“THE news of judgement and the news of salvation arrive at the same time” (Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The once and future coming of Christ). John the Baptist proclaims the joyful news that salvation is at hand. But, in doing so, he offers his hearers an unflinchingly honest assessment of their sins.
The prophet Zephaniah likewise holds together a message of judgement on sin and a proclamation of divine deliverance. His short book is addressed to God’s people while they are exiled in Babylon. In its previous chapters, Zephaniah proclaims a God “whose quest is for sovereignty over peoples and other gods and whose sense of ethics will not allow for injustice and the inordinate assertion of power of one people over another”. While a remnant will be saved, and Zion restored, this only happens “after all has been divinely chastened and purified, and love is renewed” (Carol Dempsey, New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk).
For John, as for Zephaniah, this process of “divine chastening” has a material dimension. Soldiers and tax collectors are commanded to cease exploitative practices, and every hearer who has more than enough is challenged to share his or her goods with those who lack food and clothing. John declares that the promises of the Old Testament prophets will be fulfilled in his generation: “One who is more powerful than I is coming,” who will baptise “with the Holy Spirit and fire”.
Fire can be both terrifying and refining. The work of the Holy Spirit frees us from the grip of sin — and that involves a painful process of purification. We are deeply attached to death-dealing idols, and so our liberation is a costly business. As Fleming Rutledge writes, “Since the territory is largely held by Satan, the action of grace will often be more like guerrilla warfare than gentle persuasion. Hence the dissonance of Advent and the jarring notes sounded by John the Baptist.”
John warns his hearers against the seductive assumption that their race or nationhood will somehow guarantee them salvation without repentance and conversion. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Such delusions remain powerful in our own age; so it is important to hear afresh the Baptist’s warning words: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John’s ministry is chastening, but it is anything but negative. He is preparing Israel for God’s decisive act of redemption. Someone greater is about to arrive, and John is not worthy to “untie the thong” of his sandals (John is here alluding to an Old Testament marriage custom, cf. Genesis 38, Ruth 4.7-8). In the words of St Gregory the Great, “John denounces himself as unworthy to loose the latchet of Christ’s shoes; as if he openly said, ‘I am not able to disclose the footsteps of the Redeemer, and do not presume to take unto myself unworthily the name of bridegroom’” (quoted in David Lyle Jeffrey, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).
This allusion to festivity is a subtle one. By contrast, our readings from both Zephaniah and Paul are explicit in their injunction to celebrate: to “sing aloud” and to “rejoice”. They are given because this is Gaudete Sunday, and the rose of the Advent candle (and perhaps the vestments) is indicative of its more festal themes. We can celebrate the wedding feast only if we have prepared ourselves for the arrival of the Bridegroom. Joy flows from an embrace of repentance and a commitment to spiritual renewal.
The rejoicing which Paul urges on the Philippians is “in the Lord”. It must flow from their conversion from the habits and values in which they had previously sought pleasure (cf. Philippians 2). Such joy is “the appropriate response when one rightly perceives the unfolding of God’s drama of salvation even in the midst of suffering and opposition” (Stephen Fowl, Philippians: A two horizons commentary).
In his challenging and unsettling preaching, John calls us to this same repentance, and, in doing so, he leads us to the same rejoicing. Only such conversion of life — itself the fruit of grace — will bring us to the solid joys of God’s eternal Kingdom.