Today’s Gospel begins not with the Baptist’s ringing call to repentance, but with a long and detailed list of rulers.
Luke’s litany of imperial, regional, and religious authorities does more than date John’s ministry to 28 or 29 CE. It also contrasts human kingdoms with God’s reign. The claims to authority that Tiberius or Herod or the high priest may make are not ultimate. God’s people owe allegiance first and foremost to God. And it is God’s word that sets John’s ministry in motion. John has been commissioned to prepare the way not for lord Caesar or any earthly lordling, but for the one true Lord.
Like Moses, like the prophetic voice in Isaiah 40, John challenges God’s people to see the wilderness as a place not of desolation, but of hope. God is calling them, like the Babylonian exiles, to leave their captors behind and head home through the wilderness. God is calling them, like the people of Israel in Egypt, to join an exodus out of slavery into God’s promised fresh start (see Luke 9:31, where Jesus discusses his Exodus with Moses and Elijah). John preaches that the first step on this journey toward freedom is a baptism of repentance.
John’s hearers were probably already familiar with two kinds of baptism: the baptism by which Gentile converts became Jews and so embarked on a whole new way of life; and the ritual washings that the Qumran community understood as cleansing them, but only if they turned from their sins and obeyed God. Both types called for changed behavior. John’s baptism of repentance does too. Repentance (Greek metanoia) is not mere regret for past misdeeds. It means far more than saying, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Metanoia means a change of mind and heart, the kind of inner transformation that bears visible fruit. In the Gospel for next Sunday, when the crowds ask him what they need to do, John will spell out precisely the sorts of fruit God expects to see (Luke 3:10–14).
John proclaims a baptism of repentance that leads to release from sins. Release (Greek aphesis) is the same word that Jesus uses twice in Luke 4:18 to describe his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me … to proclaim release to the captives and … to let the oppressed go free … ” The release or forgiveness that follows repentance does not undo past sins, but it does unbind people from them. It opens the way for a life lived in God’s service. By proclaiming such release, John fulfills his father’s prophecy: “you, child, … will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness (aphesis) of their sins” (Luke 1:77). This salvation looks like a new dawn for those trapped in darkness and death’s shadow. It is light that reveals a new path, the way toward peace (Luke 1:78–79).
Preparing the Lord’s path toward peace requires overturning the world as we know it. John quotes the prophet Isaiah to describe the earthshaking transformation that must take place. Though his words can certainly be taken as mere pictures of road construction, in the context of Luke’s writings they evoke richer associations: valleys filled full, mountains and hills humbled (tapeinoo), everything crooked made straight and true. Mary sings of the God who has looked on her humble state (tapeinosis). She praises the One who saves by dethroning the powerful and exalting the humble (tapeinous), sending the rich away empty-handed and filling up the hungry (Luke 1:52–53). Jesus blesses the poor and the hungry and the weeping but announces woe for the rich and well-fed (Luke 6:20–26). On the Day of Pentecost Peter warns the people, “Be saved from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). ‘Crooked,’ skolia, is the same word that Isaiah uses for the things that must be straightened out. Preparing for God’s arrival means rethinking systems and structures that we see as normal but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked. It means letting God humble everything that is proud and self-satisfied in us, and letting God heal and lift up what is broken and beaten down. The claims that the world’s authorities make often conflict with God’s claims. Paths that seem satisfactory to us are not good enough for God. John calls us to let God’s bulldozers reshape the world’s social systems and the landscape of our own minds and hearts. God’s ways are not our ways.
But God’s ways lead to salvation. God’s glory will be revealed in Jesus, the judge who comes to save us. This is the good news that John proclaims, and it is good news not just for us, but for the whole world: all flesh will see God’s salvation. This is God’s promise, and our hope. Bring on the bulldozers. Let’s prepare the way.
Who can endure the day of his coming?
The prophet Malachi raises a disturbing question for all who proclaim God’s arrival with joyful expectation. Are you ready? Do you know what it means? Who can endure it? In the prophetic tradition, the day of the Lord anticipates God’s victorious kingship and a period of righteous judgment. Consequently, the prophets describe the day of the Lord with dramatic language that is both uplifting and fearsome. Depending on the context, it is the promise of deliverance or the threat of judgment. In fact, it is usually both elements at once. In either case, it is the might of God’s power that comforts and disturbs.
Malachi proclaims that a holy messenger is on the way, and this announcement brings with it both a promise and a word of warning. It is ambiguous whether the messenger in this text is a prophet, an angelic being, or God’s very self. Three different names are mentioned in verse 1 — “my messenger” (Hebrew: mal’aki), “the angel/messenger of the covenant,” and “YHWH of Hosts.” Commentators through the centuries have debated whether this refers to three distinct figures, one divine and one human figure, or three different terms for one figure. Some have connected the reference to “my messenger” to the figure for whom the book is named. The term Malachi means “my messenger,” and the term may refer either to the proper name of a prophet or to the prophetic function as the bearer of messages.
