Note to the preacher: since the lectionary splits Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s ministry between the Second and Third Sundays of Advent, you may want to read the whole of Luke 3:1-18 now.
From History to Confession
Of the four Evangelists, Luke operates with the most self-conscious sense of himself as a historian. For this reason, he at several points situates his characters in the larger historical framework and narrative of the Roman world. Hence, John is born “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (1:5), and Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem because of the census ordered by Emperor Augustus, “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (2:1-2). While the details of Luke’s history are far from precise, factual accuracy is not his concern. Rather, Luke is making a confession of faith: the events he narrates, though apparently small on the world stage — the birth of a son to a priest and his barren wife, the fortunes of a pregnant young woman and her fiancé — are of global significance.
The same is true of today’s reading where Luke pulls out all the stops and names not just one or two historical figures to anchor his story, as in previous scenes, but rather lists seven leaders both secular and religious. Along side this august company, John is nothing, the son of a small town priest. Further, he is nowhere, out in the wilderness. But readers of the biblical saga will recognize that this is the setting for prophecy, as it is to this John, rather than to the mighty, to whom, as Luke narrates simply, “the word of God came.”
While Luke gives less attention to John’s garb or diet than Matthew or Mark, he nevertheless also sees him as a — and perhaps as the last and culminating — representative of the Old Testament prophets. He was of priestly lineage on both sides of his family (1:5), is named by the angel Gabriel as having the spirit and power of Elijah (1:17), and fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah (3:4-6). Similarly, John, moved by the word of God, plays two characteristically prophetic roles: (1) He calls for repentance and, indeed, proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and (2) he also precedes, prepares the way for, and foretells the coming of the Messiah, the one who is the salvation of Israel.
In this way, John serves as the hinge of history, drawing to a close the age of the law and the prophets and inaugurating the age of redemption when, in the words of John’s spirit-filled father, “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…”(1:78).
From Confession to Proclamation
It is tempting, in light of the discussion thus far, to imagine that Luke is making in these opening verses two ordinary and sequential moves. First, he paints in broad strokes the historical backdrop of his story and, second, he focuses our attention on the particular character of John who will advance the plot of his narrative. But I suspect the movement is less sequential than it is oppositional. Luke, that is, does not name Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas merely to set the stage for John’s appearance, but rather to throw in sharp relief the forces that will oppose him and the one who foretells.
As we noticed last week, Luke is keenly interested in the impact his gospel story will have not simply on the world as kosmos — the world, that is, conceived most generally — but also on the world as oikoumene — the world as it is constituted by the political, economic, and religious powers. John’s preaching of repentance, because it will literally turn people away from the powers that be to the Lord, threatens those invested in the present order.
Perhaps this is why Luke extends the quotation from Isaiah also employed by Mark and Matthew. The advent of the one John anticipates will not only straighten paths, but also fill valleys, bring down mountains, straighten what is crooked, and smooth that which is rough (3:5). In this light, it is perhaps not surprising that further on in the story, John’s preaching will ultimately lead to his beheading by one of those just named, while Jesus will still later be crucified by another. Those who are threatened by repentance and forgiveness, after all, will not go without a fight.
In these opening verses — which in many ways serve as the beginning of his gospel proper (with the first two chapters serving as introduction) — Luke lays out the primary dramatic tension that will occupy his remaining chapters. John comes preaching repentance and forgiveness, and the one who follows him, but is greater than him, will do likewise (even praying for the forgiveness of those who crucify him [23:34]). Both will end up dead, but their deaths — and even more, Christ’s resurrection — will shake the foundations of power these seven represent and stand upon. Indeed, by the time Luke writes, all seven are dead, a fact not lost on the community for whom Luke writes, while those who follow Jesus persist, and even flourish.
In this way, Luke moves beyond locating the story of John and Jesus in world history to actually locating — and reinterpreting — the history of the world in light of the story of John and Jesus. Further, Luke locates and reinterprets the history of the readers of his gospel in light of this story as well. Those drawn into this story, Luke proclaims, though perhaps beset by the powerful of the world, have nevertheless been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection and so will also and eventually triumph. After all, John’s preaching will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79).
