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Advent 3, Cycle C

The dominating theme of these texts and of Advent 3 is eager expectation. The message for Advent 3 in Series C, therefore, differs from the message for Advent 2 not in substance but in intensity. Not only is the Lord going to do something good for people; the Lord is coming now! The proclamation is now more insistent; the parenesis is now more urgent. Promises and assurances of the coming parousia of the Lord are punctuated again and again in these texts by parenetic directions of how to live in view of the arrival of the Lord. We see this in all of these texts, even though their situations differ from each other and from ours.

Isaiah 12:2-6

In the first of the two brief psalms (12:1b-3 and 4b-6) that conclude Isaiah 1-12, the person who sings in the psalm is directed to say, “I will trust in the Lord and not be afraid!” On that day, which is coming soon, the psalmist will sing, “The Lord has become my salvation!”

In the second psalm the psalmist will draw water from wells of salvation. The Holy One of Israel is in the middle of Jerusalem. What the Lord has done shall be proclaimed throughout all of the earth. Our Advent hymn, “Joy To The World! The Lord Is Come!” expresses the same thought as we sing it during this season. Like Isaiah 12:2-6, this hymn is a mixture of realized and futuristic hope.

Zephaniah 3:14-20

This concluding portion of the Zephaniah traditions portrays the Lord as a great military leader whose presence assures Jerusalem and its people that the Lord will bring peace and safety to them. The eager expectation with which the tradition is expressed indicates that at the time this tradition was formed there was good reason to hope that the Lord would soon restore Jerusalem. On Advent 3 we too are filled with eager expectation. As the Spirit of God engenders our words, the mood and message of eager expectation must be communicated next Sunday also where we are.

Philippians 4:4-7

Appropriate and acceptable lifestyle for Christians during this twenty-first century continues to concern us. At the time when Paul was writing his letters and while the Four Gospels were being formed, new religious communities of followers of Jesus self-consciously identifying themselves as separate from other religious communities had the responsibility of determining what lifestyle was appropriate and acceptable for themselves. From the evidence that we have in the documents within the Newer Testament, it is likely that more than any other individual within these communities Paul was instrumental in shaping the lifestyle of the people within these new communities of faith. Paul was instrumental in this regard during his lifetime and again late in the first century when many of his letters that he had sent to five specific house church communities and to one individual, Philemon, were gathered together, edited by several persons within the Pauline communities, and circulated more widely. We are beginning to realize that Paul was probably more instrumental in shaping the lifestyle of early followers of Jesus than he was in establishing their theology. Because Paul’s letters, as collected, edited, and distributed within the developing followers of Jesus, have continued in use as sacred Scriptures, they, more than any other parenetic material, have continued to determine what shall be appropriate and acceptable behavior for Christians. The Epistle to the Philippians and the segments of Philippians to be read within our congregations at worship next Sunday are important evidence of lifestyle considerations in Paul’s letters as they have been brought to us within our Christian tradition.

Within Philippians 4:4-7, 8-9, and 10-13 Paul alternates repeatedly between telling his hearers how they should live and why they should live that way. In eager expectation they should “Rejoice in the Lord!” and their gentle graciousness should be apparent to all people. This is necessary because “The Lord is at hand!” They should not be anxious about anything, even though Paul himself is now a prisoner of the Roman state, and it is likely that the Roman state will execute him for proclaiming that Jesus raised from the dead rather than Caesar is Lord and ruler “above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth.” It was the conviction and proclamation of Paul that Jesus as the Christ rather than Caesar is Lord and ruler on the earth that was so objectionable to the zealous advocates of Roman Civil Religion. These were the men who had made Paul their prisoner and would soon be bringing him into a Roman court and charging him with proclaiming someone other than Caesar as Lord and ruler within the Roman state. If Paul had proclaimed Jesus rather than Caesar as Lord in the heavens and in the graves under the surface of the earth, the zealous advocates of Roman Civil Religion who had power and wealth because of their loyalty to the Roman state would not have been concerned. It was Paul’s proclamation that Jesus the Risen Christ is Lord and ruler on the earth and the fact that significant and increasing numbers of Greeks were acclaiming this also that was alarming to the zealous Greeks who had responsibilities to maintain Roman sovereignty in their areas.

Nearly 2,000 years after Paul had been killed by the Romans, it was the Lutheran pastors in the so-called Confessing Church in Germany who proclaimed that Jesus as the Risen Christ rather than Adolf Hitler was Lord and ruler on the earth in Germany who were oppressed by the Nazis. The much larger number of Lutheran pastors who proclaimed that Jesus as the Risen Christ was Lord and ruler in the heavens above the earth and in the graves under the earth, but accepted Adolf Hitler as the Lord and ruler on the earth were praised by the Nazis, but discredited after Germany was defeated at the end of World War II.

