The Third Sunday in Advent, 16 December 2018

TheThird Sunday in Advent, 16 December 2018

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9 – Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
St. Luke 3:7-18

Background: Gaudete Sunday

Before the liturgical changes in the rites of the Roman Church and subsequently in Anglican and Lutheran liturgies, the season of Advent was seen as having a penitential character, and the color for the season was purple. This Sunday was seen as a brief but necessary respite to this season of penitence. The Sunday was also known as “Rose Sunday” from the rose color seen in the vestments for that day. The readings all exhibit a joyful character – a change from the darker themes that preceded this Sunday. When the liturgy was revised in the late sixties and early seventies, the season of Advent was softened a bit, and was not seen as being a penitential season. Some churches, mainly Episcopal and Lutheran, began using blue vestments to signal that change, however the rose color for this day stuck. The name “Gaudete” comes from the first word of the introit for this Sunday’s mass, “Gaudete in Domino semper…”

First Reading: 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.

The Book of Zephaniah is in some respects a mirror of the spectrum that Advent presents. The initial chapters reflect the author’s theology of the Day of the Lord with oracles against Judah and the other nations that surrounded them. He saw God visiting them with judgment and destruction due to their unfaithfulness. However, in the third chapter there is a different atmosphere, a hopeful vision of when the nations would turn to YHWH, and honor the God of Israel. Our reading, this morning falls within that series, although the initial verses of Chapter 3 (1-13) also have a judgmental character. With verse 14 we have a new attitude, thus, the pericope begins with words of joy: “Sing aloud,” “Rejoice and shout!” And why should that be? The author is not shy to announce the reason, “YHWH has turned aside your judgments.” This seems to be related to the previous oracle in verses 1-8, and the promises to Jerusalem in verses 9-13. A new day has dawned, one in which the words of the prophets will no longer be words of judgment, but rather words of salvation and encouragement. God is pictured as a warrior who delivers and saves the people from their oppressors. It is a time of reversals, shame to praise, outcast to renowned, exiled to gathered to home.

Breaking open Zephaniah:
  1. What seems threatening about the future?
  2. How do you hope that these threats will be alleviated?
  3. How might your faith in God deal with the threats?

Response Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6) The First Song of Isaiah    Ecce Deus

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.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Here we have a similar progression as seen in Zephaniah. In Isaiah, passages relating to the devastation of Judah and Jerusalem give way to hopes of transformation and the downfall of Assyria. Our pericope for today is a “Song to Sing in that Day.” Isaiah is certain that God will intervene and save them. He is so convinced of that eventuality that he offers a hymn to be sung (our pericope) on the day that these hopes and promises are realized. This certainty is enunciated in the first words of the pericope, “Surely, it is God who saves me.” The water images are lovely and evocative in a land known for its dry wilderness. These are more than words of hope, for the prophet encourages them to sing about them as if already accomplished.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. How is God saving you?
  2. What in your life do you rejoice about?
  3. How do you share that good news with others?

Second Reading: 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.

This reading is one of two sets of imperatives that conclude the Letter to the Philippians (Set One: 4-7, and Set Two: 8-9). The first set speaks of Christian piety, while the second deals with ethical concerns. The first set is our reading for today and consists of three imperatives: 1) rejoice in the Lord, 2) Let your gentleness be evident, and 3) pray in order to relieve your anxiety. Each of the sets concludes with a wish for peace. The themes of rejoicing, gentleness, and patience/prayer are especially suited to this Sunday in Advent.
Breaking open Philippians
  1. How do you rejoice in the Lord?
  2. In what way do you show gentleness of spirit?
  3. When in the day do you pray – about what?

The Gospel: 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.
I always find the end to this Gospel to be somewhat amusing – “…but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” It seems necessary then to examine what this good news truly is, and what John’s vision of it is. The deprecations begin almost immediately with his naming the crowd as a“brood of vipers.” The heart of the good news is the request to repent and to bear the fruits of repentance. What those fruits might be are shown in the questions asked by the crowds (“what should we do?), by the tax collectors with the same question, and finally by the soldiers. The answers describe a more equitable society, sharing of resources, honesty in financial and government matters, and justice for citizens. We hear reflections of the prophets’ hope in the Baptist’s answers.

The result of the dialogue is expectation – but about what? To ascribe to John the title Messiah is one thing, but to know what expectations follow such a course is quite another. John deflects by describing a Messiah who will upset, really, all of their expectations. John sees Jesus as someone who will come and sort out the problems that society offers, “to clear”, and “to gather”, and “to burn.” It will take time for that to turn into good news for people, but then that is what Advent is – waiting.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. What are your expectations?
  2. Do you know what it is that you have to do?
  3. What if I said that you don’t need to do anything?

Initial idea:                  Rejoicing in difficult times

Example One:             Rejoicing in God’s ultimate judgment of us (Zephaniah)

Example Two:            Rejoice in your gentleness and in your prayer (Philippians)

Example Three:          Rejoice in your manner with other people (Luke)

Example Four:            Rejoice in God’s presence with us (Isaiah, last two verses)

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller


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