Advent 3, Year C–Zephaniah 3:14-20

There is no hope in the book of Zephaniah until the backend. Well, perhaps I should temper my sentence down a bit, as hope is sometimes a subjective thing. It would be more accurate to say there is only judgment in Zephaniah until the last section that begins in 3:9. From there it is all hope all the way to the end. Verses 9-13 are prophecies which speak to the future conversion of other peoples besides the Hebrews.

Our Old Testament reading for the third Sunday of Advent doesn’t begin until verse 14, though. We have to be careful to always take note of the historical situation, because that matters too, but in the themes of Advent we should read these words primarily as prophetic oracles about the Lord Jesus.

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.

Zephaniah 3:15-15

Remember, Zephaniah has been pronouncing judgment–powerful condemnation–and he started with Judah (1:4). But now something has changed. The Lord takes it away. The reader is designed to come to the conclusion this is so because the Lord himself is in our midst, and his presence vanquishes evil.

The Lord doesn’t promise he will remove evil, he just promises that the people will no longer fear it, because the enemies have been cleared away. As a follower of the Lord Jesus, we see “Immanuel” in these lines–God with us who vanquishes the enemy, the only true enemy which is death. Jesus is with us, therefore we have no fear of death. Those dots are not hard to connect.

Let me push farther. It might be a reach. I understand that, so no scolding or judgment. The phrase “Daughter of Zion” is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and is usually understood to mean the Hebrews. What if, though, through the lens of prophecy, we could see the offspring, the daughter of Zion as the bride of Christ. The child of Israel might therefore be the church. The daughter of Zion.

Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah  3:16B-17

The idea of the Lord quieting us with love is evocative of maternal action. The baby is afraid, so the mother comes into the room and is with the frightened infant. She holds the baby as she laughs and says, “There there, all is well” holding the baby near her chest and the pumping, beating heart. The baby is still jittery, so to nestle her back to sleep she begins to sing a lullaby.

Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

Zephaniah 3:20

I am smitten by these words.

  • Save the lame–Jesus heals those who cannot walk.
  • Gather the outcast–Jesus makes a people from those who were not a people.
  • Change their shame into praise–the forgiveness of sins leads into the doxology of worship.

At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together, for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes . . .

Zephaniah 3:20

Pentecost, the great ingathering day of the harvest festival, when the Holy Spirit brought the nations into one speech (Zephaniah 3:9).

 

 

 

Advent 2, Year C–Luke 3:1-6

For use in my own preaching, I moved this Advent reading to week 3 (December 16) as the sermon text. The reason? I started working on Luke 3:1-6 for week two, but it blew up to about four thousand words (which is about one thousand too many) so I cut it in half, changed the form on the first part, and made it two different sermons. The point of my little opening aside here? These lines here at the beginning of Luke 3 can take you to many different places, and most of them are good.

The historian inside Luke screams out as he gives us a backdrop of the time period we are in and the location where things are happening.

. . . the reign of Tiberius, Pontius Pilate . . . Herod . . . Philip tetrarch of the region . . . Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene . . . priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . . in the wilderness .. the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance fo the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 3:1-2

We know when we are, which is important because Chapter 2 ended with the boy Jesus in the temple. Luke is reminding us we’ve shifted to the future when Jesus is no longer a child, and the powers in this world are political and religious. In contrast to these powers, John The Baptist is preaching something difference. He is preaching forgiveness and repentance. So Luke, the ever careful writer gives us who, what, when, and where.

The part of this text which most people will focus on, and rightly so, is the quotation from Isaiah’s vision of the future. This is the why.

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Luke 3:4-6

I’m preaching this passage in ten days, so I will not show all my cards. Let me just point out three things about this amazing text.

  1. Luke doesn’t say John is saying this. In our imagination we often put these words in The Baptist’s mouth. That is a mistake. This is Luke’s interpretation of who John is and what prophetic function he fulfills. It is often other people, and later generations, who are benefited and understand our work the most.
  2. It is hard to know what is meant in the opening of the prophesy. A clear reading is nearly impossible, and in every language it seems to be muddled. I have never been fully satisfied. It could be, “The voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” as if a person is crying out that the highway should be built in the wilderness. Or, is it “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” where the wilderness is more about where the person is shouting and not necessarily where the road is to be built. Either way, though, the Lord is coming and you better be ready.
  3. Luke, and the other gospel writers as well, see this passage then as a connected to the message of repentance and forgiveness, and continues, in the rest of Luke 3, to wed these ideas with ethical behavior, fairness, and integrity. It is about this time we should remind ourselves this was a huge part of the prophetic message in the Old Testament, including Isaiah. Belief and faith are important, but if they are disconnected from ethical behaviors all that remains is superstition.

 

 

 

Advent 2, Year C–Philippians 1:1-11

Paul’s affinity and connection to the Philippian church is well documented, and these lines from our second Sunday of Advent highlight the issue. Paul gets emotional when he prays for his friends there.

This opening section can be broken up into three loose categories: Opening, A celebration of God’s work among the Philippians, and Paul’s prayer for them.


1. Opening

The apostolic greeting is familiar enough to most of us.

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:1-2

It is so familiar we tend to skip over it, but let me tell you there is a lot of juice in these lines. The first drop of juice would be word selection. Paul refers to himself and Timothy as servants, but the people at Philippi as saints. Then he drops the words “grace” and “peace” as blessings. His desire for them is shalom.

