The Second Sunday of Advent, 7 December 2015

Canticle 16: Benedictus Dominus Deus
Philippians 1:3-11
St. Luke 3:1-6

Background: The Gospel of Luke II

In the Acts of the Apostles, the author meticulously allows for Peter and then Paul to replicate the miracles and ministry of Jesus. The following schedule allows us to see how meticulous this approach is, as the structure of Luke is then applied in Acts as well.

Acts of Jesus
Acts of the Apostles
- Presentation in the Temple
- Jerusalem
- Forty Days in the Desert
- Forty Days before the Ascension
- Jesus in Samaria/Judea
- Samaria
- Jesus in the Decapolis
- Asia Minor
- Jesus receives the Holy Spirit
- Pentecost
- Jesus preaches
- The Apostles preach
- Jesus heals
- The Apostles heal
- Jesus dies.
- Stephen is stoned
- The Apostles are sent
- Paul is sent to Rome

In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, John Carroll talks about the temporal and spatial relationships in Luke – an arrangement that points to a central theme. “With regard to space, the story begins and ends in the temple at Jerusalem (1: 8– 23 and 2: 22– 38, 41– 50; 24: 50– 53), by way of a period of mission in Galilee (4: 14– 9: 50) and a long journey back to the temple (9: 51– 19: 27). And the narrative sequel moves from Jerusalem (Acts 1– 7) to Rome (28: 16– 31), a core foundational narrative of a global mission that embraces the activity of Luke’s audience.”[1]

These are helpful comments for those of us so wedded to the thematic ministry of Luke to the anawim, the little ones and the poor in his Gospel. Here a much wider scope is seen, and the mission to the Gentiles is in sharp focus. That Paul and Luke should be constantly truing their ministry to that of Jesus proves a good example for any who would follow Jesus.

Baruch 5:1-9

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
"Righteous Peace, Godly Glory."
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look toward the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God's command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

Although the book is ascribed to Baruch, it was most likely not written by him. The text of Jeremiah sees Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary, accompanying him to an exile in Egypt. The Book of Baruch, however, assigns him to a place amongst the Babylonian exiles. This pericope is found in a section that deals with Jerusalem’s Consolation (4:5-5:9) and thus comprises the last pericope in the book. Here it is not the prophet or any prophetic figure that speaks, but rather a comforting personification of Zion who comforts Jerusalem. There is a transformation that hopefully takes place, with the formerly grieving Jerusalem now putting on a robe of righteousness. In some sense the vision here bears some resemblance to Isaiah 60:1-6, where the figure of Israel is glorified by the rising sun. This theme of the return of the people, and their being shown in glory is evident here as well, “but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne.” Here it is not only an individual prophet who shows the way, but also an entire nation that points to themselves as the coming ones (out of bondage into freedom). It is God who leads them and provides a model of faithfulness and grace. This is more than a commentary on John the Baptist who begins his appearances in this season, but also a lesson for anyone who would point out the way of the Lord.

Breaking open Baruch:
  1. In what ways has God brought you to happiness in the midst of trouble?
  2. What freedoms do you enjoy in your life?
  3. How do you use them for the sake of others?

Malachi 3:1-4

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-- indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 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; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Matching the themes that we have been studying since the last Sundays of the Church’s year, namely themes borne in the Persian experience, and roughly apocalyptic, here we see described for us the true prophet. Malachi’s oracles follow on the material that precedes it in the Book of Zechariah, and we are bidden to see “The great and terrible day of the Lord.” Unlike Zechariah, this prophet (Malachi “my messenger,” may not be a name but more like a title) comes at his oracles from a priestly viewpoint, with a focus on the covenant of Sinai. Thus he is our mentor on the covenantal tradition. Stephen L. Cook, in his article in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary provides rough outline of the work points out this task and point of view: a) The Covenant and God’s Love, b) Against the Faithless Priesthood, c) Examples of Covenantal Faithlessness, d) The Day of the Lord (from which our pericope comes), e) Repent! f) Judgment and Absolution, and g) Moses and Elijah as Mediators.[2] 

Malachi sees real prophecy as in a message or more specifically a messenger that prepares and makes ready for the coming Day of the Lord. The getting ready may be difficult stuff. The refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap may give us pause – for the vindication of the people is preceded by a difficult period of refinement. This grants to Advent a more foreboding aspect.

Breaking open Malachi:
  1. When you think about the end of time, what do you think of?
  2. Who has been God’s messenger to you?
  3. Who are the prophets of our time?

Canticle 16 Benedictus Dominus Deus

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

In Mary’s song, the Magnificat, we meet Luke’s theology of ministry to the poor, and God’s upholding of the widow and the orphan. In the Benedictus as well (Zechariah’s sung prayer) we also see glimmers of Luke’s hopes for the poor and the nation. It matches the covenantal fidelity that we saw in the reading from Malachi, “He promised to show mercy to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant.” The picture here is a complete realignment of the society that lives within the provisions of the covenant. Although Zechariah mentions the Davidic hopes, “He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David” it is neither that dynasty nor its monarchical system that will bring salvation. Obliquely it points to Jesus, and in a more pointed manner to Jesus’ message of forgiveness and of the new order in the Kingdom of Heaven.  This is a poignant message in the time of a powerful and elite priestly caste, and the elites who used the Temple system to keep the lowly in their place. Thus the closing statement is quite powerful, “To shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Breaking open the Benedictus:
  1. What is your understanding of our covenant with God?
  2. What promises have you made with God?
  3. What do you expect from God?

Philippians 1:3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

After Paul has greeted the Philippian congregation he offers a prayer of thanksgiving that forms our pericope for this morning.  In spite of Paul’s condition (he is writing from Rome, in chains) he evidences pure joy at greeting these people. He sees in them the promises fulfilled by a God faithful to the covenant (Malachi again) and sees them as being faithful and expectant for the “day of Jesus Christ”. There is a unity here a koinonia that is shared between the pastor and the people as both look forward to a coming time. In this prayer Paul outlines his themes for the remainder of the letter. If you have the time, it would serve you well to read how these themes pay out in the remaining verses.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. What kinds of relationships does your congregation have one with the other?
  2. Are you partnered together in the proclamation of the Gospel?
  3. How?

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

John the Baptist enjoys a focus in the central two Sundays of Advent. This Sunday introduces us to the character of the prophet in general, and John the Baptist in specifics.  In Luke’s attention to both space and time, he is very clear about the when of this ministry, outlining the ruling class from Emperor on down. Then we are shot out of capitals into places of desolation and loneliness, the place of ministry and proclamation for the Baptist. This specificity as to the elites gives us a clue as to time for Caiaphas was high priest form 18-36 CE. It is this nexus of rulers and hierarchy that will become so important in the Passion Narrative.

Luke will make great efforts to link the ministry of Jesus to the history of Israel and to their journey in the wilderness. Thus we meet John in the same place and condition. As Israel was prepared to enter the new land by years of wandering and penitence, so John bids his audience to do the same. The quotation from Isaiah 40:4-5, more expansive than either Mark or Matthew, concludes with this passage, that falls well into Luke’s theological program, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Here the focus is not only on all Israel, but also on the prophet’s task of preparation and proclamation to more than just Israel.  The content of Mary’s song in the Magnificat will further describe the intent.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How does John the Baptist repeat the history of the Israelites?
  2. What do we expect of him on the basis of the quotation from Isaiah?
  3. To whom is John called to speak?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Caroll, J. (2012), St. Luke – A Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, page 15.
[2] Gaventa, B. (2010), The New Interpreter’s® Bible One Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Kindle Edition, location 20840


Popular posts from this blog

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 6 June 2021

The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 23 May 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2020