At first glance, it may appear that the gospel lesson is jarringly out of place when considered in the context of the other lessons. Zephaniah provides an exultant promise to the people of God that their hard days are over. The time of retribution for their ancestors’ heinous sins has been completed, and the day of reconciliation has come. The psalm, in only a few verses, speaks of “salvation,” “peace,” “glory,” “mercy,” “truth,” and “righteousness.” The lesson from Philippians calls for jubilant rejoicing, bids the people set aside any anxiety, and promises peace beyond all understanding.
In the gospel, John the Baptist addresses his hearers as a “brood of vipers” and foretells a divine “wrath to come.” Yet a little reflection on this lesson reveals that it also fits the theme of deliverance and coming joy. John includes in the message of salvation even those who have the least likelihood of taking it seriously. John’s preaching, no doubt with a vehemence that was an integral part of the message, called all hearers to the same dependable joys the other lessons present.
In spite of the bluntness of his style, at the end of the lesson his words are called “good news,” and it is evident that John was extremely popular. Perhaps he alone, at that time, was able to bring all strata of his society together with a message of coming deliverance and the repentance that was essential for receiving it. The “multitudes” (presumably run-of-the-mill Jews), “tax collectors” (Jewish collaborators with the foreign government), and “soldiers” (presumably Romans) are all mentioned in this lesson.
In other New Testament passages, we learn that representatives of the Jewish ruling parties also attended him. Severe as the Baptist’s words are, his counsel is easy and accessible. Tax collectors are not commanded to turn from tax collecting to be saved, but rather to be honest. Soldiers are not ordered to renounce their ties to Rome or even their profession. They are urged to be content with their pay. Even the “multitudes” are counseled merely to practice simple generosity.
John’s words show that anyone may enter into what the other lessons promise by simple acts in ordinary life. He provides the electrifying message that the long-awaited, eagerly sought Messiah is indeed at hand. Thus the prophesied age of deliverance is poised to tum from vision to concrete fulfillment.
Look It Up
What is it that makes possible the elation of the promises to the people of God in the lesson from Zephaniah? The answer is found in verse 3:15.
Think About It
C.S. Lewis suggested that the New Testament command to “rejoice,” as in today’s epistle, is the least obeyed of the commands. What makes “rejoicing” so difficult, even for believers?