat from the chaff (17). What a hearer of John would not have guessed from John's message about the Messiah sorting the wheat from the chaff is that this would not be through "action" so much as through "speech." Jesus will teach and preach a divisive message - divisive in the sense that people will accept/follow him or reject/conspire to kill him - and in this way the "wheat" (those who love God faithfully) will be separated from the "chaff" (those who are unfaithful to God).