The readings for Advent III present an interesting range of themes, running from unrestrained celebration in the passage from Zephaniah to the moral exhortation and the "threshing floor" metaphor for divine judgment and salvation in Luke. Between these two extremes, the passages continue the motifs of restoration and peace found elsewhere in the Advent C readings. All of the passages present strong themes suitable for preaching, and the message behind their juxtaposition in the lectionary seems to be that Advent is a season of transformation: leading either to celebration of anticipated restoration, or to reflection upon the personal and emotional upheaval involved in the repentance and conversion of life called for in the gospel lesson. From a theological perspective, the struggle in the passages may be over different understandings of election: is repentance necessary for restoration and salvation (as in Luke), or does God take the initiative by wiping out the judgments against God's people and restoring them to the land (Zephaniah). While the issue of grace and works underlying this contrast is usually thought of as a New Testament and Christian issue, it also seems to lie at the heart of the prophetic message in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Zeph. 3:14-20 is a startling passage, both when read in isolation as a part of the Advent readings and when read in the context of the book from which it is taken, because of the striking image of God exulting over Israel in verse 17. I first became aware of the passage six years ago when our choir used an anthem based on it: "And the Father Will Dance," by Mark Hayes (Hinshaw Music, Inc.: 1983). The anthem begins: "And the Father will dance over you in joy! / He will take delight in whom He loves. / Is that a choir I hear singing the praises of God? / No, the Lord God Himself is exulting o'er you in song!" While I have developed reservations about the male orientation of the language, the anthem gets at the underlying spirit of verse 17 by making it clear that even the word "exult" is somewhat restrained for the underlying Hebrew. The image I have is of God as a rabbi at a Jewish wedding lifted on the shoulders of the dancing guests celebrating the union of the bride and groom. Calls to rejoice and celebrate are frequent in scripture, but the image of God celebrating God's human creatures is, I suspect, rare.
Zephaniah is a book that seems to come from the reign of Josiah. The first two chapters reflecting the corruption of Jerusalem prior to the reform, and the final chapter the failure of the reform itself. Chapter 3 condemns judges, prophets, and priests, who have ignored the righteous judgments of God, who dwells within the city (verses 3-5). The images of transformation all reflect God taking the initiative by assembling nations against the city (verse 8), changing the speech of the people to a pure speech (verse 9), and preserving a remnant of the humble (verses 11-13). The conclusion of the chapter, which is our reading for the day, sums up the transformation by calling upon "daughter Zion" to celebrate, because God is in her midst dispelling fear and erasing the judgments against her, and then pictures God engaged in ecstatic celebration over Zion, "as on a day of festival" (verses 17-18). The emphasis upon the lame and the outcast suggests an underlying social ethic in the book (verse 19). The passage seems to suggest that God must take the initiative to redeem Zion: it is useless to expect the unjust to repent first.
It strikes me that the image of God celebrating over the redemption of "daughter Zion" is so strong that it cries out for a sermon, perhaps dealing with a theme related to sin and grace. Our Protestant tendency is to focus on human sinfulness. An Orthodox clergy friend once commented to me that Western Christianity, Protestant and Catholic alike, went astray with Augustine in becoming overly obsessed with sin. Here is a passage that focuses upon the goodness of God's redemptive work by having God applaud the work of God's hand.
The obvious contrast from the passage from Zephaniah is to the reading from Luke 3:7-18, which pictures John the Baptist preaching repentance to the people (verse 8), reminding them that their election by God implied in the promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-4) is reversible. When the hearers respond by asking, "What then should we do?" (Luke 3:10), John responds with advice suggesting a social ethic based on honesty and a sharing of resources. The contrast to Zephaniah is that there is at least a hint of repentance in the response of John's audience.
The Advent theme emerges in verses 15-18 with the description of the expectation of the crowd and the prophecy of one who would baptize "with the Holy Spirit and with fire." The passage concludes with the metaphor of the threshing floor as the place of judgment, with the burning of the chaff and the storage of the grain (some of the same issues could be explored here as in the reading from Luke 21 week before last, although the metaphor for the last judgment is different). At first glance, the characterization of John's message as "good news" (verse 18) strikes one as incongruous until one remembers that such preaching might in fact be good news to the oppressed (cf. 4:18-19).
There are several themes that could be explored starting from this passage. One is the conversion of life implied in the preaching of John the Baptist and his advice to the repentant for amending their lives. The phrase is important to my Benedictine hosts at Saint Martin's College, since they take a vow of "conversion of life," to bring their life into conformity with the gospel. The issue for us Protestants is that true repentance involves an effort to set things right and transform one's life if we want to avoid what Bonhoeffer decried as "cheap grace."
Too often, I suspect, we Protestants develop our social ethics on the basis of attitudes that are uninformed by the social teaching of the New Testament and assume that because we are Christians, our attitudes toward social justice will be just. I started to suggest that this approach to social ethics is particularly true at the popular level, but it strikes me that such a critique is also possible for the ethics of Christian realism (see John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus). The passage from Luke suggests that God can raise up other children to Abraham from the very stones. While our tendency is to understand the words as addressed to first century Jews, is it possible that we should understand them as addressed to us? For that matter, if we understand them as addressed to us, what does that imply about the certainty of election for us Reformed Christians? Can God change God's mind?
