Old Testament: 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 Response: Canticle 9
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.
The Epistle: 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.
The Gospel: 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.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” What? John calling his audience a “brood of vipers” doesn’t sound much like “good news” to me. I’m sure it got people’s attention! But where is the “good news”?
It seems that, for John the baptizer, the “good news” consisted in his insistence that the reign of God was breaking into the world here and now and that people were being called to live in that reign, in that new way of being, in that new creation, here and now. And, as the passage continues, one group of people after another – the crowds as a whole, tax collectors, soldiers – one group after another asks how they can be part of that greatest of all transformations, how they can come to live in that reign. “What must we do?” they each ask him. And John spells out very practical steps for each of them.
That’s a good start, asking “What must we do? – each in our own time and in our own circumstances. But doing is just a start. As we continue, Sunday after Sunday over the next twelve months, to listen to passages from the gospel according to Luke, we will be faced with a call not just to do something different, but to become something different. First John, and then Jesus, and then in the Acts of the Apostles the followers of Jesus repeatedly call their audiences to repentance: to a genuine change of heart, to a new way of being.
We can change what we do in life – some of us more easily than others. But allowing God to change who we are, to change those internal values and attitudes that determine what we do – that is much more difficult. Yet that is the call of the prophets, including Isaiah and John and Jesus.
This year, on these final three Sundays of Advent, instead of using one of the psalms as a response to our first reading, the Lectionary specifies one of the canticles found in The Book of Common Prayer. The one that we prayed together today is taken from the twelfth chapter of the book of Isaiah.
In his first eleven chapters, Isaiah has been calling the people of Israel to repentance and a change of heart. And he has been promising them signs from God, in particular the sign of one to be known as “Immanuel”: “God with us.” But as the book reaches a critical point, it suddenly bursts into a celebration of God’s presence and faithfulness: the canticle that we prayed today. And as it begins that celebration, it specifically mentions God’s salvation three times in different forms: “God… saves me”; “he will be my Savior”; “the springs of salvation.” There is obviously something significant in the repeated use of that word: three times in the first three verses.
What doesn’t come across in English, but is obvious in Hebrew, is an important play-on-words and an important message. It has to do with the prophet who is proclaiming God’s salvation. The name “Isaiah” means “YHWH saves.” Isaiah no longer just points to a sign of what God is doing in bringing salvation. Isaiah himself is the sign of what God is doing in bringing salvation. He embodies, for the people who see and hear him, for those who encounter him, the presence of the God who brings them the salvation, the fullness of life, for which they long. He is no longer just doing, just proclaiming a sign of God’s good news. Now he is being a sign of God’s good news.
But how do we become living signs of what God has done and is doing in the world? How do we come to embody God’s gift of salvation for all people? To put it in our faith context, how do we become true Christians: people in and through whom Christ is present in the lives of people and of the world today?
Luke follows his stories about Jesus’ birth and the beginnings of his public ministry with accounts of Jesus calling his first disciples: calling them to become what we consider to be the first Christians. And, in those accounts, it’s important to notice how Jesus goes about enabling those whom he calls to become something new. Like John the baptizer in today’s gospel reading, Jesus begins by calling them to do something new in order to become something new: to come and follow him, to do what he does.
According to the old story, a tourist in New York City walks up to a famed musician, but without recognizing him. Looking for directions, he asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The musician answers simply, “Practice, practice, practice.” We all recognize the fact that, to become a musician, you need to do what musicians do, over and over and over again.
The same is true for anyone who wants to become a great athlete. I read last year that, each day before a Cincinnati Reds game, Joey Votto goes out to the field at and around first base. He then spends an entire hour fielding ground balls hit to him by one of the coaches, over and over and over again; because he knows that the only way to become and continue to be a great athlete, is to do what great athletes do, over and over and over again.
Jesus took the same approach in forming those whom he called to be his followers. He called them to follow him, to do what disciples do, over and over and over again. He knew that the only way to become someone living in God’s new creation, to embody God’s new creation, is to do what those living in God’s new creation do, day after day. To put it in our terms, the only way to become a Christian is to do what Christians do, over and over again, day in and day out.
Lucan scholar Luke Timothy Johnson (Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church, p. 182) put it this way: The church “can deepen its understanding” of itself as prophetic “by thinking about witness first of all as embodiment and enactment of God’s vision and secondarily as speaking about that vision.”
Like Isaiah, our call from God is not just a call to talk about signs of God’s presence and love in the world. Instead, like Isaiah, our call from God is to be living signs of God’s presence and love in the world: embodying for those whom we encounter the life-giving salvation of our God. And to accomplish that we have to do what all would-be Christians need to do: practice, practice, practice.