Consider the third Sunday of Advent as the peaceful, calming lull before the liturgical tempo revs up toward its Christmas Day climax (or at least the climax of this season, Easter of course being the climax of the liturgical year).
This week’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary – or at least the readings other than the Gospel featuring John the Baptist’s prototypically fiery language – are among the most reassuring, and least obviously demanding, of the year. Zephaniah 3:14-20 begins with the exhortation to Israel (and/or Jerusalem and Zion) to “rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Likewise, early in the First Song of Isaiah, we are told to “draw water with rejoicing, from the springs of salvation.”
And again, in Philippians – in case we somehow missed it – the lesson could not be more clear: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Repeatedly throughout all three readings we are reassured, comforted, promised great things, told that the Lord is (or soon will be) “in our midst” (twice)… and then, in Philippians, additionally boosted and bolstered with the famous words that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and minds.”
This is, of course, all good. And it is not just meant to be happy talk; it is supposed to be deeply felt and very, very real.
Yet because those three readings are so uplifting, parts of the message of the Baptist seem especially jarring, if not a little frightening. He speaks of axes and fires and winnowing forks and, again, “unquenchable fire.”
Yikes. Not so comforting after all.
But then you see something so strange that it almost looks like a non sequitur.
Here are the last three sentences of the Gospel reading (the first two being quotes from John the Baptist):
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Directly from a horrid burning with unquenchable fire, we are told that John likewise “proclaimed the good news.” Somehow, “good news” is not the first thing I think when I’m warned that if I don’t straighten up, I’ll end up in hellfire.
How, pray tell, is that good news?
Well, I can cite no theological authority for this next idea; it merely is my attempt to “puzzle things out,” as it were. Surely the scribes who turned God’s word into text wouldn’t use such a seeming non sequitur – so, the best conclusion is that they didn’t think there was anything seemingly illogical about this at all.
Again, how could this be?
I think the answer is that we are supposed to focus on the first clause of John’s sentence: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary.” What if his listeners, and those who transcribed the Bible, believed that the promise of being part of the abundance of the granary was far greater than the threat of the fire? What if what they heard was: “Sure, there is (quite literally) hell to pay if we do not abide by the word of the Lord, but we’re not too worried about that because we are hearing the word (and soon will hear the Word that itself ‘was God’) – and that the word (and the Word) are so powerfully wonderful, its attraction so great, that just to hear it is enough to transform us in ways that allow us to abide by it?”
Put another way, the word and Word themselves make it easier for us to follow them. We are blessed with the word of God, and having been blessed we can assume that what is being asked of us (in abiding his word) is not more than we are able to do. So to hear the word is almost to assure salvation, or at least to assure us that we are so capable (through grace) of being redeemed that we need not greatly fear the fire.
If we look at it like that, then the entirety of John’s message is indeed good news. And, while a bit more challenging than the messages in the other three readings, it should be (and apparently, in those days, actually was) similarly reassuring, similarly comforting, and of the same spirit and “feel” as the peace offered in them.
Therefore, we return to the overall message of late Advent: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.