Joy, Wind & Fire: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Three
1) Last week’s Gospel reading was the beginning of Luke’s story of John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness, preaching repentance - and this week we hear the rest of the story, the specifics of what John has in mind. His sermon is often understood as a blunt, bristling attack (“You brood of vipers!”), but on closer inspection, it’s actually a powerful message of inclusion, hope, and joy - which is why, after all, Luke calls it “good news” (Luke 3:18).
2) Earlier in the Book of Zephaniah, the prophet has cast the day to come (“On that day…”) as a time of punishment for those guilty of “violence and fraud” (Zeph 1:9). But in this week’s passage the same phrase (“On that day…”) is used to recast the coming era as a time of comfort and salvation worthy of a song of joy (Zeph 3:16).
3) Traditionally, the third week of Advent takes "Joy" as its central theme. It’s sometimes called, “Gaudete Sunday” (gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin), and its candle in Advent wreaths is often rose-colored. The overall idea here is that while Advent is a time of longing and waiting in the shadows for Christ to come, there’s also room for taking some “anticipatory joy” in his arrival.
1) As we saw last week, for John the Baptizer, “repentance” means a change of mind, heart, and life, and he begins his sermon by declaring that “bearing fruit” is what matters most. Mere membership in a religious or ethnic lineage won’t cut it, he thunders; what matters is what you do! And so the crowds respond, OK, then what should we do? John’s answer is both straightforward and challenging: Share your abundance with the vulnerable, and do whatever job you have with honesty, integrity, and respect.
2) John’s message is radically inclusive in at least two ways. First, he opens up the category of “children of Abraham” - which is to say, heirs to the covenantal promise God gives to Abraham (Gen 17:7) - to include anyone who leads a life of generosity, honesty, and respect. John’s disarmingly simple requirements (Got two coats? Give one away!) are by no means easy to follow, but they are strikingly accessible to all. And second, John underscores this openness by including members of professions that were understandably suspect: tax collectors and soldiers both worked for the government, keeping order for the Roman occupiers, and so were viewed by many as enemies or traitors to the Jewish community. The fact that John includes them here is a powerful, even startling statement, and one of the first indications that Luke’s vision of salvation is universal in scope. For Luke, “ALL means ALL.”
3) But doesn’t John himself speak of “separating the wheat from the chaff,” including some but excluding others? And doesn’t he say Jesus will come and make this fateful separation, burning the chaff away in “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17)? That’s one way of interpreting John’s metaphor here, but a closer look points us in a different direction. Every grain of wheat has a husk, and farmers (even today) use wind to separate these husks - collectively known as “chaff” - from the grain, the goal being, of course, to save every grain, not to separate the good grain from the bad grain. This is a metaphor of preservation and purification, not division. What the wind and fire remove are the impurities: the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less fair, or less respectful of others. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn has it right: there is a line between good and evil, but it doesn’t run between groups; it runs through the heart of each person. What each of us requires is restoration, liberation from whatever “husks” are holding us back. And sure enough, later in Luke and Acts, this is exactly how the wind and fire of the Spirit work: not to destroy, but to sanctify, purify, challenge, restore, and empower (see, for example, Luke 4:1-21; Acts 2:1-4).
1) Even with its brusque beginning (“You brood of vipers!”), Luke calls John’s preaching “good news,” a cause for joy (Luke 3:18). Why? First, John’s challenge itself is dignifying, since it presumes that we have the capacity to rise up and meet it, to become the even more generous, honest, respectful people God created us to be. Second, because John’s challenge is open to all, not just a privileged few, thereby declaring the divine covenant open to all in an astonishing way. And third, because John’s prophetic poetry includes the promise that the Spirit comes, in wind and fire, not to destroy but to refine, to restore, to make us even more radiant children of God. Will we have to let go of our anxieties, our self-absorption, our apathy, our sin? Yes, and those will be burned away in God’s unquenchable fire. But the chaff is removed for the sake of the wheat! Jesus comes that we might be saved, and also that we might be restored - and this is indeed “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10)!
2) Both because this week’s traditional Advent theme is “Joy” and because these readings from Luke and Zephaniah are so joyful, this may be the perfect week to name and explore the role of joy-in-the-midst-of-sorrow in our lives. Singing “Joy to the World” this week may be a good place to start: it tangibly anticipates the joy of Christmas, and it’s also true that Isaac Watts wrote it as an anticipatory celebration not only of the first advent (Christmas) but also of the second, a crucial focus of the Advent season. That's right, you heard it here first: "Joy to the World" is an Advent hymn! So don’t let your mortal flesh keep silent this week; sing out your joy loud and proud, and you just might hear John the Baptizer and all the prophets of old singing with you! :)