Readings for Third Sunday in Advent Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

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First Sunday in Advent Textweek

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Zephaniah today calls us to sing aloud, to shout, to rejoice and to exult. Today’s texts, all of them when you put them together one after another, would absolutely delight the TV evangelists. I can almost hear that verve, that American accent coming through, urging us onward toward Christmas: ‘one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, he will rejoice over you, he will exult over you, he will renew you; not only that, he will remove disaster from you.’ Just in case you can’t quite believe this is talking about you, Paul’s letter to the Philippians has been thrown in: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your requests be made known to God.’ For goodness sake, tell God, tell Him – and it is a ‘him’ in this reading – tell Him what you want and as Zephaniah says, ‘he will restore your fortunes before your eyes.’ Don’t waste your money on Lotto, just tell God and you get everything. There’s more, there’s even more in the same texts: ‘he has turned away your enemies’. Maybe that’s why we can’t find Osama Bin Laden, God’s turned him away. ‘God is a warrior who gives victory’ and from Luke - great text from Luke: ‘He will gather the wheat into his granary’ – that’s us – ‘and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ – that’s them.

The sad thing is that such a reading of the text is not a caricature: for many it affirms their truth; it’s a truth that sponsors division and it’s a truth that is sponsored by the Church. We can laugh at it because maybe we have grown a half a centimeter beyond it, but it’s there. Listen to this drivel that we had this morning for the Collect: ‘Almighty God you sent your Son into a world where the wheat must be winnowed from the chaff, where we must create division, where evil clings to what is good. Let the fire of your Spirit purge us of all corruption’ - thank goodness we don’t have to do anything, the fire of the Spirit can do the purging for us – ‘so that purified, we wait eagerly for Him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near, your Son our Lord Jesus Christ’. If you read it and believe it, then forever you will remain in the pew, waiting for the day to draw near, waiting for the one who comes. It’s not going to happen, it’s all a load of drivel. It’s really good to get that: we must grow up into the Word of God.

We will be given the image of a babe at Christmas: let us not stay there, let us not stifle the growth of that child; we must get beyond this and the way to get beyond it, it’s very, very simple. It just needs us to be aware, to be aware that what we see is always and forever relative to where we stand and relative to our orientation; what we see is impacted by where we turn and where we are. The sacred texts, the Bible, they don’t point the way, if they did, if the Bible was a do-it-yourself ‘Here’s the way’, then we would be there by now. They don’t point the way, rather what they do is they reflect our way. They help us to see where we are, where I am and they call from us a deeper vision: look beyond that which fills your eyes.

So let’s look again at today’s readings, without the overlay of the TV evangelists. Let’s read the text knowing, let’s take as our starting point a knowing that we are part of a whole. Let’s look again at the text, seeking not to confirm our separation as God’s chosen, but rather to affirm our integration with God’s universal creation. Let’s look again at the readings knowing that love and fear are reflections of ourselves, knowing that we shape the world as much as we are shaped by the world. Let’s look again at the readings knowing that the divine is birthed in humanity.

Zephaniah calls us to sing aloud, to shout, to rejoice and to exult: it is the prophetic call of hope. The prophet speaks with a confirming passion, or like that old cookery show, with a consuming passion, and so that voice calls to us. It calls us to question what am my consuming passions, what is it? Where do I look, where will I find that space within where I find myself singing, shouting, rejoicing, exulting? Not bored silly, as a mindless Anglican. It’s a different place, it really is a different place. Think about it again: imagine within yourself, singing – even those of us that can’t sing, we can imagine it; shouting – not at the kids, shouting to the universe; rejoicing – that’s when every joint in your body seeks to separate itself from every other joint; and exulting, looking as high as high can be. Imagine that place

And as we contemplate it, as we contemplate our place of hope, we need to heed the words of the Baptist, the last two weeks of Advent that have brought us here: prepare the way, straighten the crooked paths. Those of us that have hoped that might be an outward thing, like putting a bypass through Clontarf Hill, it’s not, it’s an inner thing; it’s an inner thing, and Zephaniah provides a framework to do that preparation, to clear the way: ‘The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies’. This is not the activity of the Lord, this is not ‘old man, grey beard, coming in with purging broom’ and all of that. This is actually descriptive of what we need to do to move into the place of hope. Know that our judgments are taken away – that is also that critical voice within. Imagine going through a day never once having that inner judge tell you what to do, what not to do and constantly diverting your course. Imagine if that critic is silenced and is still. Not only that but imagine a place where there are no enemies turned towards you. No enemies turned towards you: it is a place where you are 100% safe, it is a place where you are 100% free, it is a place where 100% - whatever you do – will not bring about condemnation or criticism, but will be creative. Imagine that place and already just in imagining it, the signs of hope shine through like rays of light.

As we start to contemplate that place we can then appreciate Zephaniah’s prophetic insight: we’re given a text of freedom. He speaks of freedom from cultural norms, from institutional oppression and from religious fundamentalism. We are called prophetically beyond all of that in few simple words, verse 15: ‘The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.’ Zephaniah speaks of Christmas before the Nativity witnessed by Luke. Both Zephaniah and Luke speak of incarnation as a present reality: the Lord is in your midst. Not coming at Christmas, not coming for Christmas, like the in-laws. The Lord is in your midst.

Because of Sunday School and the fact that many of us didn’t do any further theological work after Sunday School, we’re often left with misconceptions. One is that a prophet foretells the future – if we stay with that image then it’s very easy to say, ‘Zephaniah’s pointing towards Christmas’. Not at all. It’s easy to appreciate that that understanding of the prophetic word can be couched in that way, because the prophet is continually speaking beyond where we are, and for a simple understanding, surely beyond where we are is tomorrow – we start to locate things in time. The prophet speaks into eternity a truth for every time and for all time. The prophetic insight is an insight into the present as the whole of eternity: the Lord is in your midst.

Take that as the starting point and the readings today change completely; take that as the starting point and what Christmas is all about changes completely. The Lord is in your midst: one of the questions for Advent is therefore, what are we waiting for?

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris