We offer a Homiletical Exegesis and two sample homilies for Advent Week 3. We hope these resources are a blessing to you.
Of the three years of the lectionary, our present Year C offers the most distinctive shift between the Gospel lessons of the Second and Third Sundays in Advent. Both are derived from the third chapter of Luke. The pericope primarily introduces the character of the Baptist and, in keeping with the other Evangelists, draws on a passage from Isaiah 40 to provide biblical warrant for his ministry. The Lukan presentation of John—really a further expansion of his life and work following the extensive material in the Birth narratives—on the Second Sunday of Advent shifts toward John’s message following the introduction of his mission. Luke provides a further contextualization of the Baptist’s preaching. It happens in the wilderness (3:2, 4) and there John is preaching to a “crowd” (ochlois). This is definitely not a “dialogue sermon” at its opening. The crowd listens without a word to John’s apocalyptic speech!
The Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday, Year C, then picks up with the sermon at verse 10. But what a difference a week makes! All of a sudden, the crowd—in that good call and response format often heard in African American preaching—finally gains its voice and shouts out, “What, then, should we do?” (3:10). But the content of the sermon also experiences a sudden shift as well. Three sections of this sermon are introduced by the same call and response: “What should we do?” The Baptist’s response turns abruptly from an apocalyptic message to ethical instructions that do not seem to imply a crisis evoked by the nearness of the End. (We could imagine these admonitions being spoken by one of the prophets or the Apostle Paul without any apocalyptic context whatsoever.) Following the first “What should we do?” it seems much like we are in the midst of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Anyone with two “cloaks” (see Notes) “should share with the person who has none” and “whoever has food should do likewise” (3:11). However, two quite different interpretations have risen with regard to the “mundane” meaning of these teachings by John. On one hand, Joseph Fitzmyer comments on this couplet:
(Luke) offers a sample of the Baptist’s ethical preaching, especially as it is concerned with social conduct. Again, John does not invite the crowds to adopt his mode of life, but by way of contrast with the former mode of preaching, his words here lack any eschatological motivation. Nor are they related to the coming of a messiah. Instead, John advocates a selfless concern for others—good advice for Jews, Christians, or pagans.
Thus, these ethical teachings are expressions of general good human behavior towards others.
On the other hand, other commentators have discerned a much deeper, and in its own way, eschatological meaning in these injunctions. Thus, Robert Tannehill notes, “The demand to share clothing and food is radical.” In the term utilized to translate the clothing (“cloaks”), the meaning of chiton or tunic seems to imply an optional outerwear. (We put on a cloak to go outside when it is cold.) However, a chiton is actually the undergarment of first century Palestinians. “These words could be addressed to people with very little,” Tannehill argues, adding “Even for poor people, repentance means learning to share.” As with one’s meager clothing, the crowds are also enjoined to share their food, no matter how meager those provisions may be.
The second sequence of call and response—“What should we do?”—is asked by tax collectors, that hated group of people shilling for the Romans in collecting tolls, custom duties, and taxes from the Jewish people. Once again, the question is answered in a way that seems rather conventional: “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed” (10:13). However, being a tax collector in Israel meant bidding for the right to tax the people and involved the necessity of assessing a “surcharge” for their expenses and livelihood. Put simply, given enmeshment in that system meant that no one could cease their taking more than “what was prescribed.” A similar quandary obtains for soldiers, the last group to ask the Baptist what they should do. John tells them, “Do not practice extortion.” But these soldiers, who are not Roman troops but the military arm of Herod’s brutal regime, are likely involved in providing the “muscle” behind the dirty work of the tax collectors. Neither group was innocent; both were intertwined with the corrupt system. To act righteously, then, meant abandoning their jobs and its income, perhaps at great peril from those they had extorted. Though not directly related to the traumas of the End, such a repentance would involve an existential threat to their existence.
The final section of the pericope now shifts from this “Q and A” sequence with an interesting rhetorical move by the Third Evangelist. Instead of providing us with the direct speech of the crowds, Luke goes on to indicate that “the people were filled with expectation and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ” (15). In other words, Luke provides us with a new revelation as to the internal state of the crowds (they were “filled with expectation”) and he initiates a further call and response based on what they were asking en tais kardiais (“in their hearts”). The Baptist’s response is first to indicate his own subservience to the coming messiah. He, John, baptizes with water, “but one mightier than I is coming” who will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16). Further emphasizing the chasm between his own vocation and that of the Christ, he adds, “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals” (16). Now, as a final “bookend” to the passage, Luke returns us to the previous eschatological mode of speech. Speaking of the messiah, John adds, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (16). Here the superiority of the messiah (Jesus) is demonstrated over the Baptist. The latter baptizes with water, a baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3). The messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Luke narrates numerous occasions when the Holy Spirit falls upon an individual (cf. the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, 1:35) or upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:4), the Samarians as their baptisms are completed (Acts 8:15-17), and upon the Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48). Most immediately, Luke brings this narrative to its culmination as the focus shifts from the Baptist to his messiah; he baptizes Jesus and “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:22). A further distinction is now provided by Luke. “Jesus himself will come as the winnower (=judge) to sort out the wheat and the chaff.”
