Advent II, Year C
Bar 5:1-9 or Mal 3:1-4
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, "Righteous Peace, Godly Glory." Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight–indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’"
The citation from Isaiah indicates that the supercession of differentiation is an eschatological act. “And all humanity will see God’s salvation.” The metaphors of Isaiah indicate that the leveling of differences will be substantially different than the cultural model which terminates in scapegoating. God’s work will be called salvation. What differentiates God from the gods of culture is that God is not discriminating. God makes rain to fall on the evil and the good and the sun to shine on the just and the unjust. Humans are the ones who discriminate. God is no respecter of persons.
For Luke, the appearance of John the Baptist signals the beginning of the end. We see this in the apocalyptic framework of the Baptist’s speech. Kasemann was correct that ‘apocalyptic is the mother of Christianity’ but it is as such through the influence of the Baptist on the early followers of Jesus. Jesus we believe, utilizes apocalyptic differently. And the Baptist, like Jesus, critiques the economic aspect of mimetic culture. While this may be a bit of Lukan spin, nevertheless it is consistent with what we know of both the Hebrew prophets and Jesus. It is also true in one degree or another of some Essenes.
And for Luke, there is a ‘hic et nunc’ (here and now) about all of this. The opening verses of chapter 3 whatever one may say about their ‘historical problems’, indicate that John’s and Jesus’ ministries are a dateable event, a real happening. [There is an apocryphal story about Barth and Tillich walking in Bethlehem. They passed the Church of the Nativity over which was inscribed a bit of John 1.14: Hic verbum caro factum est. To which Barth points and says, “you see Paulus, I have to have my hic.”] Well, so did Luke (and for that matter so did Matthew and the author of the Fourth Gospel).
After 200+ years of biblical scholarship you would think that we might actually have some answers about the so-called ‘historical Jesus.’ But every scholar has a different set of texts that he or she regards as authentic. No two scholars are alike. With the elimination or acceptance of texts also comes the elimination or acceptance of Jesus. The separation of the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history may have been a necessary exercise, but in many cases one senses that the Jesus that is “found” was neither creative or artistic or very bright. Much modern scholarship remains stuck in dead ends.
But for all of the diversity in scholarship, across the board one can discern trends that indicate a real awareness of Jesus. And like Luke, it is recognized that there is a ‘hic et nunc’ to the Christian faith. The real benefit of the quest of the historical Jesus has been the recovery of the humanity of Jesus.
This ‘here and now’ which is the also the beginning of the end describes what has been popularly known as Luke’s view of salvation history. With Jesus as his center point, Luke looks back on the past and forward into the future (so argues Conzelmann) but what exactly is it that Luke sees as the ‘thread’ he is tracing? Why does the gospel that begins and ends in the Temple mark the beginning of the end with a priest become prophet? John is the essential link in the chain: the Hebrew prophets-John the Baptist-Jesus of Nazareth- the Apostles. Everyone is this linkage is oriented to the people of Israel. The last link in this chain, for Luke, is of course the one person who is oriented outward to the non-Jewish world, namely the Apostle Paul.
In his view of history, among other things, Luke is seeking to establish a continuity of ministry, of prophetic word spoken in the Spirit. Or it can be said that Luke is giving us an understanding of the history of the prophetic Word of God. “In Luke’s view of God’s dealings with Israel and with humanity in general, the period of Jesus’ ministry should be understood in the perspective of the continuation of that ministry by the apostles and the church. What Jesus said and did is related to the tasks, the problems, and the hopes of the community of his followers scattered around the eastern part of the Mediterranean, from Jerusalem to Rome. They have a keen interest in what Jesus taught and who he was, long ago in the land of Israel – a country distant in many ways from many of his later believers. They want to know even more who he is now, this living Lord who guides them.” Marinus de Jonge Christology in Context (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988).
Part of early Christian knowledge of Jesus was the exploration and the explication of this prophetic element in reflection on Jesus’ life. And John the Baptist is Jesus’ essential link to the prophetic past of Israel. This is true throughout all four gospels.
Notice also that Luke expands Mathew’s quotation from Isaiah 40:3 to include Isa 40:4-5, thus broadening or universalizing salvation, again a theme we notice all over Luke-Acts.
Clergy may shy away from what may appear to be ‘universalistic’ conclusions that can be drawn when we speak in such a manner. But Luke speaks this way throughout his gospel. It a way of thinking found in his hero Paul (Romans 5:12-21). Irenaeus also expressed this in his pedagogical view of history. Origen had his own take that even the devil would be redeemed (cf all of this with Walter Wink’s thesis on the transformation of the powers).
Mimetic crises in the churches can be expected to escalate over the next decade. We cannot as a culture sustain the intense religious rivalries we have created. We desperately need scapegoats. When churches split, the true church will not demonize the other but will, in the power of the Spirit of Jesus, love their (self-proclaimed) enemies. The false church will unite around a scapegoat(s) and thus reveal that they are of their father, the devil.
The Word of God is an inclusive Word in an exclusive world. The Word of God does not discriminate. If we are exclusive and we discriminate then it cannot said that we have heard the Word of God. Every year we go through this liturgical routine in Advent and fail to see that what it is we await will bring down the world around our ears. It is the revelation of God in a life; forgiving and loving and as such prophetic and healing in the midst of the world of the Satan (the adversary, the accuser, the prosecution), or Lucifer (the bringer of light and revelation that is really darkness and death) or Mephistopheles (the self-doubt of the Cartesian questioner). Jesus has once and for all conquered darkness, death and the devil. And this really is the good news of Advent that we await.
Just like John the Baptist, all of our words and theologies are penultimate. They are only real as they bear witness to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. Anything short of this should concern us.
Some Sermon Thoughts:
Advent, a period of waiting and preparation, is also a “penitential” season, a season of “divine discontent.”
This is a time of the year when we have the opportunity to speak to the deep sense our congregations have that “things are just not as they should be.” Every human being has this sense. Every single one. There is no complacency, only fear to face the cavernous hurt they already know.
Some of us express this during Advent by complaining about the “commercialization” of Christmas. We harangue our culture of consumption (often using as our “scapegoats” the folks down on Madison Avenue!) as we prepare to celebrate the birth of One who came to us in a dirty cattle stall. Still, afraid of disappointing our children, we let ourselves be dragged into the fray.
Let us suggest that John gives us a clue about how to preach all this in Advent. John doesn’t preach the destruction of the current age (that is a by-product) but the coming of something really better. The current age will fade into obscurity because the coming of the One who follows him will turn all our hearts (the real meaning of repentance is just “turning”) in such a way that the present world will simply have no appeal.
Oh, yes, from time to time John castigated those corrupt ones in leadership who struggled to prevent the in-breaking of God’s rule. But people didn’t come out into the wilderness in droves to hear him call Herod names. They came because he offered them hope. He offered them something different, better than the struggle they lived from day to day just to keep the wolves from the door.
As preachers, we have the opportunity to hold up the world that will once again break into our lives this Christmas. We may want to pluck the strings of dissatisfaction in our congregations’ hearts, but only gently. They know the pain already, and have only to be reminded. More importantly, we hold up to them a world that is “leveled” but not at the expense of the “other.” We help them imagine a Christmas where failing to get your child the latest video game or Yu-Gi-Oh set doesn’t carry the hidden meaning that the kids, or the parents, are any less lovely than anyone else.
Armed with that vision of the world radically reformed in the image of its Maker and Redeemer, we send them out with joy to follow their hearts in preparation for the coming of the One.