Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 4); December 12, 2021

Expect Joy

In the traditions of the liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is “Gaudete” Sunday – the Sunday of the pink candle. “Gaudete” is the Latin word for the command to rejoice. Thus, this third Sunday is the rejoicing Sunday.

It is the Sunday when we turn the Advent corner from judgment to joy, from preparation to celebration. But our Gospel text seems to be an odd traditional choice for Gaudete Sunday. On its face, Luke 3 and the dour preaching of John the Baptizer is not the first text that comes to mind when I think of joy.

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Perhaps the problem is not in the text but rather in me. Rejoicing is hardly one of my personal strong suits. It comes naturally to some people, and I envy them this personal quality. I find joy suspect, a trap of good feelings that will result in a disappointing end. I approach joy from a defensive stance. Better to forego a bit of emotional froth in order to avoid a dive into the dark chasm when the existential fraud is revealed.

No, I’m not great fun at parties.

I come by this approach to joy quite honestly. I come from people who like a good laugh as much as the next person but were disposed to see the glass as routinely half-empty (or completely empty a great deal of the time). My mother, of blessed memory, was orphaned young and had a difficult childhood afterward. She came equipped with a somewhat joyless demeanor and life built numerous structures on that foundation.

Any positive experience could be jerked away at a moment’s notice. So, it was better to maintain a gray exterior and an even keel. I tend to minimize the potential for disappointment rather than to maximize the potential for joy. I’m not recommending this as a general approach to life, but I know that I’m not alone in my experience. And I’m sorry that I have bequeathed at least some of this emotional framework to my children, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.

If we were to rely solely on the Luke 3 lection, we might find ourselves trapped into another depressing week of judgment and anxiety. That’s not really the heart of our text, as I hope I’ve pointed out previously, but it can be hard to see how John’s preaching leads to “good news.” Fortunately, we have the companion texts to assist us in embracing the joy of Gaudete Sunday.

The first lesson, for Zephaniah 3:14-20, may be an editorial insertion from a member of the Second Isaiah school during the Babylonian Exile. That suggestion comes from Rolf Jacobson in the current edition of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast at workingpreacher.org. With that background in mind, I can hear the echoes of Isaiah 40-42 in this prophecy.

There is the reversal of judgment, the promise of the Divine presence, the healing of bodies broken by oppression, and the promise that the people shall return home. “The presence of these exilic themes suggests that the book of Zephaniah was revisited and reshaped for a post-exilic audience,” Margaret Odell writes in her working preacher.org commentary, “an audience who had survived the judgments of the previous generations but still awaited the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises of restoration.”

Odell notes that Amos and some of the succeeding prophets had reversed the current understanding of “The Day of Lord.” That day had been regarded as a time of rejoicing over the Lord’s victories on behalf of Israel. But Amos and his colleagues declare that this Day shall be about judgment, not victory. The response to the Day should be fear, not joy. Much of Zephaniah has this tenor in regard to the Lord’s coming.

“Just as suddenly, Zephaniah 3:14-20 reverses expectations yet again.” Odell writes. “YHWH removes the judgments, vanquishes Zion’s foes, and comes once again to dwell in Zion’s midst. Zion and YHWH exult in this reconciliation. If Zion rejoices because of YHWH’s mighty acts on her behalf, YHWH rejoices over her. It is a shared joy that reverses a long and difficult history of shame and dishonor, as even the nations are summoned to sing Zion’s praise.”

Zephaniah 3:14 simply effervesces with rejoicing. Shout with joy! Rejoice exceedingly! Exult with all your heart! Do this in response to the rescue and renewal the LORD is bringing about. But verse 17 has a wonderful twist. The LORD, our God, will rejoice over us with joy and renew us in love. This is a Sunday not only for our rejoicing over God but for God to rejoice over us as well! I think this text would make a marvelous call to worship or declaration of absolution during a rite of confession.

The text of verse 17 is hard to translate and then interpret. “The Hebrew in these verses is so obscure,” Odell writes, “that there is little scholarly agreement about their meaning. What is clear is that YHWH rejoices over Zion, and that it is his love for Zion that motivates his actions.” For example, the verb for “renew” is really the verb for “to keep silent.” Odell offers a helpful commentary on this little challenge.

She suggests that it is not necessary to edit the text as the NRSV does and move to the word for “renew.” Instead, the LORD perhaps keeps silent in love in order to refrain from speaking further words of judgment. “And, since this silence is surrounded by song and rejoicing,” Odell proposes, “we can conclude that this silence is not simply divine forbearance but rather full acceptance of Zion as she is. Past conflicts, past complaints, remain definitively in the past,” she argues, “What now bind YHWH and Israel together is joy in one another, and song.”

Odell quotes Martin Luther from “Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day” in this vein. “For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine,” Luther writes, “then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart.” The call of this Gaudete Sunday is to expect joy!

This call is multiplied and magnified in the second reading from Philippians 4:4-7. “Rejoice in the Lord at all times,” Paul writes to the Philippian church. “Let me repeat that – Rejoice! Let your kindness be known to all people,” he continues, “the Lord is near!” This sounds a great deal like the Baptizer’s counsel when people asked what they should do in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom. Rejoicing is not expressed in private celebrations but rather in public behavior.

That is because living in the joy of the Lord is a subversive act. The powers of sin, death, and the devil – inhabiting the domination systems of the world – demand from us a depressed and dour acquiescence. Our rejoicing is a visible affirmation that the powers of the powers are not the final word, and that our lives are not determined by the drumbeat of domination.

Those powers seek to satisfy us with mere happiness so we will be distracted from authentic joy. I am re-reading Kate Bowler’s marvelous memoir of her journey in and through cancer, No Cure for Being Human. As a scholar and critic of the “Prosperity Gospel,” she was uniquely positioned to understand and interpret her own experiences of suffering and joy.

“American culture has popular theories about how to build a perfect life,” Bowler observes. “You can have it all if you just learn how to conquer your limits. There is infinity lurking somewhere at the bottom of your inbox or in the stack of self-help books on the bedside table. It taunts you as you grip the steering wheel in traffic, attempting your new breathing practice, or in the predawn minutes when you could be working out” (p. xiv).

Bowler knows that these pre-packaged promises of mere happiness are doomed to fail. They founder on the rocks of our finitude. But joy comes just as we strike those rocks and discover that the promises of God are with us in the midst of our changes and challenges. Paul knows this as well, writing one of his last letters before he heads to Rome and execution. I would consider using this text from Philippians as the sending of the congregation as the worship service is ending.

At our house, we are finding joy in our Advent devotions as we read from Walter Brueggemann’s Celebrating Abundance. His reflection for the second Monday in Advent lifts up the new and subversive song of joy. “The new song never describes the world the way it now is,” Brueggemann writes. “The new song imagines how the world will be in God’s good time to come. The new song is a protest against the way the world now is. The new song is a refusal to accept the present world as it is,” he continues, “a refusal to believe this is right or that the present will last” (page 22).

If joy is a delighted protest against the oppressive status quo and a laughing proclamation of the changes to come, then it is no wonder that we encounter joy most often in the midst of the changes and challenges of life. Brueggemann offers a joyful prayer for living in the midst of those changes and challenges. “In this Advent season, teach us the new song, which heralds the new world that is coming, the new reality that is taking shape before our eyes. May we rejoice,” he prays, “in its truth and power and join all creation in its loud amen!” (page 23).

It is Gaudete Sunday. Expect joy!

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brueggemann, Walter. Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Know Press, 2017.

Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan 2003;  65,  1;  ProQuest Religion pg. 80.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-zephaniah-314-20-5.

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 3); December 12, 2021

Yes, But…

“But since the people were looking forward, and all were wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John replied to all of them saying, ‘I, on the one hand, baptize you with water; but on the other hand, one is coming who is mightier than me…” (Luke 3:15-16a, my translation). The people were expecting, anticipating, looking forward to the coming of a Messiah. But what did that mean to them and for them?

Perhaps it is time for my annual Advent visit to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. I think that title could be the theme for Advent preaching and worship every year (but eventually some alert parishioner would probably catch on). Pip, the main character, was expecting great things to come his way. Everyone around him was aware of those “expectations” and treated him with respect and fawning commensurate with the supposed windfall awaiting him.

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Pip was not mistaken in looking forward to a life of some wealth and privilege. But he was quite mistaken about the source of those great expectations. He thought his benefactor was the cruel and capricious Miss Havisham, the local lady of the manor. His actual patron was Abel Magwitch, a convicted felon who was now on the run from the law. This mistake regarding the source of the gift motivates a significant plot line in the story.

A mistaken notion about the source of expectations underlies the conversation we hear in Luke 3:15-17. Based on his preaching and moral teaching, the crowds begin to wonder if John is himself the promised Messiah who will bring about the restoration and renewal of Israel. The word Luke uses in verse 15, prosdokao, literally means to think or to understand “forward.” It is a verb with an arrow of time built into it.

We need to ask two questions here? First, were the people in John’s time expecting someone who fit the description of “Messiah”? Second, was that a live issue in some way for the hearers and readers in the Lukan audience? These questions are related but are not the same. It is certainly the case that first-century Jews with a variety of perspectives were looking for a messianic figure of some kind.

Brendan Byrne offers a brief outline of these expectations in his article. He concludes that there is enough evidence from sources prior to and during the first century to believe that people had this expectation. There is sufficient evidence in the Christian scriptures to conclude that Jesus was at least aware of the expectations of a “Davidic” messiah held by at least some of the folks around him. And it is clear by the time of Holy Week that “he was recognized by some people as Messiah or at least as a messianic pretender” (page 81).

How this played out for the gospel writers is another story. “Reading the gospels, however,” Byrne writes, “conveys the impression that this ‘messianic issue’ was a confounded nuisance with which the authors had to deal rather than a helpful lens through which to view Jesus” (page 81). The gospel writers struggled to maintain the tension between Jesus’ death by crucifixion and the honor status of a Davidic king.