Regardless of what may happen to him and to them, Paul wrote that the peace of God will keep their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Paul in Philippians 4, gently guided the Philippians to follow the model of his own lifestyle as they waited with eager expectation for the coming of the Lord. It was clear to Paul that the Lord will surely come, whether he and they live or die. So also it is for us.

Luke 3:7-18

As we compare this text with its parallels in Mark and in Matthew, and as we attempt to reconstruct the history of the development of the text, we see that by the time it reached the level of development that we have in Luke 3 it had become in terms of genre a prophetic word, specifically a prophetic word of judgment of the “old” people of God.

Verse by verse analysis of Luke 3:7-18 indicates that we have in 7-9 name calling and judgments directed against the Jews (material in common with Matthew 3:7-10 and possibly “Q” source in origin). Verses 10-14, in Luke only, are parenesis for the multitudes, for tax collectors, and for soldiers (probably not Roman soldiers but poor Jews who were paid to protect the persons and the wealth of the Jewish tax collectors). Verse 15 provides expectations about the possibility that John the Baptist might be the Messiah (Luke only). In verse 16 it is said that John baptizes with water, but that the mightier one who is to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Markan material used also by Matthew and by Luke). Verse 17 asserts that the mightier one will judge everyone, gathering the “wheat” and burning the “chaff” (material in common with Matthew 3:12). Verse 18 is a summary statement that with many different types of exhortation John the Baptist proclaimed “good news” to the people, good news obviously for those who are “wheat” (Luke only).

Four levels of development of this tradition can be seen with considerable clarity as we study the Luke 3:7-18 text and its parallels. These are the John the Baptist of history level, the Markan level, the Matthean level, and the Lukan level. Life situation and purpose at each level can also be recovered with some certainty as we examine these texts within the context of other texts.

At the John the Baptist of history level, the life situation is Jewish, specifically Jewish prophetic self-criticism coupled with eager expectation of the coming of the transcendent though human Son of Man. The visible expression of a water baptism of preparation was used. The purpose at this Jewish level of prophetic self-criticism was to gather a people prepared for the Lord, after the analogy of the Isaiah traditions during the last years of the exilic period. Similarities to the Qumran literature are numerous. The polemic at this level is not anti-Jewish. It is intra-Jewish. It is designed for the improvement of one’s self, not for the improvement of other people.

At Markan level (Mark 1:5-8) John the prophet has now become the messenger “foretold” by Isaiah. John the Baptist has now become securely subordinate to Jesus. Nevertheless, he is portrayed as the most important precursor of Jesus, the mightier one who is to come. The purpose at the Markan level is to show that the person and work of John the Baptist was clearly foretold by Isaiah and that Jesus is the Lord (the imminent Adonai by implication) who came and will come again to baptize his followers, the new people of God, with the Holy Spirit.

At the Matthean level (Matthew 3:5-12) the intra-Jewish internal self-criticism has become external anti-Jewish polemic directed viciously against the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees and the Sadducees are judged and condemned to destruction by fire. The purpose at the Matthean level is to show that the Jewish groups are going to be cut down and thrown like tree brush and chaff into the fire (with the recent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE undoubtedly in mind) in accordance with the prophetic word. In place of these discredited Pharisees and Sadducees the tradition represented here asserts that God can certainly raise up new children for Abraham, i.e., the followers of Jesus, and definitely will do so.

At the Lukan level (our Luke 3:7-18 text) the Jewish multitudes are condemned as in Matthew. However, for the new people of God there is good news. It is essential that these new people of God, the followers of Jesus and those who will join themselves to them, be honest, considerate, and content. By this time the invitation is extended even to Roman military personnel, in the hopes that they too would join in the new community of faith and accept Jesus rather than Caesar as their Lord. The purpose of the text at the Lukan level is to provide guidelines of ethical behavior for followers of Jesus baptized by the Holy Spirit and by fire on the Lukan Pentecost and later.

Perhaps a few suggestions for liturgical and homiletical use of these Synoptic traditions next Sunday may be in order. If we wish to go back through these texts to the ground floor of the John the Baptist of history level, we can emphasize the Advent message of sincere self-criticism in anticipation of the Lord who comes (came, comes, and will come) to us and to all people. This level is most appropriate for us for use on Advent 3.

If we wish to go no deeper than the Lukan level, we should deemphasize the Lukan judgment of the “Old” people of God (the Jews), since especially within our post-Auschwitz era such condemnation is certainly neither appropriate nor is it necessary. Instead, we should concentrate on the words of assurance and of parenesis for the people of God today, ecumenically gathered wherever God gathers them in many traditions throughout the world. It is our privilege to proclaim the good news that there is salvation in Christ to everyone, without standing in judgment of them or claiming an exclusive monopoly over the sharing of God’s grace.

Finally, we should be reminded that the great Advent hymn “Joy To The World” belongs with these texts for use on Advent 3 next Sunday.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen