The first reading is from the minor prophet Zephaniah. This relatively short book records material mostly from the 7th century BC. At that time the peoples’ faithfulness to the covenant and their moral living was deplorably low, so that the prophecies are mostly of doom and disaster. But added onto the end of these is the message we read today of great joy. It often seems to be the case with a section of preaching against the low level of faith and practice of the Jews that in the books of the prophets there is added an upbeat message to bring a section to an end. Whether this is a later addition or not it carries a truth about God’s dealings with creation and especially with human beings. So we have this day the delightful poem, or song, addressed to the daughter of Zion, the city of Jerusalem, which is a personification for the people of Israel, and this use of ‘daughter’ could almost make it look like the successful arrangement of a marriage between them and God.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians Chapter 4, verses 4-7 is part of a letter that Paul wrote to them after receiving a gift from them (most likely of money) brought to Paul in prison by Epaphroditus. It expresses great thanks to his friends and also words of encouragement – for he and they both think that it will not be long before the end of this era and the second coming of Jesus to claim His own for His heavenly kingdom. If you started reading from the beginning of the chapter you would read of some internal arguments going on in the community, because it is clearly part of a different letter from Paul to them at a different time. Altogether there may well be parts of three letters from Paul to them in what we have in our Bible as the letter of Paul to the Philippians. But the joy of today’s reading is appropriate for this time of the year that we Christians celebrate nowadays.
The gospel reading from Luke, follows that of last week. John the Baptist has made quite an impression by his radical character and style of life in the desert, and his call to all Jews to change their attitude to life (to ‘repent’). Here, he is asked what the details of this might be by different groups; it’s different for the rich and well-off, the tax-collectors and the soldiers; what would be said to us if we asked? All four gospels have much the same record of John’s preaching, especially the relationship of himself to Jesus – he is insignificant compared with the true Messiah he foreshadows. Washing (which is what baptism is) is used symbolically in other religions as well Judaism and now Christianity, but here it is in their river Jordan, which in their history was the crossing they made from the eastern desert into the promised land and now is a symbol for changing the way of life for the better. But the symbolism of Christian baptism is described here as more like the winnowing separation in the wind (i.e. the spirit) removing the chaff from the wheat grain as well as the purification that comes from fire.