In a world where religion and politics are often intermingled with confusing, alarming, and even devastating results, and in a nation that defines itself in large part by claims of separation of church and state, Luke 3 may well sound like the advent of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
In the midst of the current election cycle, there is a Religious organization (the Alliance Defending Freedom) arguing for the right of preachers (priests and rabbis) to talk about politics from the pulpit…1 This is the kind of thing that makes American Christians (among others) nervous.
As is often noted, the staging of Luke’s Gospel employs temporal markers to situate the Good News within a historical landscape (cf. Luke 1:1-5). Here, the arrival of the word of God to John is not just “in the wilderness” around the Jordan, but in the wilderness of the political world: during the reigns of emperor Tiberius, governor Pilate, and “ruler” Herod. Luke’s purpose is to situate the advent of the revelation to John the Baptizer in the context of the temporal framework of the native ruler Herod, the local but foreign governor Pilate, and the final authority who sits above all, Tiberius.
This is a top-down look at the political reality of the day. In a sense, this would situate the word, which comes to John, and the Messiah whose path John prepares, in very bottom-up terms; the small, the unexpected, the apparently trivial comes as answer to the problems of the hierarchical political structure under which it is apparently pinned. There’s your sermon. Throw in some reflections on justice and the preacher is good to go.
But Luke doesn’t stop there. He goes on to list the “spiritual” or “religious” power-structure as well. Not only are Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod noted, but the high priests Annas and Caiaphas are highlighted as well. Now, it may be that these religious leaders are situated where they are because at that time the high-priesthood was subject to annual re-appointment by the Roman authority. It may be, then, that Annas and Caiaphas are referenced merely as another part of the political hierarchy. But there may also be a sense in which the religious parallel to the political hierarchy is intentionally an “other.”
The word comes to John in the midst of the messy reality of a world defined by both secular and religious powers. In the Old Testament books of Haggai and Zechariah, the re-building of the Temple in Jerusalem is set with a similar context of secular and religious leadership, but in a positive and hopeful way. The tension here seems quite different. Like a two-edged sword, the word comes to John, dividing religion and politics, and speaking directly to a wounded world.
So what is the word, which comes, interjecting itself in both the political and religious realms? Two things stand out.
First, is the quotation of Isaiah 40:3-5. This quotation, in Isaiah, has to do with a promise of return from Exile. God will make straight paths through the wilderness, a smooth and easy return — in essence a new “exodus” — bringing the people of Israel out of bondage and back to the Promised Land. The path is for the people; God-made, God-led. This is the proclamation of the prophet (Isaiah), made to the people; it is declarative, promising, hopeful.
In Luke the quotation works somewhat differently. Here, the promise is re-interpreted to apply to John. John is the one who is out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. The path is by the people, who are called to repentance, to return themselves to their Lord; God-focused, human-centered action. This is the promise of the prophet himself (John) who calls for a different kind of return to God; his message is exhortation, challenge, command.
There might be some temptation to see these different uses of Isaiah as simply contradictory, 2 at least from a “spiritual” standpoint; one promises God’s action, the other calls for human action. But there is no reason the two cannot be held in tension. John is the one promised who will make the paths straight, and prepare the way for the advent of Jesus — who comes to empower and finish the re-turn of God’s people to their God.
In the midst of a world divided by politics and religion alike, the word that comes to John is a call to return to the Lord.
A second key aspect of the interjection of the word to John is the summary of the content of John’s preaching, as of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s invitation is to ritual action, ritual cleansing, which is symbolic of a turning from sin and a re-turning to God. This, too, is something of a new “exodus.” There is ample scriptural support for such human-oriented ritual action, things we do in order to re-orient our lives toward our God. Consider the following:
The baptism that John proclaims is not to be confused with the baptism, the one baptism, which Jesus brings. Rather, this might best be understood as the daily efforts to live into the grace, which is out in Christ Jesus.
1 Pastors to Defy IRS on Political Endorsements (Salon.com) 2 Compare: Isaiah, “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way…'” ; Luke “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord….'”
Both the readings from the Gospel of Luke and from Malachi today announce the need for white-hot and searing deliverance.
Two prophets declare the bankruptcy of God’s people. John proclaims the need for “a baptism of repentance” that will bring forgiveness. Malachi announces a messenger who brings purification.
In previous verses, Malachi lays out the reasons for this needed cleansing. The priests of Israel have desecrated the temple with disrespectful sacrifices. Judah has turned toward foreign gods by marrying outside of the covenant people. The people’s faithlessness has wearied the Lord. The problem is clear: The people have erred and need to be made clean.
