Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- During this Advent time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child, we can easily misinterpret our bible readings as exhortations to action – things we must DO to prepare for Christmas. In fact, the Incarnate comes among us whether we recognise him or not, and all our febrile worries and activities can all too easily fall into the Pelagian trap that makes us think that we are in control of affairs, when in actual fact what we are preparing for and celebrating is entirely God’s gift. God is not one whose arm can be bent to our will and the Incarnation, the becoming human of Jesus the Son of God, is always about God’s will for us and not the other way round. God the Father is all powerful and loves his creation, and when he saw it fallen away from his will he acted to redeem it; what Leo the Great described as a “Bending down in pity, not a failure of power.” The Father has always intended us for glory, to share his life, and the Incarnation is not a desperate retrieval plan for something gone horribly out of control, but part of his master plan from the beginning, a sharing of his divinity with us through and in the person of the Son.
When therefore in our Gospel (Luke 3:10-18) we find the crowd asking John about the right manner of their behaviour, it is not principally a recipe for cleaning up their act that they are given, but a vision of the sharing which is the life of God in Trinity, what it is to be godlike. The actions called for are not primarily about morality but grace, the sharing and mutual adoration which is the Trinity in action. In this free distribution of clothing and food we meet the life of heaven. Our Jerusalem Bible translation does not quite capture the Greek in verse 12 where the tax collectors are advised to ‘exact no more than your rate’. Now the collection of taxes was farmed out throughout the Roman Empire to the highest bidders on the understanding that in addition to collecting the imperial revenues, they would take their cut in recognition for their labours. This often included the purchase of local thugs to enforce collection, and of course the tax officials could charge whatever they wanted in these circumstances and frequently became very rich, as Luke’s story of Zacchaeus suggests (Lk 19). The Greek actually says “Collect no more than you are appointed to do”, actually suggesting that they should not take any cut at all, but only what was previously arranged to be given to the Emperor’s treasury, a truly god-like act! Similarly, with the next verse, we know that troops supplemented their pay by intimidating the locals upon whom they were frequently billeted, and the bit mistranslated by the JB as ‘extortion’, is actually ‘false accusation’, meaning methods used by heavy handed troops to get the locals imprisoned and even executed and seize their property. All these things, expressions of inequality, and so un-god-like, are excluded by John as he prepares real hearers of his message for the coming of Christ. The distinction between grace and humanity in its fallen state is moreover pressed home by John’s comment that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. As this was the job of the lowest of the household slaves, we can appreciate the point John is making, and his awareness of the gift bestowed. It is quite without comparison, grace in all its fullness.
Precisely because this is the situation, our reading from Paul to the Philippians (Phil 4:4-7) indicates the right attitude for all Christians to adopt. Not the unfortunate JB ‘be happy’, but rather as it says in Greek, “Kairete – Rejoice!” It is about God’s Kairos, his ‘time’. It speaks of an attitude of tolerance to everyone, something just as difficult for the citizens of pagan Philippi, with its myriad of gods and its Roman values and habits, as it is for us today; a reflection of divine toleration – what God puts up with from us all and what he does all the time. The letter goes on to encourage us not to be anxious (to worry) about anything, but rather to rest everything in God’s hands, and it is surely in the cultivation of this trust that we can ultimately live without fear, knowing we are always in his care and that that will not fail.
In the same vein, our reading from Zephaniah (3:14-18) calls the people of Jerusalem to rejoice as their death sentence has been repealed. Now Zephaniah was a prophet during the reign of Josiah, 640-604 BC. This reforming monarch succeeded Manasseh under whom religious practices had been allowed to slide and the worship of Yahweh declined. Israel saw this as the reason why they were being threatened by foreign invaders. With this in mind, Josiah instigated a series of religious reforms, record of which we have under the Deuteronomic historians and temple priests, and we must think of Zephaniah as a prophet who played his part in this reforming spirit. Once again we find that theme taken up by St Paul, that the Lord is among them. “You have no more evil to fear’. Such is the goodness and care of God towards his people that, far from any call that Israel (we) brush up our act), we are told that the Lord “Will exult with joy over you, he will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.” This then is what it means to held in God’s hands. This is the promise of Christmas which we are anticipating and awaiting, and we see precisely where we are and what we are in God’s presence.