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: 2Surely 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?
Thoughts: First Song of Isaiah by Jack Noble White.
The First Song of Isaiah
Let me begin by commending to you the Isaiah passage for the psalm. If you want to love this passage, listen to it. Consider singing in worship:
Beautiful text. Singable refrain for the congregation. Parts for the choir. Instantly downloadable: http://www.jwpepper.com/The-First-Song-of-Isaiah/1207315.item#.VlvfrnpOKrU
The First Song of Isaiah
Surely, it is God who saves me;
I will trust and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,
and God will be my Savior.
1 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 God’s name.” [Refrain]
2 Make God’s deeds known among the peoples;
see that they remember that the Lord is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord,
for God has done great things
and this is known in all the world. [Refrain]
3 Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion;
ring out your joy,
for the great one in the midst of you
is the Holy One of Israel. [Refrain]
The lectionary begins with verse two, however, the text is best understood with verse one included: “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.” There is a form here. Note that “You will say in that day” appears twice, in verses one and four, both times followed up with a thanksgiving. This is written to be sung.
You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.
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.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
What strikes me about this passage of hope is how early this passage of hope appears in Isaiah. Isaiah is an 8th century prophet of Judah, the southern kingdom. Israel, to the north, has been crushed by Assyria. Judah must decide whether to play nice with the powerful Assyrian armies to the north or with Egypt, the powerful army to the south. Do we form an alliance?
Chapters 1-39 are Isaiah’s prophecies of judgment against the people of Judah for worshipping foreign gods, and the priests for greed. Hopeful passages don’t come until later in Isaiah, passages like Isaiah 40: Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that her sins are forgiven and her warfare is over. Later, these prophecies from after the fall of Judah, and the Babylonian Captivity, speak a word of hope, promising to rebuild Jerusalem, the temple and the community.
This passage, however, comes from Isaiah 12, early in the book, nestled in the midst of many prophecies of judgment. The message may be here, that even in the midst of judgment there is hope. Judgment is spoken in the context of a future hope.
When a parent grounds a child for doing something wrong, it must always be done with love, from the context of our overarching love for our children. Our sins bring with them consequences, but God’s love is always with us, even when we are mired in the consequences of our sins.
Likewise for us, when we are in the midst of trials and tribulations, we sing songs of praise like Isaiah 12. Surely God saves me. I will trust and not be afraid, for God is my stronghold and sure defense. Cry aloud, sing out your joy.
It occurs to me that learning to sing songs of praise in the midst of tribulation is an important lesson to learn. This only comes with maturity, and possibly with age. Can we see our suffering in the context of the larger blessing of life? Can we see the moment through the eyes of thanksgiving and hope, as did the apostle Paul, who taught the church to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and who was able to rejoice even from a jail cell?
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. (Philippians 4:4-6)
Luke 3: John the Baptist
7John 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers 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.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.”18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Our text begins with John calling the crowds snakes (“you brood of vipers”) and then ends with the words, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Sometime between the snakes and the end lies some good news.
Christians too often mistakenly assume Judaism is a religion of works. One rabbi explained to me that Judaism is a religion of atonement. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (October 8-9 in 2019) is the holiest day of the year in Judaism.
Accordingly, John begins his tirade with a chastisement, not to flee to their Abrahamic bloodline as a guarantee of salvation, but rather to repentance. He calls them to “bear fruit worth of repentance.” Trees that don’t bear fruit tend to get cut down.
John’s unauthorized forgiveness and salvation is offered not through the costly, priestly Temple system of animal sacrifices in Jerusalem, but rather through simple repentance. It must be quickly noted that repentance is not just saying “I’m sorry.” It is a change of heart. It is a change of mind. It is a change of life direction. This repentance requires humility, not moral arrogance.
This humility and repentance is also taught by Jesus. Consider the story Jesus tells in Luke 18, of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee prays a prayer of moral superiority, “I thank Thee O God, that I am not like others, murderers, thieves, adulterers, or for that matter, like this pathetic tax collector, who has abandoned you and his people by collecting taxes for an occupying army. I fast. I tithe.” The tax collector prays a different kind of prayer altogether. He beats his breast and simply prays, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Then Jesus says this man went home justified, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
The tax collector went home justified. This is justification by grace through faith. It is humility and repentance, hoping for God’s forgiveness not because of our righteousness, but because of God’s free grace and mercy.
