Sep212014
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DECEMBER 16, 2012: THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Readings: 

Zephaniah 3:14-18a
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:10-18

One should be careful in reading today's Zephaniah passage. Certainly one of the most "joyful" oracles in the entire bible. But when it's returned to its original historical context, it isn't everything it appears to be.

Zephaniah ministers in the last part of the seventh century BCE, during the reign of Josiah, a time of Jewish reform. Chronologically, he's a contemporary of Jeremiah.

Scripture scholars always note that during Josiah's reforming reign, Jeremiah says practically nothing. Years ago, most commentators explained Jeremiah's silence by reasoning that Josiah's reform had taken away his "thunder;" the king was accomplishing what the prophet wanted accomplished. There was no reason to reinvent the wheel.

But recently, scholars like the late Carroll Stuhlmueller, attribute the prophet's silence to a conviction that reform from the top down never works. Though Jeremiah was convinced that Josiah's intentions were good, he was just as convinced his reform would fail. He didn't want to be identified with that kind of reform. He knew that unless such a movement comes from the bottom up, it'll never last. When the king dies, the reform dies.

That's exactly what happened. After Josiah was killed in battle, Jeremiah again starts to prophesy, telling his people that the only thing that will re-establish authentic Judaism will be the total destruction of the institution and the rebuilding of Jewish faith during the Babylonian Exile.

Of course, if we had our druthers, we'd opt to listen to Zephaniah instead of Jeremiah. It's far easier to bring about God's will by decree than it is to daily live that will in the "trenches."

Luke's prophetic John the Baptizer works in those trenches. When asked by some in the crowd, "What should we do?" he responds in very practical ways. "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise. ... Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone . . . ." As much as his audience is looking forward to a Messiah's arrival - someone who'll clean up the mess they're in - the Baptizer is much more interested in how each of them can begin cleaning up that mess in his or her own life. John presumes that, even when the Messiah arrives, he'll simply intensify and carry through on the message he's already proclaiming.

Paul agrees - though some might overlook his agreement in today's second reading. The Christmas season makes it easy to misinterpret his statement "The Lord is near!" Many who hear it, just two weeks from Christmas, will think it refers to the historical Jesus' birth. Paul is actually talking about the risen Jesus' Parousia. And even though he encourages his Philippians community to pray to and petition God, he also reminds them, "Your kindness should be known to all." The Apostle presumes our prayers will always be accompanied by concrete acts of love.

Certainly this is a joyful time of year. Yet, the reason for Christian joy doesn't revolve around Jesus' birth at Bethlehem; it springs from his dying and rising in Jerusalem. We can do nothing to imitate the former, but unless we imitate the latter, we're still "in our sins."

It's not difficult to stand and cheer Jesus' earthly arrival. But it's another thing to commit ourselves to an ongoing life of dying and rising.

I have a gnawing suspicion that Jeremiah would say very little during this "joyful" time of the year. His biting oracles would only kick in after the Christmas season is finally over.