SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This Sunday’s lessons promise justice. The prophet Malachi assures Israel that the Lord will appear as a refiner’s fire purifying the earth for a new age. Zechariah sings of the day when God will deliver Israel from her enemies that she might “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness…” Paul expresses his confidence that God, who began a good work in us, “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” John the Baptist proclaims the leveling of mountains and the exaltation of valleys at the advance of the One who is to come. That’s all good news-until you start thinking about it.
Malachi sounds this sobering cautionary note: “but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” If the reign of God were to come tomorrow, I am not at all convinced that I would be prepared to meet it. The problem with heaven is that it will be hell for those of us who are not ready to live there. How many of us really want a creation in which all things are reconciled in Christ Jesus? All is a big word. I have no desire to be reconciled with Keith, the kid who bullied me to the point where I hated getting up in the morning and did not feel safe even in my own back yard. Not that I wish him any harm. I’m over that. In fact, I was glad to learn that Keith now has a flourishing dental practice in my home town. I think it’s great that he ended up in a profession where he can both satisfy his sadistic impulses and benefit society. Would that all the world’s sociopaths were so well integrated. I hope he lives long and prospers, but I don’t particularly want to see him again. Then, of course, there are the notorious evildoers: Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Landin, Bull Connor and others in the scoundrel’s hall of fame. Heaven would hardly be heaven if these folks were parading about in the presence of their victims. I cannot imagine or accept their reconciliation. Clearly, they must be burned away in the refining process. Justice requires no less-or at least that is so for justice as I understand it.
The trouble is, I don’t understand it. My perception of justice is too self-centered and myopic. I cannot see what is truly just from God’s perspective. For that reason, we all need to be careful about demanding justice. Sometimes you get what you ask for and it is not what you expect. The line between good and evil does not run neatly between righteous and unrighteous people, good nations and evil nations. That line runs through the middle of every human heart. The evil we hate and deplore in others is often a reflection of what lies in the depths of our own hearts. The cleansing fire of God’s justice comes not merely to eliminate people I don’t like. It comes to deal with the grudges I can’t let go of; resentment of enemies I can’t find it in my heart to forgive; my lust for recognition that never seems to be satisfied; and the lies I tell myself about myself in order for me to live with myself. Justice has a lot of refining to do with my own soul before I can live justly under God’s reign.
I am beginning to understand the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Though it has little or no support in the scriptures, it makes good sense. Clearly, it will take more than a life time to purge my soul and make me capable of sharing in the love of the Father for the Son and for the rest of creation. But whether I must undergo thousands of years of purging or whether I am changed “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” it amounts to the same thing, namely, change. After undergoing such a radical transformation, after being refined in the fierce fire of God’s judgment, after being cleansed of the pride, resentment, anxiety and envy that have shaped so much of my life, will there by anything left of me? Is there enough of the mind of Christ in me to constitute a new person?
Saint Paul gives me some comfort here with his assurance that God, who began a good work in me at baptism, will bring that good work to completion in the Day of Jesus Christ. God will see to it that God’s eternal destiny for me (not necessarily my own hopes for eternity) will be fulfilled. The man I might become after passing through the refining fire of God’s judgment may not be recognizable to me. But he will recognize the Lord who has been present to him throughout his lifetime. And that, Saint John tells us, is the stuff of eternal life. Perhaps that is why Jesus told us in last week’s gospel not to fear the dissolution of creation and to raise our heads in hope even as the signs of our own destruction are all around. However fearful the judgment might be, it is a cleansing judgment, a refining fire, a wound designed to heal. It is the storm that necessarily precedes the calm.
Here’s a poem by Leonora Speyer.
The squall sweeps gray-winged across the obliterated hills,
And the startled lake seems to run before it;
From the wood comes a clamor of leaves,
Tugging at the twigs,
Pouring from the branches,
And suddenly the birds are still.
Thunder crumples the sky,
Lightning tears at it.
And now the rain!
The wind, reveling in the confusion of great pines!
And a silver sifting of light,
A sense of summer anger passing,
Of summer gentleness creeping nearer—
Penitent, tearful, Forgiven!
Nothing is known about the prophet Malachi, whose name in Hebrew means, “My messenger.” The prophet probably lived between 500 and 450 B.C.E. after the Jewish exiles from Babylon had returned and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. For more information about the prophetic book bearing his name, I refer you to the Summary Article by Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.
Malachi was fiercely dedicated to the reconstructed temple and highly critical of the priesthood he accused of corrupting its worship. Malachi also criticizes the people of Israel for their failure to support the temple, for offering sick and blemished animals for sacrifice and for a general lack of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant with her God. In the concluding chapter Malachi answers his critics who claim that God has abandoned Israel. God is sending “my messenger” before him who will “suddenly come to his temple.” Vs. 1. The question is not whether God will come, but whether Israel will be able to stand in God’s presence. Vs. 2. “For [God] is like a refining fire,” a “purifier of silver.” This God will “purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.” Vss. 2-3.
The news is good in the sense that the ultimate result will be that “Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former times.” Vs. 4. Yet the purification process promises to be painful. The refining fire will consume all the dross and impurities from Israel. There will be a terrible cost for this purification. So also John is sent to “preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” The intent is to save Israel, but salvation cannot come without a painful transformation. That continues to be the case. To be baptized into Jesus Christ is to be baptized into Christ’s death. We are called daily to die to sin and rise up again to a new life of faith in Jesus. In the refining fire of the church, a community dedicated to following Jesus, we learn the hard lessons of forgiveness, compassion, faithfulness and hospitality. In other words, we are sanctified and made holy. It is a slow process, a painful process, a process that will not be finished this side of the resurrection and not by us. See Comments on Philippians 1:3-11 below. Yet it is a joyful process in which we discover just how wonderful it is to be a creature reflecting the glory of his or her Creator.
You need to know the story behind this song before you can understand it. These are the words of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. He was a priest of the temple in Jerusalem in the time just prior to Jesus’ birth. When his division was on duty, he was selected to enter into the temple and burn incense before the holy of holies. While he was performing this duty, an angel appeared to him and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son and instructed him to name the child John. Understandably, Zechariah was incredulous. He was an old man and his wife was also long past child bearing years. They had never been able to have children before. So Zechariah asked the angel, “How shall I know this?” The angel identified himself as Gabriel, “who stand in the presence of God.” Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until the birth of the child because he doubted this good news. So it was that Zechariah emerged from the temple speechless. Luke 1:5-20.
Elizabeth conceived and bore a son. Her relatives and neighbors began calling the infant “Zechariah” after his father, but Elizabeth corrected them: “Not so,” says Elizabeth. “His name is John.” Everyone protests that no one in her family has ever borne that name. Then they turn to Zechariah who would have had the final say in this matter. Much to their surprise, Zechariah asks for a writing tablet and inscribes on it these words for all to see: “His name is John.” At that instant, Zechariah’s tongue is set free and he breaks forth in the song that is our psalm for the day. Luke 1:57-66.
Though the birth of John is the occasion for this joyous song, the song’s focus is on the mighty works and promises of God. The promises made to Abraham and to David are evoked by Zechariah’s words. The “horn of salvation” (Vs. 69) is a symbol of might. See Deuteronomy 33:17. The covenantal language throughout the song unites the promises made to Abraham with those sworn to David. Vss. 70-73. The “horn of salvation” raised up within the house of David will make the Abrahamic promises of blessing to all peoples a reality. This “horn of salvation” is Jesus. John’s identity and role is spelled out in this hymn only in relation to Jesus before whom John will go as a prophet of the Most High. John will prepare the way by giving people “knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins.” Vs. 77.
A couple of things are worth noting here. First, there is an interesting interplay between Zachariah’s inability to speak and Elizabeth’s speech concerning the naming of her son. Elizabeth’s naming of John is totally ignored by her relatives and neighbors who turn to Zechariah-who has no ability to speak! It is as though poor Elizabeth has no voice. But when the speechless man gives his full support to the voiceless woman, this beautiful song of liberation bursts forth, promising an end to oppression and violence, the dawn of a new day and a path that leads to peace. This is not the first time Luke’s gospel gives a prominent voice to women. We will see throughout the readings we encounter this year a deep concern for women and an intentional effort to give them a voice in the gospel narrative.
