“Sing aloud…rejoice and exult” (Zephaniah 3: 14-15). “Surely it is God who saves us.” (Isaiah 12:2). “Rejoice in the Lord always.” (Philippians 4:4) “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7) What?
This morning’s readings sound a bit like one of those SAT questions, “Which of the following does not belong?” How can John the Baptist’s proclamation be the good news that Luke claims it is?
First, we must understand the role of the prophets and the setting of these statements.
Prophets served two purposes. In times of perceived peace and prosperity, prophets spoke to a community calling them to introspection and truthfulness about their own spiritual health? The times might look peaceful, but it was a peace purchased by compromising their values. It was a peace that involved looking the other way at the evils of the people they called on to protect them, like Egypt and Assyria. It meant pointing out the ways they were taking advantage of others through dishonest business dealings. Through stinginess. It meant pointing out hypocrisy in their worship practices and the ways they dishonored God. It meant predicting the future based on theses observations and warning the people that if they did not change their ways, bad things like war and exile would be the result of their behaviors. For the record, they did not listen and they did experience near annihilation.
In times of disaster, prophets were called upon to remind the people of God’s love and faithfulness. Prophets were to speak a word of hope and remind the people that they could recover if they would return to following God’s commandments. If they put away false gods and returned to pure worship. If they trusted in God instead of foreign rulers to protect them. If they treated one another with respect and dignity, practicing equity, generosity, and looking out for one another then things would be put right again and they would experience true peace and prosperity.
John the Baptist is a bit unique in that he combines these messages in the same oracle. First century Israel was on the one hand experiencing the Pax Romano. The Jews were in their homeland, but they were under domination of Rome who both took away their freedom and protected them from outside enemies. The temple in Jerusalem was at its most magnificent since the time if was destroyed by Babylon. The Jewish religion was tolerated by Rome as long as the people paid their taxes and didn’t cause trouble. But there was great political division among the Jews. The Sadducees put their trust in the temple and the liturgy. The Pharisees put their trust in the observation of even the most minuscule of the laws, but were guilty of criticizing those who did not have the time or money to follow all their rules and for finding loop holes that allowed them to appear to follow the letter of the law without having to keep the intent of the law. The Essenes turned their back on the community. They declared it all corrupt and lived by their own interpretation of the law in the desert. The Herodians embraced the Greco/Roman lifestyle and trusted Herod’s relationship with Rome to protect them. There was also a large population of people who struggled just to survive.
As John begins announcing “Prepare the way of the Lord.” He is announcing both judgement against those who have abused their positions of power and hope for those who are struggling to survive. The kingdom of God that will begin to break into this world will reverse the power structure and begin the process of righting wrongs and healing the broken.
The hard part about this passage is we must do the introspective work to determine first if we will be among those who call out “What then should we do?” and with sincerity seek to change the direction of our lives, amend those behaviors that are contrary to God’s will, and embrace the kingdom of heaven or if we are one of those how are merely spectators seeking to find fault with John’s message.
Where do we start if we want to get on the Lord’s path?
Two of my small groups have been studying the Lord’s prayer for the last few weeks. It truly says it all if we mean what we say, and we will say it together as part of our eucharistic prayers.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.” Do you have a parent child relationship with God? Do you seek God in times of both trouble and joy?
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Do you consciously seek to do God’s will? Last week I asked what would change if we knew God was going to visit our church. What would change if God was not just here, but was directing our decisions? This is what we claim we want when we say this prayer. What would earth look like if God’s will was done as in heaven?
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Do you trust God to provide for you, for this parish in the future? Do you trust enough to live in the present and thank God that we have everything that we need today? Are you willing to eat the spiritual bread in Christ provided to you today? Not just the wafer at communion, but the change of heart that comes when we allow Christ into our very being.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Living in community is hard. We are all going to either intentionally or unintentionally hurt one another, Jesus reminds us we will do it over and over – if we must forgive seventy times seven, that means we can expect to be injured seventy time seven. Are we willing to move beyond our self-indignation and seek to live in peace and unity?
“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” In the first century and in other places even today, being a Christian often means risking your very life. For us today, I think it often involves risking relationships, risking our pride and feeling of self-worth. Many Christians prayed to have the strength to endure torture and the fear of death. One of the temptations they feared was the temptation to self-preservation at the cost of loyalty to Christ. It was an honest fear, the twelve disciples failed. Jesus prayed that this cup might pass from him, though he did not falter when it did not. Perhaps we should pray to for the strength to overcome the fear of loneliness or embarrassment when we are called to do something different from our peers. I suspect the evil we should be asking to be delivered from is not evil done to us, but the evil we are capable of doing to others.
“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” Finally we are called to recognize that God is everything worth having. Only in God are our communities holy places. Only when God is our source of power do we act in a holy way, therefore, only to God do we give glory.
“Rejoice in the Lord always.” Paul is correct. John’s prophetic voice is a word of hope. It is good news. It is not too late to change our path. God has not abandoned us, but dwells here with us. We do not need to think about what would happen if God showed up. We need to give thanks that God, though Jesus, already has and live accordingly. The third Sunday of Advent is a day of joy.