Then the crowds ask John, “What should we do?” Once you have experienced God’s free grace and mercy, you want to respond. How then shall we live? There are three groups of people who ask him this question: the crowds, tax collectors and soldiers.
John’s response to the crowds is relatively simple: share with those in need. This basic act of generosity is a simple but vital spiritual practice. He puts it like this: “Whoever has two coats should share with those who have none.” And then he says to do the same with food. With a little preparation, this might be a good Sunday for a coat drive, or a food drive, or a shoe drive. I dare say, the majority of the members of the congregations I serve have more than one coat, and a pantry full of food. I went to one congregation where they encouraged people to leave their shoes behind. This is something that we can do in December in the South. What an act of humility. Of course, some preparation would be involved, to make sure you have a place to receive the shoes, or a way to distribute them.
Jesus is not against taxes. He says to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. The issue here is the ostracization of tax collectors for colluding with an occupying army, and collecting taxes that must be paid with Roman money, that has a blasphemous graven image of a self-deified emperor on it. Jesus’ has compassion for tax collectors in the Scriptures, even though they are vilified by the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Tax collectors made a deal with Rome. They were paid by levying a surcharge on the people for their services. They had the power of soldiers and the full weight of Rome behind them. The temptation to collect over and above their due was strong. The vocation was ripe for corruption.
John turns to them, responding to the question, “What should we do?” What is remarkable is that he doesn’t tell them to stop collecting taxes. He simply addresses the corruption. “Collect no more than the prescribed amount.” Luke may have an agenda to here to let Rome know that this Christian religion is no threat to the Empire, but it may also be that John’s wrath was focused not as much on Rome as on the corrupt religious establishment. To be sure, he was concerned about corruption in both places, as his critique of Herod and his subsequent beheading attest.
Soldiers were generally not Jewish. They were Romans. Gentiles. Pagans. That John addresses them at all is remarkable. There were “God-fearers” who were not Jewish, but interested in Jewish practices, and attracted to monotheism. We must also remember that though this is John speaking, it is Luke writing, in 90 A.D. probably from a major urban center in Western Asia Minor, Turkey today, perhaps Ephesus. He is writing his gospel for “Theophilus,” which means god-lover. He may be writing for a Gentile who is interested in Judaism or Christianity, or perhaps for a community of God-fearers.
Roman soldiers were only men, and they came in two kinds. Legionaries were the elite. Auxiliaries were the rank and file. Legionaries had to be Roman citizens. They signed up for 25 years of service. They would retire in military communities called “colonia.” Auxiliaries were not Roman citizens. They fought on the front lines and guarded things. They made a third of the wage of Legionaries. Both received grain allotments. In general, being a soldier was one of the best ways for an average person to provide for his family in Rome. For more information CLICK HERE.
Again, John does not tell them to give up their vocation. They are not asked to stop being soldiers. They are told to be honest, and kind in their work. They are told to not practice extortion. Power corrupts. They are told not to use their power to lord it over others. No threats. No false accusations. And then finally, be satisfied with your wages.
The people were inspired, and filled with expectation. They wondered if John might be the messiah. John then pointed to Jesus. “I baptize you with water, but one greater than me is coming. He will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.
Many people struggle with their professions. I know some who have left their profession because they felt they were being asked to do unethical things. There is a time for that. Sometimes you have to walk away. I commend those who do, especially when it comes at personal financial risk.
It also true, however, that there is corruption in every profession. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, pastors. There are always opportunities to cheat others, and people who will take them. There are ways to use power inappropriately, for personal gain, in ways that injure others. We cannot change that. If you are a contractor, you will bump into dishonest contractors. If you are a politician, you will bump into dishonest politicians. We need both contractors and politicians. Your call is not always to walk away, but to practice your faith in your profession. Use your gifts to be a blessing to others, not a curse.
There is much good news for us snakes here:
- A right relationship with God is as close as simple confession and repentance. Humility is the order of the day, not perfection, which is unattainable.
- God offers us a holy way of living, that involves sharing, being honest with others, and learning the grace of being satisfied with what we have.
- For some, this will involve a completely new calling, but for most, we are invited to live these values in our current occupations.
- One has come into our world, to baptize us with Spirit and fire, empowering us to share, serve, and follow our calling in faith.