Second, it is important to note the wealth of imagery in this song taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is to read the New Testament in light of those Hebrew Scriptures. Unless you fully appreciate the wealth of promises, the richness of hope and the textured narrative embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures, your view of the New Testament will necessarily be truncated and distorted. I am convinced that the most heretical book ever published is the New Testament printed apart from the Hebrew Scriptures.
A word or two about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is warranted since we will be hearing lessons from that book this week and next. The first thing to note is that the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Philippi at different times. These letters were collected together and over time became integrated as a single document. The three letters in their likely chronological order are as follows:
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
It is impossible to determine the timing of the first letter other than to say that it was between the start of Paul’s missionary activity beginning around 45 A.D. and his arrest in Jerusalem around 60 A.D. There is no mention of Paul’s imprisonment in this letter. It appears that the Philippian congregation sent a gift of money in support of Paul’s mission work in Ephesus by the hand of one of its members, Epaphroditus. This evidently was not the first time the congregation had sent support to Paul and he is overwhelmed by this church’s generosity. Though Paul does not depend on material support from his congregations, knowing that God will supply his needs, he nevertheless rejoices in such support as it benefits his mission as well as the spiritual wellbeing of the supporting congregation. After delivering the Philippian church’s gift to Paul, Epaphroditus stayed with him to help in his mission to Ephesus. As a result of civil unrest generated by Paul’s preaching, Paul is arrested and imprisoned. (Acts 19:23-20:1; I Corinthians 15:32; II Corinthians 1:8-11). To make matters worse, Epaphroditus becomes gravely ill. The Philippians are greatly distressed by both of these developments. Upon Epaphroditus’ recovery, Paul sends him back to the Philippians with the second letter assuring them that, in spite of the circumstances, he is well and that his imprisonment is furthering the cause of the gospel. The final letter appears to be a fragment from a larger letter, the remainder of which has been lost. Paul is writing to warn the Philippians of some rival missionaries who are teaching the Gentile converts that they must be circumcised in order to join the church. This issue is treated further in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.
Our reading for this Sunday comes from the second letter, Phil B. Though there is some dispute among scholars over where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter, it is clear that Paul was imprisoned at the time for activities related to his preaching. I find most persuasive the conclusion that Paul was in Ephesus at this time. It is noteworthy that Paul begins his letter not with a description of his own dire circumstances as a prisoner, but with a word of thanksgiving for the support and partnership he has received from the church at Philippi. If you read further on in this first chapter of Philippians, it becomes clear that Paul’s position is precarious. The proceedings against him could possibly lead to a death sentence. Though Paul would prefer release from prison and further fruitful ministry, he is prepared to die for his witness to Jesus. He is confident that his little church in Philippi is safe in the arms of Jesus and that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6.
I think this is about the most comforting word in the Bible. After all, life is full of loose ends. There are things I wish I had said to Mom and Dad when they were still alive. There are activities I wish I had done with my children, places I wish I could have taken them, time lost that I know I should have spent with them. Although I would like to believe I have grown in wisdom and understanding, I know that I suffer from the same insecurity, fear and anger I have known all my life. There are days when I ask myself, “Peter, are you ever going to grow up?” Now, well into the top third of my statistically determined life span, it is clear to me that I have not the time, energy or wisdom to tie up all the loose ends in my life. So it is good to know that, where I can make only a very poor beginning, Jesus promises completion. I can die before the work is finished knowing that Jesus will heal what is wounded, reconcile what is estranged and restore what has been lost.
In this season of Advent our focus is on what Paul calls “the day of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6. I think that Paul’s word here must be set against warning of Malachi. Yes, the prophet Malachi is correct. God’s messenger comes as a refining fire to burn away all the chaff. That will not be pleasant. But as unpleasant as the refining process is, the objective is to heal, purify and perfect. Burning away the impurities is simply part and parcel of bringing to completion the good work begun at our baptism into Jesus Christ. Malachi poses the question: “Who can endure the day of [God’s] coming and who can stand when he appears?” The answer, according to Paul, is everyone who clings in faith to Jesus’ promise to use that fiery day to complete in us what he began.