Regardless of the messenger, the message is clear: the Lord of Hosts is coming. The term “hosts” is a military term. It can be translated as YHWH, he creates armies (see also 1 Samuel 17:45). Its use in the postexilic prophetic literature makes a claim about God’s triumph over foreign powers. The restoration of Israel is a signal that YHWH’s might is far superior to the Persian emperor and his armies.
Even as the text uses martial imagery, the day that YHWH of Hosts brings is not a military conquest. Rather, it sparks a period of purification and refinement. It is a necessary process to prepare the people for the worship of God. The book of Malachi is addressed to postexilic Jerusalem after the rebuilding of the temple (ca. 516/515 BCE). It speaks to a priestly audience that lacks some confidence in the power and sanctity of the pre-exilic temple rituals (Malachi 1:12-13; 2:13-14) and certainly lacks reverence for their correct observance (Malachi 1:6-8). Yet the prophet does not disparage the Levitical priesthood completely, even as he offers strident criticism of their corruption and lack of obedience. Rather, the messenger of the covenant envisions the renewal of the priesthood that will restore the office to its historic holiness, providing for proper and faithful worship.
This renewal comes through testing and cleansing. It is the refining fire that brings precious metal to light, and it is the washing with strong detergent. The Hebrew term for “soap” (borît) sounds quite similar to the word for “covenant” (berît). Ironically, it is the soap that restores to covenant faithfulness, as the covenant is in some measure a metric of obedience. The purpose of divine judgment is not to punish but to prepare the way of the Lord. It is to bring restoration and renewed life. It is to train the people in obedience to the covenant so that they may offer reverent praise.
Malachi’s proclamation may strike a discordant tone with our Advent expectations. Our preparations are often informed by pastoral images of sweet baby Jesus surrounded by choirs of angels and placid sheep around the manger. Jesus brings serenity, peace on earth, goodwill to all. And while we can affirm that the coming of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, is good news of great joy for all people, this does not mean that Christ’s presence demands nothing of us or leaves us unchanged. Like a refiner’s fire and cleansing soap, the arrival of Christ in our midst calls us to reverent obedience and faithful praise. The good news is indeed that we will not be left unchanged but will be reformed and refined to become like Christ.
The prophet raises a challenge for each of us. As we proclaim Christ’s coming with Advent expectation, the promise of Christ’s arrival should prompt us to self-reflection and even make us uncomfortable. Are we ready?
What better text to preach on the Second Sunday of Advent than Luke 1:68-79 (or even better, vv. 67-79).
First, the passage is exquisite. The psalm that Zechariah sings in Luke 1 is one of the most beautiful psalms in the New Testament — well, in the whole Bible, for that matter.
Second, the song is perfect for Advent. The Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally “the prophet’s day” — with texts devoted to John the Baptist. But the Luke 3:1-6 Gospel reading — which has the adult John the Baptist striding out of the Judean desert to prepare the way for the adult Jesus Christ — is oddly out of place in Advent, at least the way Advent is celebrated in the 21st Century. The Luke 3 text disturbs the narrative flow of the church year as we celebrate Advent today as the preparation for the commemoration of Jesus’ birth. The Luke 1 text, which marks John’s birth, fits the narrative logic of both Luke and Advent much more nicely.
Third, the song’s theology is perfect for Advent. The song rehearses fidelity of “the Lord God of Israel” to the divine promises spoken in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus. What more perfect message can there be for Advent?
But first, a word each about Zechariah.
Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist. Like so many key figures in the Old Testament drama, Zechariah was an aged priest. And like so many of those Old Testament figures, Zechariah was childless. He and his wife Elizabeth were childless. We are told that Elizabeth was a “relative” of Mary, meaning that she was part of the same kinship group as Mary. Perhaps a member of the same “clan” — meaning a sub-group within one of 12 tribes of Israel, in this case the house of Aaron — the priestly tribe (Levites).
Oh, and Zechariah was mute. “Once when he was serving as priest before God” and he was chosen “to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense,” the angel Gabriel had appeared to announce to him that Elizabeth would finally have a child — who would be the fulfillment of the word promised by the prophet Malachi that the prophet Elijah would return before “the great and terrible day of the Lord” to turn the hearts of parents and children to each other.
When Zechariah was a bit skeptical about this promise — he and Elizabeth, like Abraham and Sarah and so many before them — were kind of old to have kids, Gabriel lost it a little bit, pointed the angelic clicker at Zechariah, and hit the “mute” button.
Zechariah’s prophetic poem
The song Zechariah sings is not just a psalm. It is a prophetic song. Even more to the point, it is a song of the Holy Spirit.
Luke’s narrative makes the point over and over again in the first chapter that everything occurring in, with, and under the births of John and Jesus was “of the Holy Spirit.”
The phrase translated “spoke this prophecy” is an inelegant and inexact rendering of the Greek (epropheiteusen legon), which more precisely means “he prophesied, saying … ” The point being that the speech is not a prophecy, as if “a prophecy” were a thing or prediction, but rather that the speech itself was spirit-event, a moment of God’s Holy Spirit breaking into the ordinary, mundane world. And bringing with it God’s preferred and promised future.
