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Advent 3, Cycle C (2015)

We are on the Christian way to celebrate Christmas. All of the lessons provide opportunities to remind parishioners that the upcoming holiday is about God’s concern for us (Justification by Grace) and its implications for lives of rejoicing and love (Sanctification), though with an awareness of our fallen, sinful condition.

Isaiah 12:2-6
It is well known that this book is actually the product of two or three distinct literary traditions. The first 39 chapters are the work of the historical prophet who proclaimed a message to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom of Judah from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period during which the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been annexed by the Assyrian empire. Chapters 40-66 emerged in a later period, around the time of the fall of Babylon (in 539 BC). Our lesson is likely the result of the proclamation of the historical prophet — his proclamation of two songs, first a song of deliverance (vv. 1-3) followed by a song of thanksgiving (vv. 4-6).

God is said to be the prophet’s salvation, strength [oz], and might. No need to fear [pachad] (v. 2). With joy, Isaiah claims, we can draw water from the wells of salvation [yeshua, safety] (v. 3). On the day [of the Messianic Age] we will offer thanks to the Lord, calling on his name, making his deeds known among the nations, proclaiming that his name [shem] is exalted (v. 4). A call is made to sing praises to Yahweh for he has done gloriously. This should be made known in all the earth (v. 5). Zion (a reference to the city of Jerusalem) is directed to shout aloud, give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, for he is great in the midst of the people present in the temple (v. 6; cf. Zephaniah 3:14).

Application: A sermon on this text might focus on the joy associated with the upcoming Christmas celebrations as well as the reasons for it (Worship, Sanctification, Atonement, Providence). Or focus could be given to these reasons, leading to sermons on how through Christ we are saved in the sense of being given safety, or sermons might be developed on how as God was really present to the Jews in the Jerusalem Temple, so he is coming to us since Christ’s coming.

Zephaniah 3:14-20
The first verse of this book indicates that Zephaniah’s ministry was during the reign of King Josiah (640 BC-609 BC). He may have been a descendent of an earlier king of Judah, Hezekiah. The central themes of the book are reminiscent of the later reforms of Josiah, and so most of the literature in the book may precede these reforms. He condemns corrupt religious practices officially legislated against by Deuteronomy (1:4-6, 8-9, 12; 3:1-3, 7). Failure to condemn the king and to speak about the poor may support the inference that the prophet belonged to the royal house. There is a strong eschatological dimension to the literature as well.

Because 3:4ff reflects themes characteristic of the era following the Babylonian Captivity, some have speculated that these verses are editorial additions from that era to the book. These verses begin, after condemnation of Jerusalem, with the proclamation of the gospel of salvation. In the tradition of the Enthronement Psalms (47; 97), Jerusalem is urged to shout and sing, because the Lord has taken away judgments [mishpat] against its people. It is good to remember that God’s judgment in the Hebraic sense is a word of comfort, in the sense that it can cause positive outcomes and provide comfort in knowing that God’s just actions against the faithful have an end in sight (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 343, 358-359). In this lesson, the concept is more ambivalent, insofar the judgments have not been welcome, and yet now that they are being withdrawn, there is comfort.

The Lord’s presence [presumably in the Jerusalem Temple] is proclaimed (vv. 14-17a). The Lord will renew the people in his love, with rejoicing over his people with loud singing like at a festival. Disasters will be removed from the people (vv. 17b-18). The book closes with themes most suggestive of post-Babylonian Exile eschatology, as the Lord’s dealing with oppressors at the end is proclaimed, along with gathering the outcasts and the bringing home of the Judeans, making them renowned among all the nations/peoples [am], they will be gathered [asaph] like a shepherd gathers the lambs, restoring Judah’s fortunes [turning back on their captivity] (vv. 19-20).

Application: Sermons on this lesson will analyze our sinful condition in order to proclaim God’s concern for us (Justification by Grace) and its implications for a lives of rejoicing and going home (Sanctification).

Philippians 4:4-7
As previously noted this Epistle is a letter written by Paul while a prisoner to Christians in a province of Macedonia. There is some debate about whether the book in its present form might be a combination of three separate letters (as early theologian Polycarp, Philippians, 2.3, spoke of Paul’s letters to this church). Its immediate occasion was to thank the Philippians for their gifts, by way of the return of Epaphroditus to Philippi (2:25-30) who had brought these gifts to Paul. Paul’s main purpose is to urge persistence in face of opposition, using himself as an example. Following the mind of Christ gets one less concerned with one’s fate and more concerned on proclaiming Christ along with the joy that goes with it.

This lesson is a serious of final appeals made by Paul to his readers. He urges that they always rejoice [chairo] in the Lord and let their gentleness/mildness [epieikes] be known by all (vv. 4-5). Philippians are directed not to worry/ be anxious [merimnate] about anything, but to let their requests be known by God (v. 6). Assurance given that the peace [eirene] of God passes all understanding will guard the hearts and minds of the faithful (v. 7).

Application: This lesson encourages preachers to provide an analysis of Sin (anxiety) with the proclamation of Justification by Grace as well as Christian life as a life of gentleness and rejoicing (Sanctification).

Luke 3:7-18
Once again we consider the gospel to be used most of this lectionary year. It is the first installment of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Along with Acts, the author’s intention was to stress the universal mission of the Church (Acts 1:8). Addressed to Theophilus (1:1), it is not clear if this means that the work was written for a recent convert or for a Roman official from whom the Church sought tolerance. But since Theophilus means “lover of God” it is possible that the author addressed all the faithful.

This lesson provides a further description of the ministry of John the Baptist, especially his gospel of renunciation of claims to messianic stature in order to point to Jesus. First John’s prophetic preaching is recounted. Calling his audience who had come to be baptized a brood of vipers [echidna] and calling them to repentance, he insisted that just because they were in the lineage of Abraham it does not matter. If they do not bear fruit they could be thrown into the fire [pur, the symbol of justice] (vv. 7-9). Only Matthew (3:7-10) offers a similar report. Reports in the next verses are unique to Luke. To the crowd’s question of what to do, John is said to have claimed that we should share what we have with the poor (vv. 10-11). Tax collectors are directed to collect no more taxes and solders are directed not to extort money by threats (vv. 12-14). Tax collecting in the first-century Roman empire was a job for which one bid was awarded to the highest bidder, with pay derived from a percentage of what was collected. But this incentivized that the tax collector collected higher taxes than were due in order to compensate for the money the tax collector spent gaining his job.

The final verses of the lesson have parallels in all three of the other gospels. It is reported that many wondered if John might be the Messiah (v. 15). He responds in the negative, but less directly than in John’s version (1:20). Much like the other Synoptic Gospel accounts, in this text John is reported to have contended that he baptizes with water, but that the one who is coming is more powerful than John is, and John subordinates himself to the one who is to come. The one coming, it is said, will baptize [baptizo] with the Holy Spirit [pneuma hagion] and fire (v. 16). The one to come is said to be one who will clear the threshing floor with a winnowing fork, gather the wheat, and burn the chaff (v. 17). Such images of separating grain commonly imply judgment (Isaiah 41:15-16; Jeremiah 15:7). With other exhortations John is reported to have proclaimed the gospel [euangelion] of forgiveness [aphesis] (v. 3) and a new relation to God (v. 18).

Application: This lesson affords opportunities to proclaim God’s condemning Word of judgment (Sin) with the Good News of forgiveness (Justification by Grace), noting that John the Baptist subordinated his word of forgiveness to Jesus. Preachers should use the text to help parishioners recognize that we need this Word of judgment (condemning Sin) along with all the talk of love and peace in this season of love and peace.

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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