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Introduction To The Scripture For Advent 3 - Year C
Zephaniah 3:13-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Advent 3 - Year C


ZEPHANIAH 3:14-20   After a long series of judgmental prophecies against
Israel and its neighbours, Zephaniah promised a day of great rejoicing when
God is present among God's people.  This would bring not only forgiveness
and security from oppression, but prosperity and renown among all people.


ISAIAH 12:2-6       Psalms like this one were often included in the
writings of Israel's prophets.  This one provides a fitting conclusion to
the prophet's description of the Messiah and his role in the preceding
chapter.  This joyous thanksgiving psalm has also been set to music as a
responsive chant in #880 in Voices United.


PHILIPPIANS 4:4-7   A wonderfully confident faith shines through these few
sentences.  Paul's expectation of the imminent return of Christ moved him
to urge the Philippians to rejoice with him and to conduct themselves in an
exemplary manner.  The spiritual gifts of gentleness, thanksgiving and
peace would keep them free from anxiety as they waited for the glorious
day.


LUKE 3:7-18         John the Baptist's preaching seems harsh and
vituperative to our modern, public relations sensitive ears.  To his own
generation, he must have appeared to be much like the early prophets of
Israel, Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah.
     
Several themes stand out in his message: the absolute sovereignty of God in
spite of ritual correctness (v.8-9), far- reaching social justice (vv.10-
14), and the promise of a messiah who would come in judgment, not to win a
glorious victory over Israel's oppressors (vv.15-17).  

Luke interpreted John's preaching as "good news."  That may surprise us
because outspoken prophets are not welcome today when they attack
established power structures as John did.  Ultimately John was executed by
the brutal puppet-king, Herod Antipas, for accusing him of an immoral
marriage.
               
************

ZEPHANIAH 3:14-20   Dating from the reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE), the
prophesies of Zephaniah have both a nationalistic and a universal emphasis.
This was a time of international intrigue and upheaval in which Israel
played a relatively small part.  On the other hand, it was a time of
religious reform within Israel led by the school of Deuteronomists who re-
emphasized the moral covenant and centralized worship in the temple at
Jerusalem.  The great threat to Yahwism during this period came from
foreign influences which had provided various forms of idolatrous worship
attractive to the common people. 

Ninth of the twelve minor prophets in the OT, Zephaniah emphasized the
anticipated Day of the Lord with its judgment on Israel and all nations.
The prophet's name is in itself a prophecy meaning, "Yah(weh) protects." 
There may be some doubt as to his actual existence.  The opening verse is
really a superscription which goes to great pains to trace his Jewish
ancestry four generations back to Hezekiah, one of Judah's great kings.
Zaphon, the city from which the name may derive, was a sacred shrine of one
of the chief Canaanite gods, Baal-Zephon.  It lay on the east side of the
Jordan about halfway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. 
According to Joshua 13:27, the Israelites captured it and gave it to the
tribe of Gad.  

The book consists of seven oracles, each designed as a dialogue between
Yahweh and the prophet.  Baal worship, idolatry and the profane leadership
of the priests have a large place in these brief oracles.  The forces of
Assyrian oppression also lurk in the background as the means of Yahweh's
judgment.  Could Zephaniah, who some believe to have been a cousin of
Josiah, be the code-name of a prophet who supported the Deuteronomic
centralizing of worship which Josiah pursued with such fervour for
political as well as religious reasons?
          
After a long series of judgmental prophecies against Israel and its
neighbours for their worship of gods other than Yahweh, Zephaniah promises
a day of great rejoicing when Yahweh is present in Israel to judge and to
save.  The nation's only hope lay beyond this day of judgment.  These
prophecies are given in the first person singular, as if Yahweh is speaking
throughout.
          
The Lectionary passage, ending the book, offers Israel the promise that the
coming Day of the Lord will not only bring forgiveness and security from
oppression, but prosperity and renown among all people.  Like their Jewish
antecedents, the early church regarded this as a messianic prophecy
heralding the coming of Jesus. 

