Typically during Advent we focus on the Gospel text for preaching. I’m a big fan of using the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), as well. This week, the so-called minor prophet Zephaniah makes for a curious choice. If you have the time, read the chapter (or two) that immediately precedes this one, which offers much-needed background.
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 3:14-20 NRSV
It would appear that Zephaniah is all about joy-filled redemption and forgiveness (sort of a Mr. Feel-Good bringing warm and fuzzy thoughts), which is exactly why I suggested you read the preceding chapter or two of this small book. Let’s just say those chapters are filled with some pretty strong (some might say “fiery”) judgment. Clearly, Zephaniah’s intended audience had strayed from Yahweh’s preferred path. All appeared to be doom and gloom and certain destruction–at least that’s probably how it appeared to this prophet initially. But God was up to something.
Here’s a little known or at least rarely appreciated fact: Check out one line in particular in the middle of this passage–“[the Lord] will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” This is the only place in the entire Bible where God sings. Ponder that reality! What is it that causes God to break out in joyful song? God’s people turning away from their wicked ways to experience forgiveness and redemption!
That one thought is worth at least a moment or two of serious consideration as we continue our Advent journey toward Christmas. Now, let’s turn to Luke’s text about John the Baptizer:
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. –Luke 3:7-18 NRSV
Okay, what happened to all that joy from the Zephaniah passage? Do we really need John the Baptist coming on strong here with his “brood of vipers” talk? Where’s the joy in God’s judgment? Well, that’s precisely the point! On this third Sunday of Advent, the week that joy gets its turn (along with hope, love, and peace), it may take some effort on our part to recognize the good news buried in these apparently disparate prophetic messages, but it’s there. Sure, John’s message isn’t good news for everybody. For people like Caesar and Pilate and Herod and the Jewish high priests–well, they’re not going to even listen to what this crazy guy from the wilderness has to say anyway. They know he’s trouble; that’s why Herod ended up literally serving John’s head on a platter. At the time it probably looked like that was the end of John and his message.
But then came Jesus. Rejoice!
*Portions adapted from 2012 ForeWords archive