Luke’s introduction of John the Baptist begins with a roll call of all the movers and shakers in the ancient Mediterranean world. Tiberius, emperor of Rome, was the successor to Augustus Caesar, the man credited with imposing the “peace of Rome” over the world (or a good portion of it anyway). Tiberius was a great general responsible for expanding the imperial borders. As an emperor, he was much less effective. He was known to be moody, timid and disinterested in affairs of state. In many respects he was an inept leader riding the coattails of his illustrious predecessor. Pontius Pilate, who we will meet later on, became prefect of Judaea in 26 A.D. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, he was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising in about 37 A.D. Herod the “tetrarch” (meaning ruler of the fourth), was a son of the infamous Herod the Great, known in Matthew’s gospel for the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Also known as Herod Antipas, he was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. Unlike his father who ruled all of Judea, Herod Antipas ruled only the region of Galilee. Philip the Tetrarch was also a son of Herod the Great and a half-brother of Herod Antipas. Philip inherited the northeast part of his father’s kingdom, Judah. Little is known about Lysanias other than that he was probably another regional ruler appointed by Rome as were Herod and Philip. His territory was to the north of Judah. For a thorough discussion of the political movers and shakers of this era, see Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) pp. 132-134.
High priests were selected and appointed by the Roman authorities, often with little input from the Jewish people. This practice did much to discredit the priesthood in the eyes of the Jewish people as a whole. So also did the onerous taxes collected for the support of the temple and the commercial activity in the temple courts-much of the proceeds of which went directly to the coffers of Rome. Thus, Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple not only offended Jerusalem’s religious elite. It was also a shot across the bow of Rome. Annas was high priest until 14 A.D. when he was deposed by the Roman authorities and replaced with his own son in law, Caiaphas. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 69. It seems clear from the passion accounts in the gospels, however, that Annas continued to exercise a significant degree of authority behind the scenes. Indeed, Luke goes so far as to name both men as high priests, though technically there could only have been one. Ibid. 70.
“The word of the Lord came to John the son of Zachariah in the wilderness…” This is a common formula used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:1-3; Ezekiel 1:1-3; Micah 1:1-2. Because word and action are largely the same when it comes to God’s speech, it might be better to translate the phrase: “The word of God happened to John.” Ibid p. 70. The word of the Lord comes to a prophet, but never in a vacuum. The word comes in specific times, in certain places and during the reigns of particular kings. These contextual settings are important because ours is a God that takes history seriously. The word of God is always addressed to a specific audience in a specific circumstance. To put it differently, God is one who gets involved with the messy details of our lives. So much so that the Gospel of John can say that God’s Word ultimately becomes flesh and blood, entering into the messy business of birth, childhood, adolescence, suffering and death. The world into which this Incarnate Word comes is a violent, corrupt and dangerous place. This is not a fairytale we are about to hear. Yet because this is our world, a world filled with destructive evils we have made for ourselves and because we cannot seem to escape the consequences of what our hands have made, the news of Christ’s coming into the midst of our self-made mess with the healing touch of God is incredibly good.
John the Baptist is introduced with a passage from the first chapter of Isaiah. These words were addressed to the exiled Jews living in Babylon in the 6th Century B.C.E. The prophet sees in the immanent fall of Babylon to Persia a God given opportunity for his people to return home to Palestine. The “highway” through the desert refers to the way God is making from Babylon to Jerusalem for the exiles’ return. The people in Jesus’ time were exiles in their own land. They were governed by rulers appointed from Rome and the produce of their nation was being extracted by Roman taxation. Roman troops, ever present throughout Judea and Galilee, did not hesitate to crucify anyone who dared challenge Rome’s authority. Into this violent and conflicted land the word of the Lord came to John. What then will this word be? What powerful forces will it set in motion? What news will break forth from the mouth of this prophet? We will find out about that next week!
It is also worth noting that, after Luke goes to great lengths filling us in on the identity of various powers that be governing the empire from Rome to Galilee, he turns our focus abruptly away from all these “movers and shakers” to the wilderness. It is here that God speaks. It is here where the news is being made. The events that are about to shake the universe to its core are not being debated in the Roman Senate or decreed in the Temple of Jerusalem. They are being announced by a strange preacher in the heart of the wilderness where nothing newsworthy happens-or so we have been led to believe. Luke would have us know that the real news isn’t what gets printed in the papers. It is happening in the last places you would expect: in the wilderness; in a drafty old barn; on a rocky hill outside Jerusalem where miscreants are put to death; in the darkness of a tomb.