Nor does Luke’s bold evangelical reinterpretation of history stop here. Consider again Luke’s extension of the familiar passage from Isaiah: it is, ultimately, “all flesh” that “will see the salvation of God” (3:6). In one stroke Luke reaches across history to claim all of his readers — then and now — who have put their faith in Jesus. For we who sit and listen to this reading about a nobody named John, gripped by the word of God in the nowhere of the wilderness, are likewise suddenly, mysteriously, and oh so powerfully included in the story of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation that begins here but ends only with the close of the age John inaugurates.
Familiar to many from its use in Handel’s Messiah, this passage from Malachi speaks of purification and judgment,
themes not associated in the popular imagination with Christmas. Nevertheless, Advent is, of course, preparation not only for a remembrance of Christ’s first coming as a baby, but also for Christ’s second coming, in power and glory.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of this theme of judgment in an Advent sermon he preached in 1928:
It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.
Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.1
It is an apt word to us in this Advent season. God is coming. God is coming as a baby in Bethlehem, but God is also coming again “in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as the Nicene Creed puts it. And our response? Any reasonable person should feel at least some fear.
The prophets make the same point in talking about “the day of the LORD.” Amos proclaims, “Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake” (Amos 5:18-19). Be careful what you wish for, in other words, because you may get more than you bargained for. The day of the LORD will be a day full of terror. How can it not be, as God “judges the evil in us and in the world”?
Malachi, for his part, also warns his hearers of the coming judgment: “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” (3:2). Like one who burns away the dross in order to refine gold, God will burn away all the evil within us. Like one who uses harsh soap to clean a garment, God will bleach out the stains that sin leaves in us. Refining gold and cleaning clothes are positive activities, but from the perspective of the gold and the clothing, the process holds the prospect of much pain. We would do well to feel some fear. In this Advent text, we are far from Bethlehem and the sweet strains of “Away in a Manger.”
We are closer in this reading, in fact, to the banks of the Jordan, where John the Baptist preaches repentance. This Old Testament reading is paired in the lectionary with the song of Zechariah after the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:68-79) and the account of the beginning of John’s ministry (Luke 3:1-6). The Gospel writers used Malachi 3:1 to speak about the role of John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; and Luke 7:27).
John the Baptist is the one God refers to as “my messenger” sent “to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1). He is, as his father echoes, the one who will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76). He is Elijah, the one Malachi foretells later in his book: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” (Malachi 4:5; cf. Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13; Luke 1:17).
If “my messenger” in Malachi 3:1 is consistently identified with John the Baptist in early Christian interpretation, “the Lord whom you seek” and “the messenger of the covenant” are most often identified with Jesus himself. It is the Lord who is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. It is he who will purify the people of the covenant. And, despite our feelings or fears about the matter, this is actually good news! Sin separates us from God. Sin clouds and distorts the good creation God made us to be. And we are helpless to clean ourselves. Enter the refiner of gold and the washer of clothes, to do the cleaning for us.
It is not an easy process, of course. There is pain involved in refining and cleansing. There is pain involved in dying and rising. But it is a process that is designed for our good, for our well-being, to prepare us for the coming of the Lord. God comes into our midst as Emmanuel, comes to destroy the evil in us and in the world, comes to draw us out of death into life. And though that is an alarming prospect, it is also one that should fill us with great joy.
1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) pp. 185-186. Thanks to Dr. Stephen L. Cook for drawing my attention to this quotation on his blog “Biblische Ausbildung” biblische.blogspot.com/2006/12/preaching-malachi-31-4-rcl-year-c.html.
Like a melody in a musical overture, Zechariah’s prophecy hints at things to come, while reflecting refrains from long before.
Together with other “songs” in Luke — such as the songs of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), the heavenly host (1:14) and Simeon (1:29-32) — Zechariah’s contribution to the musical score offers a symphony of praise to the God who is, who has been, and who always will be working among God’s people. The prophecy previews several claims of this Gospel:
As was true for Sarah and Abraham before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth are old, well past the age of childbearing (Luke 1:7); nevertheless, God has given them a son, John, whose life is caught up in the designs of God. John “will be great in the sight of the Lord…and he will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (1:15-16). On the eighth day after John’s birth, his parents bring him to the Temple for naming and circumcision, and Zechariah answers the question that is on everyone’s hearts: “What then will this child become?” (Luke 1:65-66).