Although the book of Malachi is deemed to refer to events in the years 515-445 B.C.E. — when the new temple was completed in the Restoration — the charges against the people pertain everywhere and in every century. We can say of ourselves, as well, that false prophets and priests among us do not uphold the righteousness of the temple, and that we fail to adhere to God’s commands, to fulfill our duty, and to build up our neighbors. Some who claim to speak for our faith do not urge us to work for justice or to care for those in need but rather endorse policies that privilege the already-privileged.
The poor among us lack enough food; we have not adequately cared for the sick and elderly. Earth’s health is shunted aside in the name of jobs. We sacrifice animals, plants, soil, water, and air for the sake of those who wield the most power. The word of the Lord, spoken by someone named Malachi, is a voice meant for all people. Malachi lays down what John the Baptist also tells us: the Lord is not pleased with your lives and your intentions — our lives, our intentions. Repent!
We are called to repent because we could, otherwise, not even endure the day when this one comes, let alone find ourselves rejoicing. Malachi rhetorically asks, “Who can stand when he appears?”
If we unquestionably assume that this coming one is the Incarnate God, it may seem odd to think Malachi is speaking of the same Lord. Why would we not stand when Jesus appears? We are, of course, set up to think of Malachi’s words tending in the direction we expect, because this is Advent and Christmas is only days away.
As twenty-first century Christians, we are given to think Malachi is referring to the one whose nativity is at hand. Christians have long used the messenger in Malachi as a foretelling of the coming of Jesus. When we hear “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6), we think of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. Malachi 3:1-4 is also appointed in Years A, B, and C on the Presentation of Our Lord when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, encountering Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-40). That pairing suggests that the refiner’s fire is the one over whom these two old prophets rejoice.
But it is not spelled out for us in Malachi’s words of promise that the one he intends is the Lord we know. Jesus does not refine us as in a fire. Jesus used such imagery, but he did not himself enact it. He died and rose for us; he did not melt us down.
Yet, in the conjunction of these texts, the fire could be read as Jesus. We are given powerful conflicting images of the coming one bringing both harsh clarity (even desolation) and sure salvation for those who heed the word of the Lord.
The relationship between the promised one and the refining fire is not necessarily an appeasing image. Notice how brilliant it is that the lectionary gives us these puzzling and conflicting images. To be refined by fire is to be melted. Made molten. Made too intensely bright to gaze upon. Hot. Fluid. Become a soup that pours along with all the other melted ones who have been refined. What the fire does not mean to keep evaporates. “He is like a refiner’s fire…”
Impurities released by industrial refining in our time have, we know, often settled on forests and waterways, polluting what was pristine. The dross has been left to trouble and kill insects, mammals, reptiles, fish, plants, and people. We have called it acid rain and fallout.
What is important for us to know from Malachi is that the coming one is a refiner who is will purify and refine the people “like gold and silver.” When these metals are refined, they are separated so that each can be purely itself. We, too, are made purely ourselves. It is an image of much in us that will be expelled.
We might ask: Where will it fall? On what will it land? Who will clean it up? But these are questions that come to us out of our own work to purify this physical world. They are not questions that pertain to God’s refining of us.
God’s purification takes our impurities to a place we cannot name or can best name by pointing to the cross of Christ. Our offerings to the Lord come not out of obedience to the commands of God but out of God’s graciously changing us from creatures filled with impurities to those who have been released from them. Malachi gives notice: a radical change is afoot. We are refined by the fire of baptism: washed as by the workers, named “fullers,” who clean wool to ready the fibers for cloth.
Only in the coming one is there the power to refine us, to make clean what is unclean, and to ready us to offer what will be “pleasing to the Lord…” This refining and washing power is beyond our imaginings, and for that reason requires many images to disturb our preconceived — and perhaps too comfortable — notions. This power makes rough ways smooth. Advent is a time of deep thinking about ultimate things.
The Song of Zechariah heralds the dawning of the light of Jesus on all who sit in darkness.
Once rendered mute on account of his doubt, the father of John is now the prophet who proclaims the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. His is a song of Advent, as we wait for the light that has already come and is still yet to come.
Before the angel Gabriel, an official emissary of God (see Daniel 8:16), appeared to Mary, he came to Zechariah, and, as the multiple allusions to Hebrew Bible persons and event show, repeats the promises God first made to Abraham. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s advanced age at John’s conception is a clear parallel between these blessed parents and Sarah and Abraham (1:7 and 18), as is the shame of Elizabeth’s “barrenness” (1:25; see Genesis 16:4).