The pericope concludes as John’s final words are still echoing in the wilderness. Now Luke speaks directly to us: “Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news (euēngelizeto) to the people” (18). It is as if St. Luke wrote this tag line to those who preach the good news: “When you speak of signs and crises or ask the listeners ‘What should we do?,’ always keep in mind and heart that you are proclaiming the good news.”
Notes – Luke 3:10-18
10. “The crowds asked John the Baptist…” The Greek for “crowds” is in the plural, ochloi. Literally, the verse continues, “What then shall we do?”
11. “Whoever has two cloaks…” The Greek has chitōnas, the word for the undergarment in first century CE Palestine. Perhaps “tunic” serves best here. (“Cloaks” implies an outer garment and, therefore, some ability of the individual to afford both inner and outerwear.) The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) encounters the same difficulty with its translation of chitōnas as “coats.”
12. “Teacher, what should we do?” Teacher is the most accurate translation of didaskale although some older English translations employ “Master.” Of course, “Teacher” serves best here.
13. “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” The literal meaning of Mēden pleon is “nothing more.”
14. “Do not practice extortion,…” The word translated “extortion” is diaseisēte from dia (meaning “thoroughly”) and seio (to “shake”). Thus, “to shake down” or “extort.”
15. “…whether John might be the Christ.” Of course, Christos. Alternate translations provide “the Messiah.”
16. “I am baptizing you with water,…” The Greek is emphatic here with Egō…baptizō…” “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Literally, “with Holy Spirit and fire” (en pneumati hagiō kai pyri”).
17. “…and to gather the wheat into his barn.” Synagagein, meaning to gather, store, or assemble. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the younger son “gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country” (15:113).
18. Literally, “exhorting he was preaching the good news to the people” (“parakalōn euēngelizeto ton laon”). Parakalōn carries the sense of a word “up close and personal.” Euēngelizeto conveys the full sense of “he preached good news.”
Homiletical Exegetical Reflections
The Gospel lesson for Advent 3 in Year C does not provide a clearly defined narrative providing the preacher with a sequence of “scenes” that could become the homiletical plot. Moreover, the lesson shifts in its mode of discourse from instruction/didactic to apocalyptic and then ending with a pronouncement (18). However, the didactic narrative of 3:10-14 provides an opportune occasion for employing the “Q & A” motif as we shape the homily. The following moves can provide the sequence, proceeding from the engagement between the Baptist and the crowds/tax collectors/soldiers. Then, we may shift context, but not the rhetorical mode of call and response, from the biblical scene out there in the wilderness to that of the assembly also asking the same question, “What should we do?” In both cases—the crowd’s questions and our own—are evoked by the sense of a nearness of the coming of the Lord, whether at the End or in his coming in Bethlehem of Judea. A third move would then focus on the final verse of our lesson and celebrate the good news that is becoming fulfilled in our hearing. We may sketch out the homiletical plot, then, as follows:
Introduction: We may gather the assembly to attend to John’s words of judgement and prophetic ire that he unleashed on the crowds out there in the wilderness (recapping, in this way, the material in 3:7-9 from Advent 2). The intro will establish the location of the scene Luke provides—“the wilderness”—along with the varied participants in “the crowds” who have come out to be baptized.
Move 1: Moved by the preaching of the Baptist, the crowds ask John, “What should we do?” John answers the crowd at large, taking particular efforts to answer the tax collectors and the soldiers. This “Q & A” event has some distinctive qualities that should be noted. First, as we have discussed, the Baptist’s response in every case seems initially rather mundane and moralistic. (Shouldn’t all people act in these ways as part of normal life, week in and week out?) Then we will drill deeper in analyze how radical these demands really are. They bring along serious challenges to both individuals and to groups within the crowds. If heeded, things will never be the same, both personally and socially.
