Last week’s lectionary passage took us nearly to the end of Luke’s story (Luke 21).
This week, we go back nearly to the beginning (Luke 3), where we find a veritable “who’s who” of first-century C.E. ruling officials listed in Luke 3:1-2. Politically, Luke indicates, circumstances have changed; Judea is now ruled by a Roman governor, and the Jewish leaders operate under the Roman emperor Tiberius. Luke’s mention of them speaks both to his historiographical style and to his stated interest (emphasized in the prologue) in presenting an orderly and thorough account (1:1-4).
At the end of this list of leaders comes “John son of Zechariah.” By this point, Luke’s readers have already been introduced to John. We know of his unlikely conception (Zechariah and Elizabeth are “old” and Elizabeth is “barren,” 1:7), and we know that he is related to Jesus. Indeed, most commentaries note that the infancy stories portray John and Jesus symmetrically. Still, they are not meant to be seen as equals; the Baptizer is “great” before the Lord (1:15), but he is clearly inferior to Jesus. This so-called “step-parallelism” portrays John as Jesus’ God-sent precursor.
There is an odd chronological gap between 2:52, which simply states that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, to 3:1, where John comes on the scene fully grown. So startling is this jump that some redaction critics have suggested that the original beginning of Luke’s Gospel was 3:1 and Luke 1 and 2 were added later. One need not engage in source-critical debates to wonder why the narrator skips over Jesus’ and John’s childhoods (with the exception of 2:41-52), especially given that ancient Greco-Roman biographies often did include a hero’s early years. Why does Luke move so suddenly from a story of Jesus at twelve (2:41-52) to the account of John as an adult (3:1-6)?
One effect of the leap from the young Jesus to the adult John is to draw attention to the fulfillment of previous prophecies about John’s role. The angel Gabriel had told Zechariah:
And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him. (1:16-17)
Zechariah had then reiterated:
And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. (1:76-77)
By collapsing the timeline of some thirty years into the space between two verses, Luke makes the prophecies about John the Baptist seem to be fulfilled instantaneously. This storytelling technique subtly reinforces the Lukan theme of divine fulfillment.
Luke reinforces divine fulfillment further by citing the prophet Isaiah (“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord …’,” 3:4-6). Luke 3:1-6 situates John the Baptist as a threshold figure, a prophet standing in the gap between the Hebrew prophets of old (like Isaiah) and the promised prophet to come (Jesus).
Given this connection to the Hebrew prophetic tradition, it’s unsurprising that the word of God comes to John “in the wilderness (eremos)” (3:2). The significance of the wilderness was established in Jewish tradition long before John the Baptist showed up there. The Hebrew Bible portrays the wilderness as a place of desolation and scarcity, but also (counter-intuitively, perhaps) as a place of safety and divine provision.
Think, for example, of God’s interventions as Moses leads the people of Israel through their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, as the young David runs to the desert to escape Saul’s wrath, or as the prophet Elijah flees from persecution into the wilderness. Wilderness imagery permeates prophetic texts, also, and includes promise of abundance and joy (such as Isaiah 35:1: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom …”).
Luke picks up and makes use of the above associations in his depiction of John. Notice, too, the often-overlooked detail in Luke 1:80: “The child [John] grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” John the Baptist does not simply appear one day in the desert. Luke suggests that his growth and spiritual strength actually develop there.
This is a hopeful and necessary message for us today. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine our world as a desert. Scarcity, isolation, hunger, and violence seem to rule the day. The pain and injustice around us can make us wonder whether God is at work in this wilderness. But Luke suggests that the wilderness is precisely where God provides what we need, so that we can now be the ones “crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
Luke carries these themes throughout the Gospel. “Led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (4:1), Jesus withstands the devil’s temptations and returns “filled with the power of the Spirit” to enter into public ministry (4:14). Again and again, when people’s needs and demands increase, Jesus withdraws to deserted places to commune with God:
But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. (5:15-16)
Jesus teaches his disciples to do the same. After their return from missionary activities, “he took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida” (9:10). In order to be able to carry on ministry, Jesus — and his followers, then and now — need the space, solitude, and divine provision found in the wilderness.
Malachi 3:1 introduces a figure whom God calls “my messenger.”
His appellative makes a curious pun, for Malachi’s name in Hebrew literally means “my messenger.” Perhaps, the prophet has so apropos a name for what he is called to do that we are tempted to suspect Malachi may well have been his sobriquet. He is not the only messenger of the Lord; however, he is a paragon of what a messenger of God is supposed to do.
Through his ministry, God will restore the world to purity once again. To deliver the message, Malachi is going to live out the spirit of the famous courier’s creed brandished on the US Postal Service Building on Eighth Avenue, New York City, USA. The inscription, which can be traced as far back as to Herodotus, reads, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The prophet plays a critical role in the fulfillment of God’s plan.
God’s messenger will clear obstacles to the Lord’s coming (verse 1a). The prophet is commissioned to do that by the Lord of hosts (Yahweh Sabaoth, verse 1b; see also verses 5 and 6). Invoking the traditional regnal name of God, Malachi presents the divine visit as an exercise of the Sovereign Lord’s rule. An impactful event that will transform the world is about to be unfolded. The beginning of the passage highlights this expectation with a Hebrew particle (hineni; “See” in NRSV) — the presentative whose grammatical function is to call attention to what is about to be set forth.
The context of the passage provides a preview of the purpose of God’s announced coming. The immediately preceding verses (2:10-17) charge Judah with violating the covenant. The state of affairs has engendered horrid complaints about God’s perceived permissiveness or collapse of divine justice (verse 17). God is coming to rectify the corrupt state of the world (3:1-4).
The prophet underscores God’s pursuit of purification with a set of metaphors for cleansing, such as “a refiner’s fire,” “fullers’ soap,” and “a refiner and purifier of silver” (verses 2b and 3a). While these images suggest stringent reproof that is bound to involve pain, they also reveal the high value placed on that which is being purified. Like refined precious metals and well-washed fabric, the people will emerge radiant at the end (see also Job 23:10).
The prophet warns that God’s appearance will take them by surprise (see “suddenly” in Malachi 3:1). The prophet may hint at the dangerous possibility of the people being caught unprepared for the coming of the Lord. Yet no amount of preparation will enable one to anticipate adequately the impact of God’s appearance and the depth of the cleansing that it will implement.
The event is expected to be so serious that its process alarms the messenger himself. The prophet wonders, “But who can endure?” (verse 2a) The Hebrew verb used here for “endure” (mekalkel) is what grammarians call a reduplicated form, in which a part of the word is doubled (k and l in this case). Reduplication often signifies repeated action or sustained state. With the sound effect from the repeated consonants, Malachi invites audiences to imagine the challenge and struggle that will accompany the Lord’s coming. To endure the day, one will need endurance.
The plan of purification sets the reform of worship as its clear target. It is already made manifest in the location of God’s coming — the temple (verse 1a). The place of worship will be the starting point or the focus of purification, which will continue until the priests are able to present offerings in the way God requires (“in righteousness,” verse 3b).
The NRSV’s marginal note offers “right offerings to the Lord” as an alternative translation of the prepositional phrase in verse 3b, suggesting that the propriety of what is being offered is at issue. This focus on worship is in consonance with the main thrust of the prophetic book. Earlier in the book, the prophet says that the chastening will be directed to “the descendants of Levi,” that is, the priestly class, whose corruption is condemned in 1:6-14 and 2:1-9.
This purification of worship will be extended to the people of God (“Judah and Jerusalem,” 3:4a). The upshot of the reform will be worship that pleases God as it is supposed to do. The prophet points to the touchstone that will assess the fitness of reformed worship, which will be restored to the past before corruptions set in (“as in the days of old and as in former days”; 3:4b). There were other prophets who attested to such a time of innocence (see also Jeremiah 6:16; Hosea 2:15). Although the former pristine period is not further identified, the idea of such a time suggests that what is wrong today has not always been that way.
Malachi anticipates that the people will make crisscrossing responses to the coming of the Lord. The message that the prophet bears will inspire delight (Malachi 3:1a) as well as alarm (verse 2a). The intersection of hope and despair resonates with the liturgical image of Advent as the season of penitence that reorients us to God in worship. Even today, Malachi helps us imagine that the appearance of the Lord will take us by surprise — as all amazing grace does. Once again, God’s messenger prepares the heart of the people for the coming of the Lord, who will be soon in our midst.
The first chapter of Luke’s gospel is long. 80 verses long.
A bit ragged, the chapter twists and turns beginning with an initial greeting (“most excellent Theophilus”) and then telling the story of two birth announcements, one birth, one naming ceremony, a song and a prophecy. The lectionary passage for this week limits itself to Zechariah’s prophecy at the naming ceremony of the infant John the Baptist. Zechariah’s prophetic song, typically called the Benedictus, is an ironic moment in Luke’s telling. The old priest has been unable to speak for months and as he finally fulfills the angel’s demands from earlier in the chapter, he bursts like a dam. The words of prophecy pour out. I like to think that in the months when Zechariah couldn’t speak, he did a lot more thinking and listening than usual.
Part of me wants to hear Zechariah’s prophecy as an extemporaneous holler of a man finally permitted to speak. The text lends credence to this image by describing Zechariah as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Yet, this advent, I am taken by the idea that Zechariah used his closed-mouthed-time to compose some verse on the occasion of his son’s birth. All the silence gave Zechariah time to create something to honor the occasion of something holy. Like a songwriter or a poet marking a major moment, Zechariah has composed something fitting for the beginning of John’s life. When the spirit comes upon Zechariah, his tongue is loosened, and he is given voice to debut his new song for John.
The structure of the song is typical of previous Hebrew songs of deliverance (Psalm 34; 67; 103; 113) but it also seems backward for the occasion. Zechariah begins the song with the exclamation that a deliverer has been born according to the promises of God. At his own son’s naming ceremony, Zechariah begins his song by singing about his wife’s cousin’s kid. It is a strange moment, a priest singing praise of a different child.
Some scholars have suggested that verses 76-79 are a later addition to a hymn sung by the followers of John the Baptist. The last three verses are added to switch the subject of the song from John to Jesus. The song is made all the more confusing given its strange use of verb tense. The song assumes that the savior has already been “raised up” when Jesus hasn’t been born. Zechariah’s song assumes the promises to be fulfilled without the agent of fulfillment having yet arrived. The conclusion has come before the question has been asked.
In her magnificent poem, Before the Birth of One of Her Children, Anne Bradstreet, the great colonial New England poet finds time to reflect on the end while waiting for a beginning.
All things within this fading world hath end, Adversity doth still our joyes attend; No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet, But with death’s parting blows sure to meet.1
Pregnant, Bradstreet can’t help thinking about death. The impending birth of a child is the perfect opportunity to ruminate on the death that culminates all life. It is a natural to envision the end as you approach a beginning. Within the anxiety of the first day of class is also the possibility of graduation. Within the beginning of a new job is the question about the job’s end. So as Bradstreet swells, she ruminates on the coming death. In our imaginations, the end is never from the beginning. In our imaginations, the promise is never divorced from visions of fulfillment.
Within Luke’s chronological mashup is an important theological point about promises. Zechariah assumes that the idea that the fulfillment to God’s promises is coming, means that we can act like it is already here. Twice the song announces that Israel has been saved from its enemies (verses 71 & 74).
For Luke’s audience, the presence of war, the destruction of the temple and the daily indignities of living under occupied rule did not feel as if the promises of God had been fulfilled. Yet, Zechariah’s song announces that God is trustworthy, and the promises of God will be fulfilled. That the fulfillment is coming is an invitation to live as if it is already here. From this posture, John is given his vocation: prepare people to live into the fulfilled promise. John is responsible for helping people repent so that they might see the breaking dawn of the promise.
In the most troubling days of apartheid in in South Africa, the government began shutting down political anti-apartheid rallies. Amid this persecution, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead of a political rally. Held at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, the service attracted worshippers from all over South Africa. It also attracted hundreds of police who surrounded the cathedral in a show of military intimidation.
As Tutu began preaching, the police entered the cathedral armed with guns and lined the walls. Some took out notebooks and began to record Tutu’s words. Tutu remained unintimidated. At one point in his sermon he turned to the police and said, “you are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not Gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost, since you have already lost, I invite you come and join the winning side.” Immediately, the congregation erupted into song and dance. Faith in the coming fulfillment of the promise inspires courage to be the type of people who travel “the way of peace.”
The prayer of thanksgiving that opens Philippians describes the dialogue between present and future that makes Advent such a fruitful time for deep reflection.
The notion of “the day of Jesus Christ” needs to be approached with some sensitivity. While for many it represents a future time when the justice, mercy, and grace of God will prevail, for others it can conjure up a day of unmitigated wrath. For still others it may be marked by questions such as “justice for whom?” and “what constitutes mercy?” in the face of injustices experienced.
Paul’s language in Philippians opens up additional questions. Following the initial reference to “the day of Jesus Christ” — suggesting a temporal moment – Paul speaks of his death as the moment when he will be united with Christ (Philippians 1:21-23) in resurrection. The emphasis here is relational (see also 3:14-18). Of course, the one does not negate the other, but taken together they remind us that there are different ways that people think about and anticipate what Paul calls “the day of Jesus Christ”: as a literal day, a longed-for hope, or even a metaphor.
The dialogue between present and future is brought to the fore by Paul’s own circumstances. Paul (with Timothy) writes to the Philippians while Paul is in jail. The uncertain outcome of his imprisonment sets before Paul the very real possibility of a death more imminent than he had perhaps anticipated. Yet Paul shows no fear of death. He writes that to live means freedom to labor for Christ while to die means that he will be with Christ (Philippians 1:20-23).
His confidence, however, is tempered: “Not that I have already obtained this [resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:11)] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (3:12).
The path from present to future is not a straight line, but one filled with unexpected twists and turns. As Paul testifies, we are not protected along this path by our good deeds, industriousness, education, standing in the community, righteousness, gender identity, or racial-ethnic identity (Philippians 3:4-8). Nonetheless, we may find the resilience to persist, regardless of circumstances, by means of our faith/trust in Christ and by embodying the faithfulness of Christ in our relationship with God and engagement of others (3:9).
It is this resilience, sustained both by faith and faithfulness, which gives Paul confidence as he journeys towards the future. Yet it is not Paul’s own faith/faithfulness alone that sustains him. There is the faithfulness of Christ who “has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). And there also is the faithfulness of the Philippians, who hold Paul in their hearts (1:7; the phrase may also be translated so that it is Paul who holds the Philippians in his heart; or possibly it is intended to convey both meanings). This faithfulness has been demonstrated, Paul says, in the ways they have supported him from the first day until now (1:5), not only through prayer, but as co-workers (4:3), and also financially (4:16-18).
Although faithful in their support of Paul, the Philippians are apparently troubled by divisions within their community. Whether these divisions are the result of conflict between individuals or factions, or perhaps between the community and Paul (possibly suggested by Philippians 4:10), or a combination thereof, is not wholly clear. Regardless, repeated calls throughout the letter to ‘be of one mind’ indicate that the matter is serious, creating a stumbling block in the life and work of the community (1:27; 2:2; 3:15; 4:2).
Paul responds in prayer, “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best” (Philippians 1:9-10). It is quite possible that Paul has some very specific ideas about “what is best.” Yet all of us, even Paul, tend to see “what is best” in terms of our own self-interests. In our efforts to resolve conflict and be of one mind, we may deliberately or inadvertently silence those whose views are different from our own, with the result that conflict is simply suppressed rather than resolved.
Yet Paul’s carefully chosen language suggests that he is not seeking unity of mind at the expense process. In determining what is best, Paul urges that: “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight in order to determine what is best.” The verb translated as “determine” (dokimazein) can, in English, seem to suggest choosing one way over another, as if there is a single, right course of action. The Greek, however, suggests a dynamic process that involves scrutiny, testing, and discernment. Such a process requires taking time to become knowledgeable (not just opinionated), ask open-ended questions, and listen to the views of others in a way that leads to understanding.
In a world where Twitter rules, such a decision-making process runs counter to dominant social practices. It means entering into a process driven by questions rather than assumptions, marked by vulnerability, and that takes steps to expand the circle of conversation in order to produce a “harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11). Such a process is, in itself, an act of faithfulness that builds resilience, supporting us on the journey between present and future that leads to the day of Jesus Christ and the glory of God.