Repentance and Fire: Advent 3C

Some Thoughts for the Third Sunday of Advent

Texts:

  • Old Testament: Zephaniah 3:14-20
  • Canticle: Isaiah 12:2-6
  • Epistle: Philippians 4:4-7
  • Holy Gospel: St. Luke 3:7-18

Texts in Summary:

We continue our Advent readings with a second week of John the Baptist.

It’s Gaudete Sunday, one of the two Sundays when rose is the appointed liturgical color. (If you’ve ever wondered why your Advent wreath has three purple or blue candles and one pink one, it’s for this weekend. This tradition is slowly falling out of favor, though. I know of exactly one Lutheran parish that even has rose-colored vestments, and more and more parishes are dropping “the pink one” from their wreaths.) The name comes from the Latin entrance chant, which in turn is taken from this week’s Philippians reading:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!

For those who use the modern themes of Advent, this week is the “Joy” candle, and for churches following the medieval custom of preaching on the Four Last Things, the week’s theme is Heaven. (If you would like to know more about the Four Last Things and their role in Advent, I commend to you Rev. Fleming Rutledge’s Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.)

Most of the other readings echo the joyful theme from Philippians. Zephaniah paints a picture of a time when all shall be well in Zion because “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.” It’s a time of restored fortunes and reunification.

Joel Baden of Yale Divinity School points out that Sunday’s reading stands in sharp contrast to the rest of Zephaniah’s work. He suggests that the section is likely written during the Exile or after:

When I look at this, I think about the fact that, from my perspective, this section at the end, the section we’re reading, (verse 14 on) I’m pretty confident is just tacked onto the end of this section, and indeed the end of the book….This happens all the time with prophetic books: somebody sees that devastating message of: “Change! It’s all going to be terrible.” And then they tack on: “But in the end, I will redeem. In the end, I will turn your suffering into joy.” …I think the section that you’re appreciating as a response to the prophecy of woe, as it were, you’re reading it as somebody who’s actually experiencing the bad. You’re reading it from the perspective of: “we are going through something here” or “we’ve been through something here, and man, I want to know that it could get better.” …Zephaniah is writing before the exile. And saying, you guys need to change before the worst happens. Once the worst has happened, how does that message still work? You need the hope once it’s gone bad, not before it’s gone bad.

(Those familiar with scholarly theories around Isaiah will recognize a similar, but distinct, theory around the theorized break between Proto- and Deutero-Isaiah…but that has nothing to do with this week’s canticle. Once again, the RCL appoints a biblical song other than a psalm, this time from Isaiah 12. And like the readings from Zephaniah and Philippians, it rejoices in God’s glorious acts of salvation: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

The Lukan reading stands in stark contrast to the other three. While Zephaniah and Isaiah and Philippians talk about joy and salvation, St. Luke focuses on a fiery call to repentance – those coming for baptism are a “brood of vipers” fleeing “from the wrath to come.” An ax is at the root of the trees, and fruitless trees will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.” The coming Messiah is depicted as one with a winnowing fork coming to gather wheat and to burn chaff in “unquenchable fire.”

The middle portion is marked by a general call to repentance from unjust behavior: Do not steal. Do not oppress others. Give excess resources to those in need. These are the fruits worthy of repentance, and if you fail to do them, you risk (if I may paraphrase Javert) the axe, the flaaaaaaame.

And this, St. Luke tells us, is how John “proclaimed the good news to the people.”

To preach this passage as Good News requires us to broaden our understanding of Law and Gospel and of repentance and hope. Too often, we focus on the Law as that which convicts.* The Law calls us to repentance. Any time the Bible tells us what to do or not to do, that’s Law, and we have to move on from that to the grace Gospel. But here St. Luke says that John’s proclamation of repentance was “the good news.” St. Luke’s depiction of John the Baptist shows us a way of understanding the Law through what the Lutheran reformers call the third use: it not only convicts us but also shows us how to live as the people God created us to be. Yes, it calls us to repentance – but repentance only makes sense if we hope that God will grant us the strength to live in this transformed life.

*This is what Lutherans have historically understood to be the second use of the Law. The first use is that has ben called the civic use: it curbs bad behavior through fear of punishment. In the Calvinist reckoning, this is called the second use. But because the first two uses, in whichever order, convict us and impose the threat of punishment, Lutherans have typically drawn a sharp distinction between Law and Gospel/Grace.

It is in the third use of the Law that we are able to make sense of Christ’s commands to love God, love neighbor, love our enemies, and to love each other. Indeed, it’s only through the third use of the Law and challenging the bright line between Law and Gospel that we can read John’s proclamation as “good news.”

As we prepare for Christ’s return, we do so trusting not in our own ability to obey the Law but in God’s gracious use of the Law to guide us in living just and right lives.


Preaching Possibilities:

The Zephaniah reading depicts the Lord as one who is actively pursuing the lost and the oppressed. The people rejoice because they have been delivered. Preachers might point to Moses, Harriet Tubman, and other liberators who have been called to “save the lame and gather the outcast.”

In Luke, tax collectors come to John and ask what their repentance looks like. Michal Beth Dinker’s 2018 article for Working Preacher puts this in direct conversation with Zacchaeus’ appearance in Luke 19: he repents and Jesus comes to dine with him, saying “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.” In the right congregation, I could easily imagine starting the sermon by getting the assembly to join in singing that old Sunday school tune:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.

This might be my inner Eugene Lowery fan coming out, but that could be a very fun way to pull the narrative rug out from under the audience by raising the twin questions of how we ourselves are a brood of vipers and what it would look like us to repent and bear good fruit.

Finally, as St. Luke brings up the topic of throwing baren trees into the fire and burning chaff, preachers might (and I likely will) but these fiery images into conversation with the refiner’s fire in last Sunday’s reading from Malachi. (Resources on use of fire for “cultural burns” can be found in last week’s article.) A faithful farmer does not light a fire without a reason, nor does a smith cast metal into the fire with no purpose. Fire is a tool not to punish but to purify and to clear room for something more fruitful or precious. The flame is not to punish us but to make way for the good fruits of repentance.


Who I’m Reading to Think Through This Week:

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