Move 2: Now we shift the scene such that the Baptist enters our place of worship, turns to the congregation and waits upon our question, “What should we do?” Luke provides three “Q & A” calls and responses while our homily might offer a minor “Q & A” and then one major one. The former, the minor question, could focus on easily received answers by the Baptist. For example, the preacher could initiate each with words like “So we know that the coming of the Lord is near--only one more candle waits to be lit on our Advent wreath—so we ask the Baptist, “What should we do?” We hear him reply, “Do more to feed the hungry.” For example, we reply “Yes, we remember, there is that big old box in the parish hall that used to be filled with food for the hungry. But we forgot about it as an active ministry a long time ago. Some offerings are made now and then, but not many and not frequently.” (Or something to that effect: a response that awakens a deeper concern for the hungry even within the remaining days of Advent.) For parishes with a robust ministry of feeding the poor, the response to the Baptist’s answer could be that this ministry is named and celebrated. (“But St. John, haven’t you heard of our ministry to the hungry here at ____ parish?”)
Then, the move can turn to raise an even more radical, troubling response to the Baptist. Given our current context in late 2021, three huge issues impact us: the continuing pandemic itself, the environmental crisis, and our struggles with race and racism. Given the depth and passions involved from various perspectives on all three of these huge issues, it is advisable to select only one and deal with it in ways that provide focus for the congregation and some “advice” from the Baptist in answer to our question, “What should we do?” Two questions as we consider:
(1) Which one of the large arenas (environment, pandemic, race and racism) should be deployed in this homily on Advent 3, Year C?
(2) Given the context and history of the parish(es), what particular reply will the Baptist provide as we ask the question, “What should we do?” For example, within the arena of race and racism, the Baptist may, if our context is largely Caucasian, exhort us to invite a nearby African American church into conversations around issues of church and/or society. If the homilist selects the environmental arena, the Baptist may respond to our question by exhorting us to begin a parish-wide recycling program before the first of the New Year (this, of course, for parishes that have not already been engaged in recycling). If the continuing pandemic is chosen as the appropriate arena for this Q & A, the Baptist may well exhort the assembly to continue their good work thus far and now add some further ministry for those who remain isolated and/or impoverished by COVID 19. (Masking and social distancing still may be needed in the parish’s location because of a flare-up due to some new variant of the virus. Thus, the Baptist may be quite direct and exhort the congregation, “Still wear your mask and keep social distance at Mass!”)
Especially important are several cautions when preaching these or other “tough” social justice/public health topics. These include:
1. If at all possible, avoid presenting yourself as a Baptist-like solitary figure out there in the wilderness. The Church has spoken frequently and in detail on many social issues including all three of our alternative arenas for Move 2. For example, Pope Francis has addressed the environmental crisis with boldness and compelling argument in his encyclical letter, Laudato Sí: On Care for our Common Home.
2. Avoid presenting us who preach (and possibly the parish) as the “heroes” who align ourselves with John the Baptist’s exhortations and leave it to other “sinners” to need correction. Remember as we preach on Advent 3 that John’s message involves repentance for the forgiveness of sins for all people! On this “John the Baptist Sunday,” then, there are no “angels” standing among the crowds--all are in need of repentance.
3. Once an arena is chosen within this move, it is important that it not become so overly developed that it overshadows the rest of the homily. As a question of duration, it is best to not exceed four or five minutes in developing and completing this move.
Move 3. The final move in the homily may drop down to the final verse in the lesson, celebrating the “good news” that is in play in the entire lesson. St. Luke concludes by proclaiming that John exhorted the crowds in many other ways and “preached the good news to the people” (18). How sad it would be if the listeners heard only some bad news about their culpability—or someone else’s misdeeds—in the homily! Our final move needs to name grace. One obvious way that grace may be named in this final move is to celebrate what ministries have already been mounted within the chosen arena of social concern. (This approach would allow the preacher to speak on behalf of the congregation in response to the Baptist’s exhortation!) But on this Sunday in particular, one response to that question, “What should we do?” is a clear declaration—“We shall break bread together!” Regarding the environmental agenda, again, the Eucharistic Gifts are celebrated as “fruit of the earth and work of human hands.” This acclamation is one of the responses we make to the Baptist. Moreover, those of us who are invited to the Feast include all races, all ethnicities, and women, men, and confirmed children of faith. Here is the sign in the Sacrament of what God intends for all people—a love feast in Jesus Christ! By naming grace in the Sacrament, we will not fail to move beyond judgement toward the fullness of redemption. We preach “good news to the people” (18).
 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, The Anchor Bible (New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, 465.  Robert C. Tannehill, Luke (Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN: 1996), 81.  Ibid.  Fitzmyer, 466.  Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Sí: On Care for our Common Home, May 24, 2015, accessed Dec. 6, 2021, https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-d&q=pope+francis+encyclical+on+the+environment.