Training ourselves

Sunday 16 December 2012
Third Sunday of Advent
Advent 3C (RCL)

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Last week, in Luke’s Gospel, we read about the John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The sins he had in view were Israel’s sins, the sins that got them (in the mind of the deuteronomistic theologians) thrown out of the land in the first place. John was gathering up a new people in the wilderness, and bringing them across the Jordan back into the land. Not only did this re-integrate those who were, for whatever reason, separated from the people, but it also called into question the legitimacy of the current structure in Jerusalem. Luke opened this portion of his Gospel by reciting the list of Roman rulers from the Emperor, down through the procurator and the tetrarchs. He then listed the high priests Annas and Caiaphas in the same breath, implying their co-option by Rome. Now John is bringing in these new people. No wonder Herod removed his head.

This week’s reading answer the question of just what sort of people they were. We start out with the image of the coming wrath (notice, it is not the wrath of God — could be just the Stoic conflagration that happens once every three thousand years or so to start the world afresh, or some political disaster in view, like the destruction of the Temple). John asks the crowd, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee?” He then adjures them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. Whenever the image of bearing fruit is used, the allegory of Isaiah 5 is in the background. God planted Jerusalem as a vineyard and expect good grapes, good fruit, but got wild grapes instead. God expected righteousness, but got bloodshed instead. Luke has John make a very pointed reference to the Jerusalem regime. Hence the claim about being able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones. Ethnicity is no guarantor of righteousness. Even now, the ax is at the root of the tree, the fig tree of Israel.

So the crowds ask John what they should do. And his answers are stunningly simple! Don’t try to overthrow Rome. Don’t worry about Jerusalem. Don’t worry about the coming melt-down. If you have two coats, share with someone who has none. And then the tax collectors ask — even the tax collectors can get in on this new people. And again, the answer is stunningly simple. Don’t take more than assigned. John doesn’t say, leave off collecting taxes, rather, do it justly. And then soldiers ask. Presumably, the tax collectors are sons of Abraham (see the story of Zaccheus), but soldiers? Not likely. And yet, John answers them. Do not extort, or show figs (which means something like plant false evidence), and be satisfied with your daily wages.

This new baptism, this new crossing of the Jordan, creates a simple people not identified by ethnicity (including even soldiers!), and bound together by the rules of simple justice. But John is not the Messiah of this new people, Luke is careful to tell us. But one coming who will baptize in holy spirit and fire. Even now his winnowing shovel is in his hand, clearing the threshing floor — perhaps a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. The rest of Luke’s Gospel will be about this coming One, and the kind of reign he establishes.

Zephaniah looks at the restored Jerusalem, and imagines exactly the kind of new community Luke imagines. Rejoice, for your God is in your midst. God will gather in the lame and the outcast, and give Zion victory. Of course, by Luke’s time, it was clear that the restoration wasn’t going to happen, indeed, Jerusalem was in ruins. So Luke imagines John gathering and then Jesus leading this new people, not tied to any given place, but spreading like fire and spirit throughout the world.

Paul, in the letter to the Philippians, is writing his farewell, probably on his way to his martyrdom. He tells his grieving community, Rejoice, and again I say rejoice. It’s so simple. Let your gentleness be know to everyone, because the Lord is near (in your midst). In everything, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God, and God will keep you in the peace of Christ.

Nothing fancy here; no arming ourselves to be the insurgency; no hunkering down to await the disaster. Just do your job well, treat everyone kindly, let your gentleness be known by all, and rejoice. God is the midst of this people, whether children of Abraham or not.

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