That Spirit-breaking-in reality is what the entirety of the whole Jesus event was about, according to Luke.
And it should be missed that the “prophesying” of the old man Zechariah, old woman Elizabeth, young woman Mary, and prenatally prophesying John, were all fulfillments of what the prophet Joel had uttered:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (2:28-29)
The tender mercy of our God
The theology of Zechariah’s song is elegant and ideal for Advent. The Spirit-empowered poem recalls God’s promises. The words of promise to David that “he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” and “the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham.” The promises of salvation from enemies, of redemption from danger, of freedom to love and serve God in holiness and righteousness.
And the song announces that these promises are kept in the nearly-twin arrivals of John and Jesus.
John’s own role would be to serve as “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,darkness and the shadow of death, to guide feet into the way of peace.
And when the first Christmas morn was dawning, the tender mercy of our God broke into the darkness of this world for all. That light still shines in the darkness. And the darkness cannot overcome it.
The opening comments and introduction in Paul’s letters often give us an insight into something of the key aspects of what will follow in the letter as a whole, but also an insight into the life of the church to whom the letter is written and their relationship with Paul.
In this case the opening verses of this letter highlight three key themes. First, that of sharing in the gospel, second the meaning of the gospel, and third, the “good work” that God does in the life of the disciple.
Sharing in the Gospel
Paul says that every time he prays for the Philippians he does so with joy; and he is joyful because they have shared in the gospel “from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:4). We are not given any clue as to what is meant by “the first day” but most likely Paul is making reference to the earliest days of his mission to Philippi (Acts 16:12-40). An eventful mission trip if ever there was one with a wide variety of people becoming disciples of the Lord Jesus. The focus of Paul’s joy is that the Philippians have shared, and are sharing, in the gospel. Moreover Paul then reiterates the notion of sharing in verse 7, this time they are participating in God’s grace. We should not treat this sharing and the resulting joy too lightly. Paul appears to be writing this letter from his prison cell — in Philippians 1:7 he speaks of his imprisonment — and there can be no more isolated and lonely place than the prison cell. Neither should we imagine that Paul is somehow superhuman and oblivious to the suffering he was undergoing, as if it all runs on him like water off a duck’s back. For Paul to know that the Philippian disciples were continuing to share in the truth and reality of the gospel would be to him as a light in the darkness and consolation in his suffering.
Love no matter what
But what does it mean to share in the gospel? This is not about turning up to church each week and being generous when the offering plate comes around. When we read Paul’s letters we should not dislocate them from the life and ministry of Jesus. To share in the gospel is to grasp the fullness of what it means to embrace and live in the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. A brief summary of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus might best be encapsulated in the command to love God with hearts, mind, soul, and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And, indeed, this is precisely what we see in Jesus. Of course, we do well to remember that this love is not a romanticised or trivial love, but takes up the demands of ethics (Romans 12:9-21), loving one’s enemy (Matthew 5:44), and forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15). Additionally, we would do well to remember the challenge given by Jesus as to what this means in day-to-day life. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). To share in the gospel is to love God and neighbor no matter what. Paul’s experience reminds us that even if you are persecuted and end up in prison because you refuse to stop loving, and refuse to give up the values and ethos adopted from Jesus, then you must carry on loving. The Philippians have defended and confirmed the gospel (Philippians 1:7)b and it may well be that they are suffering for their devotion to the Lord Jesus. Paul’s prayer (Philippians 1:9) begins with and affirms that they are already loving. Paul simply prays that their love might overflow more and more, because to love more is to share in the gospel more, even if that means they will suffer more.
God’s good work in us
What then of the “good work” that God is doing in the lives of the Philippian disciples and will continue do until “the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6)? Verse six is a well known and often quoted statement reflecting our confidence and hopefulness that God works wonderfully and powerfully within us. But, it is perhaps all too easy to think that all we have to do is sit back and relax whilst God does all the hard work — after all, surely we can claim this statement as the promise of scripture, God will certainly do this. But, I’m not convinced that it is all that straightforward. Paul is addressing a community who are deeply committed to the cause of the gospel, and actively share in defending and confirming the gospel. Paul expresses his confidence because he is sure that the Philippians will continue along this road. And as they do so, so also God will work powerfully in their lives to change and transform them, causing love to overflow from them.
Love and justice as the goal
The course and flow of God’s good work in us is seen in Paul’s prayer (Philippians 1:9-11). God’s good work begins with love (verse 9). But, Paul’s hope is that this deep and passionate commitment to love might overflow with “knowledge and insight” (verse 9). This is an appeal that their love might be right-sighted; that they might be wise and judicious in their actions, so that when the day of Christ comes they might prove to be “pure and blameless” (verse 10). Perhaps the best way to understand this is to speak of an intense and blemish-free reflection of the life and love of Christ. A final note here is that Paul anticipates that it is through their devotion to Jesus Christ and their life in Him, that the Philippians will have produced a harvest of righteousness (Philippians 1:11) — that is, plainly understood, they will have embraced the challenge of living and establishing justice.