|Zephaniah 3:14-20 – Sing aloud, O daughter Zion… The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has turned away your enemies.Isaiah 12:2-6 – First Song of Isaiah: Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
Philippians 4:4-7 – Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!
Luke 3:7-18 – John the Baptist: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Zephaniah was an advocate for the reforms of King Josiah of Judah; 641-610 BCE. The story goes that, as the temple was being renovated a “hidden scroll” was found; presumably Deuteronomy, or a fragment that would become Deuteronomy. Josiah instituted many reforms accordingly and got a five star rating by 2 Kings. “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.” Quite a deal when you consider that David would have been in that “before him” list; and to have the Shema used to describe you ain’t no slouch. (An aside: Note the reference to “Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah” in 2 Kings 23:28. Probably lost.)
However, my Advent focus, if I preached on the Zephaniah text, would be verse 20,
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.
As I suggested last week, what the prophet is talking about is salvation: restoration, healing, security, and enoughness. Salvation is the thing for which everyone hopes? What would is mean for our congregations to be “saved?” What would it look like for congregations to be agents of God’s salvation in their neighborhoods? What would it look like for everyone to have their fortunes restored? In last week’s language, what would it look like if the kingdom of God – the reign of God – fully showed up?
That is a good segue into the Gospel text; Luke 3:7-18; the next 12 verses following on the heels of Last Sunday’s text. Now, as I have previously proposed, I think that Luke’s intra-Jewish debate question is, “If Jesus is Messiah, then what about the Gentiles? What about people that ain’t like us?” If that’s true, can we put on some first century Jewish ears and hear these words in a new way?
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 axe 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.’
See? It’s no longer about lineage or ancestry or who came over on what boat from where. (Those who have ears to hear…) The kingdom of God is about bearing good fruit. Anything else is just taking up space and needs to be burned. That’s a pretty good answer to, “What about the people not like us?”
The Crowds: ‘What then should we do?’ In reply John said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Sounds justice to me.
The Tax Collectors: ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ John said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Sounds like justice to me.
The Soldiers: ‘And we, what should we do?’ John said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ Sounds like justice to me. (And remember that “dikaiosune” is translated both “justice” and “righteousness”; righteousness, that is, painted without all the gauzy and ethereal pastels.
I find it interesting that Luke has this exchange between John, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. (Matthew has the debate between John and Jesus down in the river; but that’s quite literally another story.) What’s it all about? I think it goes back to the “kingdom of God” vis-a-vis the “kingdom of Caesar.” People sometime think that Israel and Galilee were on the fringe of the empire. Well, maybe in a sense. But actually they were on the road linking the northern and southern halves of the empire and were filled with imperial cities.
What’s more, the Herodian Dynasty had been in bed (sometimes literally) with the imperial family ever since the days of Augustus and Herod the Great. The landscape was filled with imperial cities, many of them built by the Herodian kings in honor of (to curry the favor of) whatever emperor was in power. The Herodian dynasty increasingly became “Jewish” in name only; they were all “client kings” of the emperor.
And, of course, the entire system was sustained and enforced by whom? The tax collectors and the soldiers! That, I think, is the point of Luke’s baptismal dialogue.
I read somewhere that the tax collected annually by Herod Antipas – just from the region of Galilee – was about 1.2 million denarii. A denarius was the daily wage. Now, even if you use the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in Texas (sorry, there is no minimum wage in Louisiana) and figure an 8 hour workday, Herod’s 1.2 million denarrii would equate to about 69.6 million dollars. If you figured an income of $100 per day (which would put n American family of four at $25,500 per year; barely over the poverty line of $23,500) it would equate to 120 million dollars – and that’s a conservative estimate. The tax and tribute collected were huge; even before the padding and skimming.
And, for the vast majority of the population, there was no way out! In a kingdom of social benefactors, social hierarchy, and social obligation, there was no way out; no other way. But wait, maybe there is a another; maybe there is another kingdom; maybe there is another way of doing life together; maybe there finally is some good news – some gospel. Or, at least, maybe everyone is hoping that there is. Even the tax collectors and soldiers seem to be hoping that there is another way; hoping for another kingdom. “The emperor has no clothes.”
‘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.’
I am reminded of Buechner’s words, “Thy kingdom come… on earth” is what we are saying. And if that were suddenly to happen, what then? What would stand and what would fall? Who would be welcomed in and who would be thrown the Hell out? Which if any of our most precious visions of what God is and of what human beings are would prove to be more or less on the mark and which would turn out to be phony as a three-dollar bill? To speak those words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.
“…the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah…”
Maybe there is hope; but, for what are we hoping? What is our expectation? Buechner also said, “If preachers decide to preach about hope, let them preach out of what they themselves hope for.” Ah, now he’s gone to meddling.
But maybe that’s where it should be left. We are all waiting and hoping for something different. We are hoping that life will be different. What do we expect? How can we be a part of that? And how can our congregations, our faith communities, live into that glimpsed kingdom of God that has set us waiting for it? Will it have something to do with justice and welcome for people who ain’t us? As preachers and leaders, can we lift the veil and, in all humility, let people in on our hopes and dreams and expectations?
It was Gandhi that said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Jesus, I think, would not object.