The eschatological emphasis has given rise to many modern
misinterpretations as preachers struggled to explain why the imminent
return of the Messiah/Christ has not occurred as prophesied.  Speculation
has frequently misled many into believing that the peace and prosperity
they so longed for and found in such beliefs are close at hand.  A
simplistic and literalist reading of prophecies like those of Zephaniah can
be very seductive in this regard.  One has to understand them in their
historical context within the religious, social and political history of
the times to discover their meaning for our time and place.  Their main
message for today is that history lies within the providence of God whose
purpose is to bring all things in a reconciling fellowship motivated by the
love envisioned in Yahweh's covenant with Israel, fulfilled in the person
of Jesus Christ and brought to completion by the work of the Spirit in all
who believe.


ISAIAH 12:2-6   Psalms are not all in the Psalter, but are found throughout
the writings of Israel's prophets and elsewhere in the OT.  This one
provides a fitting conclusion to the prophet's description of the Messiah
and his role, and the return of the remnant of Israel from exile. 

The two psalms in the current reading cannot be so specifically located
within Israel's history.  They appear to have been drawn from unknown
sources and inserted here as was common in other prophetic literature
(Jonah 2; Habakkuk 3; Jeremiah 20:13; 31:7). The second part of vs.2,
however, is identical with two other OT passages, Exodus 15:2 and Psalm
118:14.  It is impossible to tell which may be the original.          

It was Professor R.B.Y. Scott who pointed out that the passage actually
contains two brief psalms, vv.1-2 and 3-6 (The Interpreter's Bible, vol.5,
p.253).  The first is a individual thanksgiving for deliverance.  The
second brings out the metaphor of life-giving water as the symbol of God's
saving power.  Compare that with Exodus 15:22-25; Numbers 21:16-17; Judges
5:11; and John 4:13-14.  It was well within the ancient tradition that
Jesus described himself metaphorically as one who provides life-giving
water to all who desire it.

Water appears to be so plentiful in our country that we have no concept
whatsoever of how it could be regarded as a means of grace given by God.
Since much of Israel is extremely arid, that is still very true.  One of
the crucial issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to do with
access to adequate water supplies.  The incredibly crowded Palestinian city
of Gaza, for instance, has a fraction of the water available for its more
than a million citizens that the Israeli citizens enjoy in the less thickly
inhabited cities of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.


PHILIPPIANS 4:4-7   No one seriously doubts that the Letter to the
Philippians came from the hand of Paul or was dictated by him to an
amanuensis.  But is it a composite of two or possibly three letters as
Gerald Hawthorne, of Wheaton College, Illinois, suggests? (The Oxford
Companion to the Bible, p.590.)  Is there not an abrupt break between 3:1
and 3:2?  And 4:10-20 also appears to be a separate segment.  Or are we
merely exposed to the vagaries of a man dictating his wide-ranging thoughts
at different times?  Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, (obit. AD 155) knew of
several letters Paul had written to the Philippians, though he appears also
to have used this one? 

William Barclay provided an interesting solution to the problem which
affects our understanding of this particular reading.  He separated the
whole into three parts written at different times, as follows:
In 3:2-4:3 Paul expressed thanks and gave a warning about Judaizers
challenging the gospel Paul had preached.  Then, much later while
imprisoned, probably in Ephesus, he sent a warm letter of thanks and
encouragement, (1:1-3:1 and 4:4-23) asking them to welcome the bearer of
the letter, Epaphroditus, who had been very ill. 

Other scholars have proposed even more radical solutions as to the number
of letters in this composite document and how they may be separated.  The
consensus appears now to be that such partitions make for the sounder
hypothesis, although ultimately inconclusive.  Because we now have 
a brief if composite letter, we must try to understand its legacy to the
church in it present shape.

However we may wish to debate these unanswerable questions, a wonderfully
confident faith shines through the few sentences of this excerpt.  Foremost
in Paul's mind is his expectation of the imminent return of Christ.  This
moves him to urge the Philippians to rejoice with him and to conduct
themselves in an exemplary manner.  The spiritual gifts of gentleness,
thanksgiving and peace - gifts of the Spirit so frequently referred to in
other Pauline correspondence - will keep them free of anxiety as they wait. 

