Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18.
Advent means the mother city pregnant with hope, and reforming prophets preparing for a Lord of peace.
The readings from the Hebrew scriptures are concerned with the Mother City Zion and her humble and scattered children.
The prophetic reading is the last passage of the book of Zephaniah. The earlier parts of this book are famous passages about the Day of Wrath. The final word of the book, however, is an exultant summons to the city to rejoice because of the coming forgiveness and restoration.
The good news to the city is that God “is in your midst” (“your” is feminine singular).
The king of Israel, Yahweh, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more….
Yahweh, 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; …
(verses 15 and 17, NRSV modified)
The mother city is being purged of shame and reproach and will become pregnant with God.
There is then a transition to the children. Because Yahweh has renewed his love for the mother, her children will be rescued:
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast [the dispersed one],
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth” (verse 19).
Finally, God speaks directly to these previously lost children:
At that time I will bring you [masculine plural] home … says the Lord” (verse 20).
In place of a responding psalm, our readings have another prophetic passage.
This Isaiah reading is a liturgy, with different voices complementing each other in a thanksgiving and hymning of salvation beheld.
A singular voice speaks first (in the Jerusalem liturgy, the voice of the king):
“Surely God is my salvation; / I will trust, and will not be afraid …” (verse 2).
Then a group is addressed and told that they will draw water from the “wells of salvation” – plentiful water available because of victory (a successful defense against a threatening foe). This group will joyfully call on others to thank God for the victory. “Give thanks [plural] to the Lord / … make known his deeds among the nations …” (verse 4).
Finally, the last word of the liturgy is addressed to the mother city (all imperatives and pronouns in this verse are feminine singular):
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel (verse 6, NRSV).
God is in the midst of her (Zephaniah 3:15 and Isaiah 12:6). This message is a variation on the gospel declaration, Immanu-El, “God is with us” (Isaiah 7:14). Such a gospel message provides a fitting climax to the joy of the victorious figure who speaks in verse 2, and to the grateful drawers of victory water who are addressed in verses 3-4. The whole is a liturgy celebrating the deliverance of the Mother City, Zion.
If the prophetic passages rejoice because God is in the mother city, the Epistle reading rejoices because the saved ones are “in Christ Jesus” (verse 7).
The believers in Philippi are summoned to “Rejoice!” – to rejoice always. The reason for rejoicing is that they have entered into the peace of God – or this possibility is ever at hand for them.
We may glimpse more concretely what peace may mean in this church by looking back a couple of verses.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion [or, “my faithful Syzygos” – the name means “yoke-fellow”], help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life (4:2-3, NRSV).
The new life in Christ has created new associations, new support groups, new cells of faithful people devoted to each other’s welfare and flourishing – peace in God. This new life together requires forbearance, thoughtfulness toward each other, a subordination of self to a common good in which all may experience the peace of God – and rejoice!
These qualities of yielding and consideration for the other are expressed by the word “gentleness” in verse 5, the basic meaning of which is yielding. “Let your gentleness [RSV “forbearance”] be known to everyone. [Because …] the Lord is near” (NRSV).
When the Lord is near, priorities must be rearranged; petty matters put aside and all united, rejoicing in the peace of God.
The Gospel reading is the judgment preaching of John the Baptist.
The passage is in three parts, two vivid announcements of coming judgment, culminating in hell-fire (verses 9 and 17), and, in between, directions for carrying out repentance in the economic realm.
The first speech insists that judgment is a radical equalizer. No appeal to heritage or ethnic distinction – children of Abraham – is any use. In the face of God’s coming, all that matters is confession of the wickedness of our lives in the world. And only repentance – a strong word that means a reversal of direction – can lead to inclusion in a saved community. A radical pruning is at hand; only the trees bearing fruit of justice will escape becoming firewood.
The fruits of repentance are all economic (verses 10-14). Ordinary people must equalize the basics of life, clothes and food (verse 11). The agents of the federal treasury must be rigorously honest – collecting only what has been fairly determined (verse 13). And the police and the military must not use their prerogative of legal force to extort improper wealth or to exceed their designated budgets (verse 14).
John is a preacher of reform. His program has three points: (1) provide welfare and equalize income, (2) administer public finance equitably, and (3) maintain open and honest law enforcement and national defense.
But reform applies within a limited timeframe (verses 15-18). Beyond John there is a mightier one whose coming will end the time of labor and testing within which repentance can be made. The preaching of John anticipates the coming of God’s own self, as the prophecies about the forerunner showed (Isaiah 40:3-5 and Malachi 3:1-2). There would be a reform period, then God would conclude all in a vast settling of accounts.
And there is one more wrinkle.
Those who later became followers of Jesus knew that the manner of the judgment was more complex – that the judgment would come upon a Suffering Servant. This Servant would be appointed by God to lead the way into a new life beyond the doom of hell-fire. The confessor of Jesus knew that beyond the judgment announced by John there was a salvation that worked in humble and secret ways among Galilean peasants, Judean shepherds, and old faithful folk who hung around the temple.