Zephaniah 3.14-20; Canticle: Isaiah 12.2-6; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
Having opened with themes of judgement, the book of Zephaniah ends with profoundly hopeful verses.
They include five highly emotive words: ‘I will bring you home’ (v.20). These words have meant and mean so much to: the people of Israel when they have been exiled; also to people in Palestine or Mexico today separated from loved ones by walls; to people who could not visit loved ones in COVID-19 wards or who longed to be able to leave their hospital beds; and to slaves, past and present, who ask each other, ‘Can you see home today?’. For these and many others, the longing for good news is often grounded in the context of a longing for home. This passage from Zephaniah is a precious gift.
There are many other signs of good news too: the removal of judgement and the turning away of enemies (v.15); the removal of fear (v.16); the promise of rejoicing and renewal (v.17); an end to disaster (v.18); a gathering in and honouring of those outcast (vv.19-20); and a restoration of fortune (v.20). And all of this is the work of the Lord who asks his people to honour his covenant with them.
Canticle: Isaiah 12.2-6
Here (and in Philippians 4) qualities of trust, joy and thanksgiving are celebrated as blessings for those receiving the message. Then those who are blessed are called to bear witness or be signs of the goodness of the Lord –to make his deeds known. Two ways of doing this are highlighted: proclamation and singing.
Paul offers practical advice as to what we should do to be signs of the ‘good news’ in our everyday lives. He suggests ingredients for a lifestyle that would be highly effective in making the Jesus who is at the heart of it known: a lifestyle of rejoicing, gentleness, freedom from worry and transcendent peace. What is not to like?
Well, it’s easier said than done. The repetition of the injunction to rejoice suggests that Paul knows this (he was writing from prison). So, he urges his readers to rejoice ‘in the Lord’ – i.e. in all that the risen reigning Jesus is and has done. Then the Philippians are exhorted to show gentleness or forbearance to everyone – this is whole-life discipleship not church niceness! Verse 5b needs careful handling. ‘The Lord is near’ may suggest that Paul expected the Parousia to be imminent, meaning that his readers would not have had to maintain this way of being for too long. But it is also possible that Paul meant the phrase to be understood in a timeless way, with believers enabled to be gentle by the strength that the Lord’s continuing and close presence provides. Prayer is presented as the antidote to worry, while the peace that surpasses all understanding is the gift of God.
‘What then should we do?’ (v.10). It’s a recurring question in Luke’s writing: the lawyer (Luke 10.25); the rich ruler (Luke 18.18); the Jerusalem crowd (Acts 2.37); the jailer (Acts 16.30); and Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 22.10). In Acts, the ‘called for’ response is spiritual and relational – although in the case of the jailer, his responsiveness is also shown in his practical provision of food for Paul and Silas as well as in his baptism. In the Gospel, the called for response is profoundly down to earth and practical, centring on the generous sharing of resources. Underlying this is a called-for ethic and attitude of contentment – a call to be content with one good coat, enough food, the legitimate amount of tax revenue and sufficient wages.
It is notable that John – often presented as a fiery radical prophet – does not call people in what were controversial occupations to find new work. Instead he calls them to work out the substance of their repentance and live their newly baptized lives within their normal day-to-day duties. Commenting on this, Joel Green says, ‘John’s message contains within it a critique that not only points the finger of judgement at large-scale injustice but in fact reaches into the realities of day-to-day existence. Life at the local level and one’s own normal network of relationships are touched by this ethical vision, with the result that repentance must be understood within and related to even the most mundane.’ (Joel B Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1997 ISBN 978-0-8028-2315-1). Again, note Luke’s little phrase ‘Even tax collectors’ (v.10). When was the last time we gave thanks for and prayed for those working honourably at HMRC?
||A time for spreading hope
Andrew Roberts discusses fake news, good news and Christmas with two young Christians, Jeremiah Gash and Caitlyn Arran.