Zechariah is in a priestly order; Elizabeth is a descendent of Aaron. Thus both of John’s parents are the descendants of priests, and Elizabeth of the first priest (Exodus 40:12-15). Gabriel’s promise that John will be filled with “the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:17) clearly identifies John as a prophet who will turn the people to repentance (Malachi 4:5-6). Zechariah’s doubt at Gabriel’s words (1:18-20) parallels Sarah’s laughter at the annunciation of Isaac (Genesis 18:12-15).
The immediate circumstances of Zechariah’s song continue this theme of the fulfillment of Hebrew Bible promises and prophecies. When Gabriel tells him of the coming birth of John, Zechariah doesn’t believe, and Gabriel renders him mute “until the day these things occur” (1:20). Eight days after John’s birth, Zechariah and Elizabeth take him to be circumcised, following the divine command to Abraham in Genesis 17:12.
When the time comes for the child to be named, Elizabeth, to the confusion of the assembled, insists that he be given the name that Gabriel foretold (1:13, 60). The people turn to Zechariah, who writes on a tablet “His name is John” (1:63); “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God” (1:64). The prophecy of Gabriel is fulfilled, and Zechariah himself is thus empowered to speak prophetic words.
The Song of Zechariah, traditionally known as “The Benedictus” after the first word in the Latin translation, is composed of two parts: verses 68-75 and verses 76-79. The first part is rife with allusions to Hebrew Bible passages; these allusions are again meant to underscore for the author’s Jewish-Christian readers that the promises and prophecies of Israel are coming to fulfillment in Jesus, and that John is the prophet who paves the way.
These verses are similar to psalms of praise for God’s deliverance of Israel (see Psalm 34, 67, 103, and 113). God has raised up “a mighty savior” (1:69) for Israel, literally “a horn of salvation,” recalling passages like Psalm 132:17, in which a savior comes from the line of David, Israel’s greatest king. This savior is the fulfillment of prophecies (1:70) and of God’s merciful covenant, “the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham” (1:73; see Micah 7:20), that Israel would be saved from her enemies (1:71).
Verses 76-79 are thought to be an addition to an earlier hymn sung by followers of John. Here Zechariah identifies John as “the prophet of the Most High” (1:76), who will prepare the way for the Lord (see Malachi 3:1) by turning the people to repentance (1:76-77). Thus the child born to Zechariah and Elizabeth plays a crucial role in the deliverance of the promise of salvation that God made long ago. Emphasis in the closing verses of Zechariah’s song is on Jesus as the light to all who live in darkness.
Again key Hebrew texts are recalled, texts that promise liberation from the darkness of captivity (see Psalm 107:10; Isaiah 9:2, 42:5-7, and 60:1-3). The reference to Isaiah 42 is especially notable. There the servant of God is “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison with those who sit in darkness.” By alluding to this passage in Isaiah, the author is proclaiming in Zechariah’s prophetic voice the divine promise that through Israel all nations of the world would be blessed. The “dawn from on high [that] will break upon us” (1:78) arises from the house of David to guide all feet in the way of peace (1:79).
On this third Sunday of Advent, Zechariah’s song is very much ours. We see the faint light on the horizon, and we await the full, dazzling light of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. We find ourselves now in-between, standing in that moment of the already and the not-yet. The light has dawned but doesn’t seem yet to have reached the deepest darknesses inside and around us.
The truth is, that moment of already and not-yet is where we find ourselves all the time. To live the life of a disciple of Christ is to live always in Advent time, knowing that the light has come and awaiting the light that has yet to shine in its fullest measure. Advent time is anticipatory time, and yet it is also frustrating, sometimes discouraging. The dawning of the light must sustain us as we continue on, in our waiting and in our living, and sometimes the wait for the rays of Jesus’ light upon our faces seems awfully long.
We may, with Zechariah, doubt that such a thing is possible. But also with Zechariah, we praise God for the dawn, seeing in it just the first shimmering of the peace in whose light we already bask, even as we wait for its full radiance.
Once a rule-follower, always a rule follower.
There seems to be something hardwired to the human condition in this regard. Psychologists tell us that first-borns are often very concerned with decorum and go to great lengths to maintain it. As a first-born myself, I have always resonated with this bit of psychological wisdom. I don’t break rules. Bend them? Yes. Stretch them right to the line of fracture? Sometimes. But break them? No.
Though I have zero scholarly corroboration for this assessment, and I’m aware of the dangers associated with this line of analysis, nevertheless I believe that Paul was a first-born. As support for this claim I would point you to Paul’s own account of his temperament: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous (perissoteros zelotes) for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). Luke’s narration of Paul’s conversion/commissioning experience bears commensurate witness to Paul’s own declaration of slavish rule mongering (see Act 9:1-2). Indeed, all of Paul’s letters reveal a man operating under a clear sense of right and wrong and he is not afraid to makes sure that others follow suit — another first-born trait.
