Advent III, 13 December 2009

This is a series that appears in the weekly Newsletter of Trinity Church; designed to get you ready to hear the lessons at next Sunday’s liturgy. Your suggestions and comments are most welcome.

- Fr. Michael T. Hiller

The Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6, The First Song of Isaiah Ecce Deus

Philippians 4:4-7

Saint Luke 3:7-18


The name for this Sunday used to be “Gaudete”, the first word in the Introit Psalm for the Day, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” The color for the day is rose, and in some churches rose vestments and paraments are used. This is the reason for the rose candle in the Advent Wreath. In the readings, see if you can detect this theme of joyfulness.

There is a parallel Sunday in Lent, “Laetare”, which is also a rose Sunday. The were meant to give relief to the austerities of Advent and Lent. This might seem strange to us now, in that Advent is not as sparse or penitential as it was in the old lectionary.

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the LORD.

Zephaniah was either written during or just prior to the reign of King Josiah (640 – 609 BCE), or in the post-monarchial period following the Babylonian Captivity (530, or perhaps even later, ca. 200 BCE). The themes are common to Jeremiah and I Isaiah, who may have been contemporaries, or to the themes of later prophets. Zephaniah sees a coming God, who is wreaking vengeance for the sins of Jerusalem, calling it the “Great Day of the Lord”. He urges the King, Josiah, to initiate repentance and reform – which the Josiah of history does. It may well be that many of the recensions of the first books of the Bible, the so-called “Books of Moses” date from this period. Zephaniah either serves during this period, or speaks through the mouth of a prophet during this period.

Subsequent sections speak of the “sins of Jerusalem,” and “the sins of the nations,” and concludes with a “song of joy” from which our reading is taken.

Breaking Open Zephaniah:

1. Which verses speak to the theme of “joy” on this Sunday?

2. Which verses have the expectation of a “coming one”?

3. What are the reasons that you think this reading was chosen for Advent, and particular this Sunday?

The First Song of Isaiah, Ecce Deus, Isaiah 12:2-6

Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say, *
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;
Make his deeds known among the peoples; *
see that they remember that his Name is exalted.
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, *
for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

Unlike the later prophets writing under the name of Isaiah, this “first” Isaiah writes in the period prior to the Babylonian Captivity during the period stretching from King Uzziah through the reign of Hezekiah (ca. 680 BCE). His call as a prophet, recorded in the sixth chapter, includes a vision of the Most High that is quite spectacular, and that has served as a source for hymnody and choral works. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are thought to be his, and in the twelfth chapter we have this “song” in which he rejoices in the salvation that comes in spite of the warnings made earlier. In this song, the prophet declares his trust in the God of Israel, using some compellingly beautiful language.

Breaking open the Isaiah

1. Who are the “inhabitants of Zion”?

2. When the prophet talks about “mak(ing) his deeds known”, what are those deeds?

3. Why do you think this reading was chosen for this Sunday?

Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

As we mentioned last Sunday, these are a people that are dear to the apostle, and his affection for them is clearly evident in the reading for today. The theme of rejoicing is the center of this reading, along with that of prayer. The true center of the reading, however, is a terse assertion that “the Lord is near.” Were we the audience of Zephaniah, or Isaiah, such an assertion might be a cause for fear and trembling. Paul does not expect this of the Philippians, however, for he immediately talks about lack of “worry”, the continuation of prayer, and the granting of “peace.”

Breaking open Philippians:

1. How does this reading fit into our theme of rejoicing?

2. What are the elements of prayer, according to Saint Paul?

3. Is the “peace of God” knowable, or does it go beyond our ability to perceive it? What does the text say, and what do you understand about that?

St. Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This morning we meet John the Baptist in earnest – no holds barred. The reading is in two sections, with the first giving us a sample of John’s preaching, and the second his foretelling of the coming Christ. In the first section we see a John who is more than a “fire and brimstone” preacher, but who has an almost rabbinic aspect to his message. He does have a terse message, that is unashamed of its message of repentance. In addition to that, we see a sample of people (the “crowds”, the tax collectors, and the soldiers) each of whom asks, “what shall we do?” These are the questions asked of a teacher, a rabbi. The sample of people asking the question is interesting as well, representing a descending cross section of Jerusalem: the generalized crowd, the traitorous and collaborating tax collectors, and finally the oppressors themselves, the soldiers. To each is given a message of repentance.

The context that John frames for us, forms the hope of Israel – a messiah who would redeem the crowds from both tax collector and soldier. But John moves them beyond such hopes and begins to talk about baptism, no of water, but of the “Holy Spirit and fire.” In other words, the expectations may far exceed the wishes of the ones drawn out to the wilderness to hear his message. It is a perfect Advent sermon.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1. What do you understand by the word “repent?”

2. Repent means “turn away from.” Of what ought you repent?

3. If you were John the Baptist, which groups of people (like the crowds, soldiers, and tax collectors) would you direct your sermon?

4. How is John’s sermon “good news?” (See the last verse of the reading)

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.


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