Is that how we feel as Advent moves inexorably toward the celebration of
Christ's coming in Bethlehem?  Are we similarly free of anxiety as we
ponder just what the Second Coming of Christ may be like and when it may
happen?  Is it possible that in having received through faith in him the
gift of the Spirit, Christ has already come to us who are "in Christ?"  Are
not these gifts sufficient cause for us now to rejoice with Paul and his
Philippian correspondents?


LUKE 3:7-18   John the Baptist's preaching seems harsh and vituperative to
our modern ears, so sensitive to good public relations.  Just think of the
furor in this country if the Moderator of The United Church of Canada or
the Archbishop of Canterbury had spoken like this? 
     
To his own generation, John must have appeared to be much like the early
prophets of Israel.  It is obvious too that Luke so regarded him.  Several
recent studies have hypothesized that John was one of the Essenes, but was
not resident in their community of Qumran.  That is unprovable; but he may
well have been influenced by their bitter opposition to the temple
priesthood of the time which they regarded as totally illegitimate and
unholy.
     
Several themes stand out in John's message: the absolute sovereignty of God
in spite of ritual correctness (v.8-9), far-reaching social justice (vv.10-
14), and the promise of a messiah who would come in judgment, not to win a
glorious victory over Israel's enemies (vv.15-17). 

When people in his audience asked what they were to do, John proclaimed a
far-reaching social justice (vs.10-11).  He challenged everyone who heard
him to share their resources.  The specific naming of clothing symbolized
the essential necessities of life.  His challenge received a significant
response from the most unlikely persons - tax-collectors.  They were among
the most despised people in Israel because they were hirelings of the hated
Roman imperial government.  When they asked for specific directions for
their reform, he attacked the crucial issue in the Roman taxation system.
It  depended on greed.  Hired revenue officers had freedom to exact
whatever amount they could, regardless of how much they had contracted to
collect.  John directed them to limit their revenues to what had been
officially prescribed and nothing more.  No sane tax collector would
consider such a revolutionary approach to his miserable job.

John's challenge extended even to the heart of imperial security forces.
When soldiers asked for their directions, he had an equally harsh answer
for them.  Presumably it was fairly common for soldiers to supplement their
wages by extorting bribes from anyone they caught and imprisoned.  To be
satisfied with their meager wages as John required was unthinkable.

These two sets of questioners should be regarded as examples rather than a
total list of those who responded to John's harsh message.  Even if he did
limit his challenges to these two groups, the authorities would draw the
immediate conclusion that John was preaching revolution.  Every Jew would
immediately think of the expected Messiah.  Hence their questioning whether
or not he himself was the Messiah.  John's answer to that speculation
described a messiah who would come in judgment, not to win a glorious
victory over Israel's oppressors as the popular messianic tradition held
(vv.15-17). 

Luke interprets John's preaching as "good news."  That may surprise us
because outspoken prophets are no more welcome today when they attack
established power structures as John did.  Even in the smallest, intimate
congregations, prophetic preaching is not often heard as the Word of God.
Church officials are often called in to discipline the preacher who is too
outspoken, especially if that differs from the dearly held, accepted
tradition of the local power brokers.  Isn't that what has been happening
in those denominations where the right of homosexuals to marry is being
debated?  Is it possible that those church leaders who take a rigid
moralistic stance on such issues may see themselves as prophets much like
John the Baptist? 

Luke may have had in mind the moral depravity of Graeco-Roman society of
his own time, exemplified by Herod Antipas, the puppet king whose moral
degradation he denounced most vociferously.  Without question, a
significant part of the catechesis of the early church included teaching
new Christians to lead a life very different from that to which they had
been accustomed before their conversion.  Love for God and neighbour was
totally different from the way most people lived in those days as in ours.
The challenge today for every Christian personally in every walk of life
and for every Christian congregation is to demonstrate to an unbelieving
world that there is a difference in the Christian way.  This was Luke's
message as he described John the Baptist as the prophetic forerunner for
the Messiah/Christ. 

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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