Bearing in mind Paul’s temperament, we may see something profound about how he decides to open his letter to the Philippians. Our epistle lesson for this week employs the formal conventions of Greco-Roman epistolary rhetoric. The rules associated with this form of discourse were laid out clearly by Aristotle in his Rhetoric, Cicero in his Treatise on Rhetorical Convention, and in Quintilian’s The Orator’s Education.
Philippians 1:3-11 is the first part of what rhetoricians call the exordium, which is the opening element of arrangement that primes the audience for the conversation to follow (the rest being comprised of verses 12-26). Here Paul employs deliberative rhetoric to establish rapport and credibility with his audience. As Duane F. Watson convincingly argues, “A lengthy exordium is used with deliberative rhetoric when the audience does not fully perceive or attaches too little importance to the exigence, something the remainder of the epistle indicates is true of the Philippians.”1
Watson explains that there were two types of exordium and Paul choses the form of principium, or prooemium, which directly appeals to the magnanimity and attention of one’s audience. We preachers need little reminder of the importance of gaining an audience’s attention. So Paul, the good preacher, opens with this traditional rhetorical convention in order to set the stage for what was to follow.
This introductory thanksgiving paragraph follows the classical sevenfold framework of the exordium. It consists of 1) an opening word of thanksgiving (“I give thanks”/eucharisto) followed by 2) an indication to whom the author gives thanks (“to my God”/to theo mou) and 3) a temporal adverb (“always”/pantote). This leads to 4) a pronominal phrase denoting those for whom thanks is given (“for all of you”/hyper panton hymon) conjoined with 5) a temporal participle and an adverbial phrase indicating how the writer prays for his/her audience (“making supplication with joy”/ meta charas ten deesin poioumenos).
At this point Paul breaks the rules. According to strict exordium form, one should expect 6) a causal participle clause or an adverbial phrase that enumerates the reason for the author’s thanksgiving. Instead of one warrant, Paul offers three in verses 3-6. He gives thanks to God for the Philippians on account of the fact that • they haven’t forgotten him (“because of your remembrances [of me]/epi pase te mneia hymon) • they have persevered together in their gospel work (“because of your fellowship in the gospel”/epi te koinonia eis to euangelion) • and because Paul was convinced that God would continue to work in and through them (“being confident that the one who began a good work in you will carry it out to completion”/pepoithos auto touto hoti ho enarxamenos en hymin ergon agathon epitelesei).
The final feature of the exordium is expressed in 7) a subordinate clause intended to spell out the content of the letter writer’s intercession. Again, bending the rules of rhetorical convention, Paul includes not one subordinate clause but two (“[so] that your love might doubly increase in knowledge and discernment”/hina he agape hymon eti mallon kai mallon perisseue) and (“[so] that you might be pure and blameless”/hina ete eilikrineis kay aproskopoi).
Why might Paul, this rule-followers rule-follower, break with convention in these opening verses? By attending to these subtle divergences we may gain deeper insight into Paul’s apostolic purpose in Philippians as a whole.
By offering three reasons for thanksgiving in verses 3-6 Paul is outlining his argument against those who preach out of envy, rivalry, and partisanship (verses 15-18). Themes of joy (1:25; 2:2, 29; 3:1; 4:1), partnership (2:1; 3:10; 4:14-5), love (1:16; 2:1-2; 4:1), the defense of the gospel (1:12, 16, 27; 2:22; 4:3), and confidence of God’s abiding presence (1:25; 2:24; 3:3) are key themes in the epistle. Moreover, Paul’s double subordinate (hina) clause in verses 9-10 spells out what we might deem the thesis of the letter: those who abound in Christ’s love put aside petty disputes in love for one another and in service of the gospel.
This pericope functions as a kind of tuning fork for the rest of the letter and its sonic vibrations carry Paul’s theological freight with resonant frequency. Paul’s rule-bending is in the service of his message of love, unity, and a vigorous and unrelenting defense of the gospel. Paul isn’t breaking with rhetorical decorum haphazardly; his modifications conceal a purposeful intention to persuade the Christians in Philippi follow Paul’s own example (3:17), becoming slaves of Christ Jesus (1:1). By relinquishing their freedom for the sake of the gospel they will find the freedom to remain unified and faithful to it (1:27). Paul clearly breaks the rules in Philippians 1:3-11. Perhaps, just this once, for the sake of the gospel, we can let him slide. — 1Duane F. Watson, “A Rhetorical Analysis Of Philippians And Its Implications For The Unity Question,” Novum Testamentum, XXX/1 (1988): 57-88.