Zeph. 3:14-20 • Canticle 9 • Phil. 4:4-7 • Luke 3:7-18
“I will bear away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord: man, beasts, birds of heaven, fish of the sea, all of it gone, swept away. This will be the ruin of the unrighteous” (Zeph. 1:2-3). The prophet is just starting. “I will extend a destroying hand over Judah, Jerusalem, the remnant of Baal, false priests, and those who bow to the hosts of heaven” (1:4-5). “A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation” (1:15).
These are words which, if applied without thought, invoked without context, summoned without a serious and contemplative silence, may be used as a weapon against those whom we think are the unrighteous. Words of judgment, however, are to be heard as a call to renewal and hope. God cleans house not only because the home is filthy but because it has the possibility of being clean again. To be absolutely clear, God can judge but cannot hate anything God has made. “In your infinite love you made us for yourself” (BCP, but also St. Augustine: Fecisti nos ad te). And this from the 1549 prayer book: “ALmightie and euerlastyng god, which hatest nothing that thou haste made” (Ashwednesday).
The prophet has another vision, a great vision of return and restoration and jubilation. Judgment has passed. Behold, the new has come. “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem. The Lord has taken away the judgment against you…. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. … He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (3:14-17).
There is both rhythm and purpose to this oscillation between judgment and restoration. A harsh and bitter word must sometimes cut to the marrow. The axe is at the root of the tree. The physician gives his cutting care. But it is all directed to the restoration and renewal of life. Thus when John the Baptist comes with carping words and accusations, the people know the pattern and respond to it as a call to new life. Bear fruit that befits repentance! Indeed, judgment and hope were so closely connected that they became signs of God’s final reign. A final judgment would usher in the final victory, God’s king would come.
John gave his sermon, a voice crying in the wilderness, and then he stopped. John walked the shores of the Jordan where he baptized with water. And then he walked off the stage. John is no more. It is finished. He has pointed to the one who is greater, the one who will baptize with water and fire. Everyone the Son touches is first new and then ignited.
Jesus is in the midst of us and he is judgment and new life. “For judgment I came into the world” (John 9:39). Do you feel his searing eyes, the retinal blaze of all-knowing? Has anyone ever told you that his seeing is his loving? He sets the absolute truth before you, for he is truth; he forgives what needs forgiving, for he is absolution; he gives strength to the weak, for he is power. And then he speaks. He says, “Rejoice. I am here. Do not worry about anything” (Phil. 4:5-6). “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Look It Up
Read Canticle 9. Even water from the spring of salvation tastes better when you are desperately thirsty. Feel your need.
Think About It
For everyone, but especially clergy: You are not the Christ, but have come to bear witness to him. Leave saving to the Savior.