God remains faithful to God’s promises Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah’s song begins with words of praise from the psalms (“Blessed be the Lord,” Psalms 41:14; 72:18; 106:48). It continues by pointing backward, to God’s long-established covenant with God’s people. This is the “Lord God of Israel” (Luke 1:68), who has raised up a savior “in the house of his servant David” (1:69). God’s promises have come “from of old” through the prophets (1:70), given first to “our ancestors” (1:72) in an oath sworn to “our ancestor Abraham.” Whatever else might be happening that day at the Temple–or later, through the life of this child–it is in line with God’s holy covenant with the people (1:72).
This is no distant God, content to set the world in motion and then to leave it alone. This is the God who comes “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79), the God who has raised up a savior for us. The promise given long ago through the birth, naming, and circumcision of John is the same as the promise given today: God is active among God’s people, here and now.
How do we know? Because God has been active among God’s people from the beginning. That is the testimony of the Old Testament, of Jesus, of the Gospel writers, and of the church. Zechariah’s song presents an opportunity for the preacher to bear witness to the ways that God is at work among the congregation, telling it’s story as a chapter in the larger story of God’s people.
God’s way is salvation Just as Mary praises God as Savior (Luke 1:47) and Simeon rejoices at seeing God’s salvation in the infant Jesus (2:30), Zechariah blesses the one who has “raised up a horn of salvation for us” (NRSV: mighty savior, 1:69). Before long, the day will come when his own son will prepare the way for God’s son, participating in God’s mission of salvation by calling people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:77; 3:3,6). It is a mighty task to be prophet of the Most High (1:76; see also 7:28), and the rulers of the age will not go easy on him–John will eventually be thrown into prison and beheaded by the king (9:9).
But on this day, when John is barely a week old, his father is filled with the hope that accompanies new life. It is the hope of salvation for all people: Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders, rich and poor, blind and lame, tax collectors and sinners, women and men, old and young, fishermen and farmers, Samaritans and soldiers, lepers and lawyers, and many others. As Zechariah waits, as we all wait, for the unfolding of God’s purposes in John, we look ahead to the one who is more powerful than he (3:16), the one who is to come, whose own name portends that all flesh shall see the salvation of God (3:6).
God’s path is peace Long before Zechariah, Isaiah spoke words that resonate today as much as they did for those who awaited a Messiah: “[T]he way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. “(Isaiah 59:8-9). As if in response, Zechariah sings a declaration of God’s purpose as a message of hope to a world in danger of losing hope: “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 the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). The heavenly host gives divine affirmation to this purpose when the angels sing at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God…and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14; cf. 19:38). Simeon does, too, as he holds the infant Jesus in his arms (2:29).
By the time of Luke’s Gospel, the Romans have destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, and news about Jesus has begun to spread beyond Palestine to pockets around the Roman Empire. In that context, no less than in the decades earlier when Elizabeth and Mary were preparing to give birth to their sons, the message of God’s peace comes to a world more practiced at the art of warfare than it is at the craft of reconciliation (cf. Luke 19:42). God’s peace stands in striking contrast to the peace of the Roman Caesars, during whose reign John and Jesus are both born and executed.
Luke uses the word “peace” more often than the other three Gospels combined. Indeed, God’s peace is a message that frames the beginning and end of this Gospel and permeates its message throughout. Here, near the beginning, Zechariah sings that God will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” His prophecy is fulfilled near the conclusion of the narrative when the risen Christ stands among his followers and announces, “Peace be with you” (24:36). In between, God’s peace is the gift granted to those who kneel in faith before Jesus (7:50; 8:48) and to those who receive the message that God’s basileia is near (10:5-6). It is the way of heaven breaking forth on earth when the Messiah makes his appearance (19:38).
In the end, Zechariah’s song is not simply a way to announce the birth of John the Baptist, but rather to proclaim God’s faithfulness, God’s salvation, and God’s peace. During this season of Advent, as we await the birth of the Savior of the world, we can pray together with Zechariah, “Blessed by the Lord God of Israel.”
“Friendship is essential to the soul.”
This is the motto of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, a black Greek-letter organization founded at Howard University in 1911. A similar statement could be made about Paul’s friendly letter to the Philippians. Much of this letter is about reconnecting and strengthening a relationship that is important to both sender and recipient. This relationship appears to be particularly important to the apostle since he is in prison: “for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (1:7).
