What Then Shall We Do?

The Third Sunday Of Advent
Cycle C
16th December 2012
Zeph 3: 14-18. Phil. 4; 4-7 Luke 3: 10-18.
Dcn Tony van Vuuren

In the midst of Advent the dominant message this weekend is an invitation to “Rejoice.”
All the readings are about forgiveness, authentic good news and how to embrace the peace of God. Reason enough for us to rejoice whilst listening and participating in the liturgy with a sense of exultation, joy, thanksgiving, peace and expectation.
The prophet Zephaniah, in the first reading, who is uncharacteristically exuberant for someone who is recognized as a grumpy prophet of doom, tells of the Lord’s forgiveness, the “removing of judgment” from those whose sins led to the destruction of Jerusalem. In our time, we need to hear that we, too, are forgiven, for whatever reason(s) we have turned away from God, either briefly or over a very long time. There is also a message about those we love who, “have fallen away from the faith”: we must remember, and maybe try and remind them, that they are still within the loving kindness of God.
At this time of year, when families are foremost in our minds, this salve is often much needed.
Jesus came to save us because we were (and aren’t) in a position to do so ourselves. This is really
Good News about ourselves and those we love. Our response should be true rejoicing, with a quiet, blessed assurance and peace that comes from within that can only be initiated by the Lord.
The prophet promises that the “The Lord is in your midst”; a time of joy also for those who have kept vigilant and not stopped hoping in God.
Which is what we should be praying for and waiting for this Advent: God’s imminent arrival; our sins washed away; our flagging and limp spirits and routine religious practices given new life by a fresh breath of God’s Spirit. We pray this Advent for an open heart, ready to hear the good news and receive our God, who is always ready and willing to come.
Both the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the Gospel selection from Luke tell us more ways to respond to this Good News. They tell us what to do and what not to do in everyday situations. These readings are a realistic road map for living the life of someone who has been released from a very heavy judgment. While we may not literally be tax collectors or soldiers, we can definitely live by the principles John the Baptist laid out in his words to them and to the crowd in general.
John seems to have calmed down. In the verses preceding today’s Gospel, John, never a smooth diplomat, has called those listening to him a brood of vipers. He charged them with trying to escape from the wrath that was soon to come rather than repenting. That got their attention, so they now ask him, “What then shall we do?”
Perhaps they expected John to put a heavy burden on them, call for repentance accompanied by highly visible and arduous proofs of a change of heart.
John’s response to their anxious question, “What then shall we do?” is disarmingly simple: he calls them and us to live good and faithful lives. He calls them to change their ways; to live upright lives in the places they live and work. He’s not telling them to go off to live in the desert, but to live honest lives where they are. Once they have changed their dishonest ways, straightened out their lives, then they will be ready to receive the one who is coming.
The Baptist is telling us to be faithful to our roles in life—be good parents and honest workers; treat people justly. If we have authority and power over someone (“tax collectors”) don’t take advantage of them. Be fair and help those in need. We are to be honest people, characterized by lives of integrity; we should not take advantage of anyone and must treat them with respect. John calls us to be satisfied with what we have— and to do something for those who have not.

We cannot just sit here and listen to his message, and then hastily return to our little comfort zones. We must show by our actions that we have internalized it. We cannot claim privilege and access to God merely because we come to mass every weekend or even every day. Nor can we as Christians expect a special place or favor merely because we belong to a church. John tells us, we must do deeds that reflect what we have received and what we believe. We cannot put off to another time the serious self examination he is asking us to do.
John says he is only, “baptizing with water, but one mightier than I is coming.” He is calling for a change of behavior, starting with repentance and following through with actions. In Christ all will be new and His baptism will be with “the Holy Spirit and fire.” That’s what we need if we are to sustain our commitment to Christ for the long haul—“the Holy Spirit and fire.” Then our acts of love and service for the sake of the Gospel will not be done just to curry favor from God. The Holy Spirit “fires” our desire, determination and energy to a full time, life long service.
The gestures we make towards fulfilling John’s instructions become prayer-like. We say in effect: “I am showing in my daily life that I want to change.” Our daily actions of generosity and concern for others this Advent are a form of the “prayer and supplication” Paul describes. We can’t force God’s hand; we serve and we wait.
Advent is about the coming of Christ, the coming of the Messiah. But it is also just as much about our preparations for that coming—waiting patiently for God’s Kingdom is something to be looked forward to with Joy, while at the same time making the more active and practical adjustments that are needed to comply with the justice and the holiness of that Kingdom.

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