Studying God’s Word

Zephaniah 3:14-18a
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:10-18 [9C]
The Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Advent focuses on the teachings of John the Baptist. While it is likely that John was active for several years preaching and baptizing in the desert areas of Judea, the Gospel writers preserve very little of his words and deeds. What was clear among the early Christians was that John played a pivotal role in preparing Jews for the arrival of the Messiah.
John’s preaching and baptizing must have had significant impact. In today’s Gospel reading, one fundamental question is asked repeatedly of John from various sources—the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers—“What should we do?” Presumably, the questions stem from their shared desire to be prepared for the coming Messiah and messianic age. John offers different answers to the different groups, but each speaks to the importance of a high ethical code. To the crowds, he instructs them to share food and clothing with the less fortunate. To the tax collectors, he challenges the routine practice of tax fraud. To the soldiers, he warns against extortion and false accusation. Given John’s influence and apparent moral authority, not surprisingly, Luke informs us that some wondered if John himself “might be the Christ.” John’s response leaves no room for doubt as to whether he was the Messiah: while John baptizes with water, the coming Messiah will baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire.” Furthermore, the Messiah is coming to judge and to separate “the wheat” from “the chaff.” John’s message about preparation for the coming messianic age contained not only exhortations, it also included warnings.  
The prophet Zephaniah was active in the first decade of the reign of King Josiah (640–609 BC). Although Josiah is highly regarded as one of Israel’s reformer kings, in the early stages of his reign, Josiah was dealing with significant corruption and widespread idolatry in the southern kingdom of Judah. Zephaniah prophesied a coming day of judgement and doom not only for those Israelites who had become lax in the practice of their faith but also upon those nations who waged war against the Israelite people. Today’s reading is taken from the final chapter of the Book of Zephaniah. It actually contains a message of great hope and joy for the remnant of Israel who remained faithful to God and to the Mosaic covenant: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Nearly seven hundred years before the activities of John the Baptist and the public ministry of Jesus, Zephaniah prophesied brighter days when the people would once again experience “the LORD, your God… in your midst.”
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is often referred to as his “letter of joy.” One of the ironies of this designation is that Paul composed this letter from prison, quite possibly from his final imprisonment in Rome. In today’s reading, Paul speaks of the importance for Christians to “rejoice!” Despite all of Paul’s distress and personal persecutions for the faith (see, for example, 2 Cor 11:23-28), Paul taught fellow believers to “have no anxiety at all.” Paul remained throughout his thirty-year ministry an apostle to the Gentles as well as an apostle of “advent.” He waited in the spirit of hope and expectation for the return of Christ. Like John the Baptist, Paul served the Lord and answered his call to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all those waiting to experience the presence of God in their lives.
Dr. Daniel J. Scholz