Saturday, November 7, 2009

Third Sunday of Advent Year C

Third Sunday of Advent C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Zephaniah 3:14-20; "First Song of Isaiah" (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

The boy-King, Josiah, had grown into a great reformer and restorer of Temple worship in Jerusalem. (During his reign the text now known as the Book of Deuteronomy was "discovered" in a box and read publicly on the King's orders.) The prophet Zephaniah supported Deuteronomic reforms at home and severe judgment against Judah's foreign enemies. This hymn invites singing and celebrating because "the Lord has taken away the judgements against you, he has turned away your enemies." The actual King of Israel is the Lord, who will be "in your midst" at "that time." The presence of the Lord will be easy to recognize: the "lame and the outcast" will get relief." Other nations will see what the Lord has done in Israel.

Isaiah contended with a different kind of King, Ahaz, who dealt with Israel's enemies ineffectually and ignored Isaiah's prophecies. The writings which compose the canonical book of Isaiah swing dramatically between severe condemnation/ judgment and ecstatic hope for a deliverer. This hymn opens with an affirmation of allegiance to the Lord, "my stronghold and sure defense" and a cause for praise. On "that day" give thanks to the Lord who is known by past deeds but now "the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel."

This excerpt from Paul's letter to the Philippians names one specific cause for joy: "the Lord is near." Overcome anxiety with prayer and thanksgiving, which leads to "the peace of God, which passes all understanding...."

Luke maintains the tradition of the other gospels that a significant part of the preaching of John the Baptizer is judgment against lax and distracted attention to God's priorities. In this excerpt, John blasts those who came out of the towns and cities into the wilderness to see and hear him. He challenges them: "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" He preemptively dismisses any claims of immunity from God's judgment they might make as "children of Abraham." Alarmed, they ask, "what should we do?" Only Luke provides a specific answer to that urgent question: Share your clothing and food with those who are in need. He continues with some representatives of those least likely to be interested in John's message. "Even one tax collector came to be baptized," we are explicitly told. John tells him to treat his neighbors and citizens with fairness and decency. The military/police ask what they should do. Do not abuse your authority by taking bribes or intimidating citizens, he responds. The crowds begin to wonder out loud if John is the Messiah. He affirms the importance of his work but assures them that "one who is more powerful than I is coming." "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." This One will have the power of final judgment.

Biblical texts shuttle swiftly between past, future and present. The remembrance of things past dwells on God's past deeds which saved the faithful against seemingly overwhelming odds or the response of heroes and heroines of faith-- Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Ruth, David et al. -- who trusted God and acted on that trust. The future in biblical texts dwells on final and compete fulfillment, "that time" when God's perfect love/justice will be the new norm for every being. In the meantime-- here and now, the present-- there are occasional glittering shards of that past/future presence. The one consistent trait of that glorious past or future presence is justice, perfect justice. (In some places, biblical writers can move between all three time zones in a single sentence or thought!)

Zephaniah notes that God's presence can be reliably known wherever "the lame and outcast" get relief. Typical of Luke, his portrait of John the Baptizer includes this episode unique to his narrative that includes some pretty unlikely characters in small, but very significant, speaking roles. In response to John's dire warnings a tax collector-- the stock character for that slimy little tyrant who exploits his power over others for greedy personal gain-- is told to give half of his clothing and food to those who need it. Some soldiers who also had policing authority are told to stop terrorizing their neighbors and citizens.

Jean-Luc Marion has thought about the relationship between past, future and present/presence in biblical faith this way: "Faith is organized according to the past requisites of Revelation, through tradition. Hope unfolds in accord with Revelation's obligatory future, through mission. There remains the present-- the
here and now-- of Revelation, the instant ceaselessly proposed anew, in which we are able to see whether and to what extent we are becoming disciples of Christ." "Contrary to the certitude of faith, which requires time for perseverance (St. Augustine) and the final revelation of what we already are (Colossians3:3-4), and unlike the certitude of hope, which will only find its reward in the last days (Matthew 24:42/51), charity waits for nothing, commences right away, and is fulfilled without delay. Charity manages the present." (Prolegomena to Charity, p. 154)

The faithful engage in charity/justice not with a "realistic" appraisal of success, but filled with the "joy" and " peace" that comes only from powerful memories of God's past success and the promise of final fulfilment. In the meantime, the present, God's presence is palpable, concrete, immediate in my acts of charity/justice."...[T]he great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel." "That time" of past glories and future completion-- can be present here and now Where there is justice/charity, God's past and the future are present. "Charity manages the present."