There is no question that Jesus was seen by some, at least, as precisely such a Davidic messiah, or as a failed messianic pretender in the Davidic mold. The dilemma after Easter, as Byrne describes it, was that the disciples as witnesses “could deny that the title…was rightly applied to him, or they could say, ‘Yes, he was/is the Messiah, but….’” (page 82). That is, they could argue that he is the Messiah but in a different way than was expected by those who witnessed his life and death. That is the choice that each of the gospel writers appears to make, although the details of that description vary with the account.

Byrne argues that the Lukan author makes this “Yes, but,” choice “not in a political sense that would pose a threat to the established order” (page 82). Byrne is of the school that believes Luke wants to make the Christian message less threatening to the Gentile authorities and more palatable to the Gentile audiences who occupy at least a part of the Lukan gaze. He contests the view that the Lukan account is intended to be subversive to the Imperial narrative of Reality.

Byrne’s strategy is, in part, to create distance between the notion of the expected “Messiah” and that of Jesus as the “Son of God.” While he doesn’t address our text in his article, those titles are juxtaposed and perhaps somewhat opposed to one another in Luke 3 and 4. In our reading and its context, it is clear that the “Son of God” title is the more important interpretive lens through which to view the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, at least according to the Lukan author.

Byrne sees this pattern of Lukan interpretation having been launched in the Annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. “What I am trying to suggest here,” he writes, “is that the annunciation of Jesus’ birth inaugurates a pattern whereby Jesus is presented as ‘Messiah, but…,’ the ‘but’ referring to what the reader knows from being aware of the mode of Jesus’ conception: namely, that he is uniquely related to God in filial terms vastly outstripping any conventional expectation of the Davidic Messiah and that this drastically transforms the nature of his messianic mission and behavior” (page 85).

“Though he may have been crucified by a Roman governor as a dangerous political rebel inspired by messianic delusions,” Byrne argues, “this is a total misrepresentation created by his enemies, as the governor himself several times acknowledged.” Byrne argues that Jesus’ movement was “prophetically critical of, but not fundamentally hostile to, the prevailing civic authority and order.” Byrne concludes that the Lukan author wants to communicate this view of Jesus to establish Gentile Christian identity and to encourage “the success of the gospel in the wider Greco-Roman world” (page 95).

The people were looking forward and wondering. To what were they looking forward and wondering? The answer to that question makes a difference, I believe, in our own Advent expecting and wondering. I think Byrne is quite correct in reminding us that each of the gospel writers is offering a “Yes, but” answer to the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah. But I’m not sure this entails, even in the case of the Lukan account, that the answer serves to make the Jesus movement more palatable to Roman authorities and to Gentiles generally. Please see my previous work on the Lukan account as a hidden transcript of resistance.

We can be clear that none of the gospel writers, and the Lukan author in particular, want us to wonder if John was indeed the Messiah. It may well be that there were sects devoted to the memory and veneration of the Baptizer still active toward the end of the first century. Therefore, Luke needs to tamp down that sort of expectation and to put John in the proper place in the narrative.

Who are we expecting – in general, and in this season of Advent? At least some so-called Christians in the United States are expecting the return, sooner rather than later, of a White, Warrior Messiah rather than the presence of a humble and nonviolent (Brown, if you need a color) Suffering Servant. In fact, for many we live in a time of nostalgia rather than expectation. We are awash in longing for a time when White Male American Christianity was the dominant demographic reality in the West. As that demographic reality fades into the past, the anxiously violent reactions increase.

We can and perhaps should asks ourselves a question in this Advent season. If we are looking for something, what direction are we looking? Are we looking backward with that nostalgic longing, or are we looking forward with expectant hope that something new is about to happen? Of course, we can see and understand Jesus as Messiah (“Christ”), but…

We tend to see precisely what we expect to see. More than that, we accept evidence that confirms what we believe, and we reject evidence that contradicts what we believe. This is called “confirmation bias.” Pip, in Great Expectations, provides a case study in how confirmation bias operates. He collects an abundance of evidence to support his belief about the identity of his benefactor. And nearly all of that evidence is either useless or wrong.

So, the question about who or what we are expecting is a critical one in this Advent season. Our expecting can and will shape what we see and how we see it. In the Lukan account, John has to correct this bias quite forcefully for his first audience. Perhaps the Lukan audience needed a similarly forceful correction in their expectations. Perhaps we do as well.

John himself requires some measure of perception correction. You will recall that as he sits in Herod’s dungeon, he sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is the Coming One or if John should “expect” another. The verb there is the same as it is here in Luke 3. John receives a correction to his expectation that may have reshaped his perception, both of himself and of Jesus.

In addition, as we have noted before, the Lukan account is helping to manage not only who we expect but when. Luke is doing more than explaining the delay of Jesus’ second coming. Instead, the Lukan author wants to rekindle the flames of gospel hope for the long haul.

As preachers, we may want to challenge our listeners with a simple Lukan question. What do you expect?

References and Resources

Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly;  Jan 2003;  65,  1;  ProQuest Religion pg. 80.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.


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