It is common for the apostle to begin his letters with an expression of thanksgiving (1:3-5). What is interesting about this statement of thanksgiving is that Paul uses the verb deomai twice (deēsis, translated “praying,” and deēsin, translated “prayers”). The verb describes some sort of lack or deficiency, and so by extension means “to request” or “to beseech.” The more common term for prayer in Greek literature is proseuchē. For example, in Philippians 4:6 he says, “By prayer (proseuchē) and supplication (deēsis) with thanksgiving (eucharistia) let your requests be made known.”
In this instance, we understand Paul to mean a petition, although he doesn’t tell us immediately what the content of his request is. Many scholars believe that the content is supplied in 1:9-11: that their love may “overflow more and more.” The apostle adds that he makes these requests “with joy.” This is unparalleled among Paul’s thanksgiving statements. In fact, many scholars point to joy as the hallmark of this letter.1 Joy, here as in all of Paul’s writings, comes with the gospel through the Holy Spirit. In 1:25 it parallels “progress” in faith.
Another interesting use of verbiage in this expression of thanksgiving is koinōnia, translated “sharing” here. Translated variously in the New Testament, although usually as “fellowship” or “partnership,” koinōnia is a word that expresses the essence of Christianity. Meaning something held in common, as opposed to something “private,” koinōnia refers to the community and its participants (e.g., the state or the commonwealth). Greek philosophers used it and related words to refer to the social order. For example, Plato’s ideal republic had communal, not private, property.
In the New Testament, the book of Acts highlights a similar community ideal when it says the Jerusalem church held “all things in common” (2:44). Here in Philippians, Paul’s use of koinōnia sounds similar to the Pythagorean maxim that friends have all things in common. This is why scholars maintain that friendship is at the heart of this letter. The church is a community of active participants, each holding a similar status (whether “brothers and sisters” or “friends”), and having fundamental things in common. That is, the church is a community because of God’s call (see 1 Corinthians 1:9), as well as the justification, reconciliation, and sanctification that come through the crucifixion (see 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 30). More explicitly in Philippians 1:5, this “sharing” (koinōnia) is in the gospel; meaning the Philippians shared by supporting the preaching of the gospel financially — an idea of koinōnia found in 2 Corinthians 8:4 and 9:13 connected to the collection for the church in Jerusalem.
He goes on to say that he is “confident . . . that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). For Paul, the koinōnia of believers is the “work of God” (see Romans 14:20; 1 Corinthians 9:1). In this case, the “good work” is the collection or financial support provided by the Philippians. The idea of this being a good work is more Greco-Roman than Jewish because they saw wealth as a gift from God that enabled one to share with others. Thus, the Philippians are the work of God — the expression of a true koinōnia — because like true friends they share their financial resources with Paul and, presumably, with one another.
He says it is “right for me to think this way about all of you” (1:7). The verb phronein (“to think”) by the time of Paul referenced the notion of “practical wisdom” (phronēsis). It was connected to virtues like wisdom, justice, courage, and moral insight — a divine gift. This is because, at least in the way Paul uses it, the mind was understood to be capable of having a relationship with self as well as with others, including God. The apostle will urge the Philippians to “think the same thing” (Philippians 2:2; 3:16; 4:2), “think this” about Christ, themselves, and others (2:5; 3:15), as well as to think of “heavenly” rather than “earthly” things (3:19). Since the way one thinks is intimately related to the way one lives, this idea of phronēsis further underscores the communal dimension of this letter. Thinking and acting (i.e., “sharing”) in concert are the activities of friends.
Paul goes on to draw out the relationship of friendship between himself and the Philippians when he says, “for all of you share in God’s grace with me,” another employment of the term koinōnia in this letter. That is, the congregation, by sharing its resources with Paul as only true friends can do, is in partnership with the apostle in his vocational goal. Two important things are being contrasted here. “Defense” (apologia) and “confirmation” (bebaiōsis) are both technical terms derived from the legal sphere. Apologia implies the negative. Bebaiōsis implies the positive, which is why it is translated as confirmation. Thus, the Phippians’ support enables Paul to be a witness not only in the jail cell but also in the courtroom.
As I said, friendship is at the heart of this letter. The love that is philia is what makes true community (koinōnia) possible, especially as described by Aristotle in his Politics. It involves activities that express commonality, thinking and sharing things in common. As described by the apostle, friendship is a spiritual matter.
1Terms from the verb chairein appear 16 times in Philippians.