The second drop of juice flows from the leadership language. The ESV renders these as overseers and deacons. The words are actually episkopoi and diakonoi which could be rendered bishop and servant, respectively. Some people put a lot of meaning on these types of words, but I am not one of those people. My reading of the New Testament leads me to think of all of these leadership words as synonymous–pastor, bishop, elder, deacon and so forth. The one word that is different, and is a cut above, is that of apostle, which Paul will use in other places, but curiously, note how he doesn’t use apostle in the greeting. He uses the word servant, a different word that means servant from the word deacon. Curious indeed. Also note, the words are plural.

One more slurp of juice from these lines is the language of “in Christ Jesus”. I’m telling you, if I were preaching this passage this Sunday, I could spend a lot of time on what it means to be “in Messiah Jesus”.

2. A Celebration of God’s Work Among the Philippians

A quick outline shows us that verses 3-8 are Paul’s description of the work and how this bonds him together with the saints at Philippi.

I thank my God in all remembrance of you . . . because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . . he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ . . . for you are all partakers with me of grace in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness . . .

Philippians 1:3-8

The tricky part here is identifying the work itself. This becomes more problematic because of generations of self-appropriation of verse 6. By that I mean, people have become accustomed to view the promise of completing work “in you” to be that somehow God will bring each of us into greatness and completion. The “you” here is plural, and I take it to mean the unified church and its mission—you saints as a group, rather than some divine promise that guarantees success in any particular venture. Failure happens, and we who love and follow him must admit failure in some task or project is often God’s plan for us and for those around us.

The work Paul is celebrating is the presentation of the gospel, which the Philippians joined in with him almost immediately. He calls this a partnership, a fruitful theme in Philippians–sharing in labor, sharing in ministry, sharing in suffering. Not even prison and distance had terminated this partnership.

Nor can time. To me the most interesting pat of this is the almost thrown away line, “at the day of Jesus Christ.” It might take a while for this work to be completed.

3. Paul’s Prayer

The prayer is beautiful because it specifically asks from the Father attributes, rather than things, for the church at Philippi.

It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9-11

It might be helpful to enumerate these prayer requests as a flow that starts with love and finishes with glorifying God.

Abounding love → leads to knowledge and discernment → to approve right behavior → to be pure and blameless → which is filled with righteousness → to the glory of God

Paul is praying about their character and spiritual strength. He does not pray for ease, comfort, wealth, or even health. He doesn’t pray for the things most of us spend our time praying for. Instead, he prays that the Philippians will be better people, and as such, the Lord will be glorified. We think of God being glorified by the great things we do or accomplish (v. 6), but the reality is the Lord is glorified when we live the way we should.

 

Advent 2, Year C–Malachi 3:1-4

We read this passage in our worship service last Sunday as the prophetic passage for the first Sunday of Advent. It is one of my favorites.

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.

Malachi 3:1

Much is happening here, but it starts with the promise of a messenger. I would like to begin by asking you to think what a weird word choice this is for the Lord. We expect the Lord to send a prophet, one like Samuel, perhaps. We expect the Lord to send a king, maybe one like David. We expect the Lord to send a priest? Like Aaron.

He doesn’t send those. He sends the messenger. I think this is a play on words with the title of the book. The word Malachi means “My Messenger” — and 3:1 might be a self-reference by the author. Maybe he views himself as the messenger. Likewise, I have often though of the similarities between the idea of “messenger” here in Malachi 3:1 and the New Testament word “angel” which is roughly the same–a messenger from God.

Jesus identified John the Baptist as this messenger in Matthew 11:10. That makes, for me, the word choice of messenger that much telling. Why doesn’t it say, “I will send my prophet, or my priest, or my king”? The answer is because Jesus himself is the prophet, the priest, and the king. The messenger can’t be, in relation to the ultimate, any of those. The messenger must decrease, while the Lord must increase (John 3:30).

After The Messenger’s work is done, the Lord will do two things:

  1. Suddenly appear in the temple.
  2. He will purify and refine the sons of Levi

Of course, the language Malachi uses is more beautiful than this.

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple . . . who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? for he is like a refiners fire and like a fuller’s soap . . . he will purify the sons of Levi . . . and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord

Malachi 3:1-4

Before we jump to the many messianic concepts here, we must do the work of context. In the book of Malachi there is one central complaint from God: the priests have neglected their work and have brought polluted and inappropriate offerings before the Lord. This is spelled out strongly in Malachi 1. Later, this pollution of sacrifices will be connected to the call for tithes and offerings to be again given by the people and collected by the priests. Malachi finishes abruptly with a flourish about The Day of the Lord.

So, in context, Malachi is looking for the Lord to first send a messenger with a warning, whom Malachi might see as himself, that the priests need to get their act straight because the Lord is coming to purify the priesthood through reform of the offerings.

We can spend a lot of time critiquing the priesthood in the Old Testament, but it is enough to say here that it failed, and that failure was total and complete by the time Jesus arrives on the scene in the early first century. Jesus was many things, and one of those was a reformer and critic of the priests, as was John the Baptist. To emphasize the point, there is a reason why John the Baptist was out in he desert baptizing: he was protesting the Jerusalem temple complex and the priesthood.

The reader of these words from Malachi would do well to connect them, though, not to John the Baptist, but to Jesus cleansing the temple (Mark 11:15-19), running out the priests and their polluted, greedy sacrifices, then teaching every day until the priests gathered enough courage to have Jesus arrested and murdered. But the priests fell into his hands, because this was the way he purified and washed. His blood was the soap and his cross was the fire. What he did, then, was, as Peter put it, was to reject the Hebrew priesthood for something new–a complete reform with a new kind of priest, the priesthood of the believer with immediate access, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, to the Lord.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light

1 Peter 2:9