A second possible theme is the transformative nature of religion implied in the image of baptism by the Holy Spirit and by fire. Luke/Acts, of course, emphasizes the role of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit as a part of the Christian life (something that, for most Presbyterians, would need to be balanced by 1 Corinthians 12-14), but if we look beyond the traditional charismatic interpretation of this passage, the implication seems to be that religion is a passion that "consumes" and transforms the person and not just the civil acceptance of a particular dogma or practice of a particular approach to worship. The idea is explored in its "pure" form by Flannery O'Connor in some of her stories like _The Violent Bear It Away_ with her portraits of southern preachers burned clean by the fire of the spirit (although my experience is that O'Connor's stuff is too heady for a Bible belt college classroom and would require some real skill to use in a sermon). One could develop this sort of a theme theologically by drawing upon Kierkegaard's critique of Christendom -- or perhaps Schleiermacher's understanding of "feeling" as the basis of religion (or Tillich's "ultimate concern," which may be one of the sources of O'Connor's ideas). Some of the members of Sermonshop might have some other ideas of theological resources for this theme. Our expectation in Advent is for the warmth of the Lukan Christmas story, but this morning's gospel lesson suggests that we should expect one who will awaken us from our lethargy, purify us with fire, and charge us with the power of the Holy Spirit (which incidentally tends to blunt the initial contrast between passages that speak of repentance as a prelude for salvation and passages that depict God as taking the initiative). Isa. 12:2-6 is presented where we would ordinarily find a reading from the Psalms, and is in fact a psalm of faith. I find it difficult to understand why the reading does not include verse 1, which helps clarify the place of the passage in the book of Isaiah. Isa. 12:1-6 stands at a major transition point in the book of Isaiah, at the end of the initial collection of oracles in the book and just prior to the oracles against the nations, which begin in chapter 13. The passage is rooted in the message of the first thirty-nine chapters of the book, in that it speaks of trust in God, who is the prophet's strength and might. The theme is explored in chapter 7, where the Immanuel prophecy is presented as a sign to Ahaz that he should trust in God alone as his defense against the two kings arrayed against him in the Syro-Ephraimite War. Isa. 12:2 is also similar to 30:15, which suggests that Judah's strength (or "armed might") is to be found in quietness and trust. The theme is derived from the Zion tradition that suggests that God will defend God's city (cf. Isa. 31:1-5 and Psalms 46 and 48) and is probably one of the sources for the development of pacifism.
In its pivotal place in the book of Isaiah, however, 12:1-6 also anticipates the message of comfort in Second Isaiah (cf. 12:1 and 40:1-2) and seems to set up the contrast between Isaiah 1-39 as a book of judgment and 40-66 as a book of comfort (in which God does a new thing in redeeming Israel -- cf. 43:18-19). From the perspective of canonical criticism, Isa. 12:1-6 is part of the editorial structure of the book designed to convert it from a collection of prophetic oracles, addressed to certain historical circumstances, into scripture, designed to speak of both judgment and salvation to the people of God in all times and places. An Advent sermon on this passage should probably draw upon the connection to Isaiah 40 and the message of comfort, although the themes of trust are equally powerful in the book of Isaiah.
Psalm 85 is listed as an alternative to Isa. 12:2-6. It is a psalm of national lament with several clearly articulated parts: a hymn of trust (verses 1-3), the lament (verses 4-7), an oracle of peace (verses 8-9), and a concluding image of "steadfast love," "faithfulness," "righteousness," and "peace" heralding YHWH on the way. The psalm seems to link the idea of turning (including returning, restoring, and reviving) with the land, peace (shalom), and covenant love or faithfulness (hesed). The concluding verses present a portrait of shalom rooted in covenant love and faithfulness centered around a procession (righteousness will make a path for God's steps) similar to the ones we noted in the previous week. In this particular psalm, restoration seems to depend upon repentance (verse 8), so that God's hesed is the consequence of human hesed, or faithfulness to the covenant, and will lead to the blossoming of the land in shalom. If used in a sermon, Psalm 85 could lead into the epistle reading from Philippians, which also speaks of peace, although it is possible that the theologies of the two passages are somewhat at odds.
While the epistle lesson for the second week of Advent was taken from the opening thanksgiving of Philippians, today's comes from one of the closing exhortations of the same letter. Phil. 4:4-7 continues the note of joy and rejoicing that began in 1:4 and continues throughout the letter. The Advent theme emerges in 4:5 with "The Lord is near" and seems to be the rationale for the exhortations to rejoice, to be gentle (cf. 2:3-4), not to worry, and to seek God's support through prayer. All of these exhortations lead into the benediction, "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Philippians is, among other things, a letter of spiritual guidance centering on the Christ hymn in 2:5-11 as a model for a Christian attitude toward living (even Paul's own story in 3:4-11 echoes the hymn), and an Advent sermon on the "peace of God" as a guard for the recipients of the letter as they await the coming of the Lord ("The Lord is near") could draw upon some of the themes of the letter as they intersect in this passage. Perhaps one could find an entree into the letter and the passage by starting with "attitude" as a buzzword in contemporary American culture.
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