14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
John the Baptist heralds the mighty one who is coming. John teaches that preparation for God’s reign is not a matter of identity but of bearing fruits of merciful justice, radical generosity, and vocational integrity.
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Grace to you, and peace from God our Father, and the LORD Jesus Christ. Hard to believe that these readings are both from the 3rd Sunday in Advent, they're so different on the surface, in tone. In our gospel reading, John is proclaiming a "baptism of repentance" (whatever that is) to those who had heard about him. As ye's yelling at the crowd, they ask themselves "what the heck are we to do, then?" when John exhorts the crowd to live lives that bear fruit. I'm sure that most of them thought they already were doing just that. He's telling the crowd, as he is eagerly expecting the coming Messiah, to live your lives that bear good fruit. To the tax collectors (who typically took way more than people owed the government, pocketing the proceeds) to not take more than is due the government. And to soldiers (Caesar's army), he's telling them to live lives of integrity, and not to threaten anyone. In other words, get your stuff in order, live your lives bearing good fruit, as the expected Messiah is close at hand. Be prepared, John is saying. The Lord is near.
Listen to the words of the prophet Zephaniah in our first reading. Israel was divided into northern and southern kingdoms. Families were divided, much as we were in America during the Civil War. The word of God had been silent from them for generations. And here, God speaks through the prophet, and the prophet twice says that even still, God is "in your midst." Present. Now. Not some far off time in the future. Even in your suffering, God is present, here...and now. These words from Zephaniah remind me of how you as a parent might react when one of your young kids comes. home with a boo boo on his or her arm, and is frightened and hurting. God's message is that it's going to be OK. I'll gather you to myself and protect you. I am here for you. Just like the voice of a loving parent who suffers when their child suffers. And isn't this the gospel message? God rejoices when we rejoice. God suffers when we suffer. God, ever present, loving, caring, knowing fully the human experience through Jesus Christ. We long for the coming of a Savior to be among us again this season. Rejoice that in the power of the Holy Spirit, that One is already here.
As we move deep into the season of Advent, we're reminded by our readings to be ready, because the Holy One of Israel is at hand. Thanks be to God!