Sermon Seeds: Written in the Book
Sunday, December 5, 2021
Second Sunday of Advent | Year C
(Liturgical Color: Violet or Blue)
Baruch 5:1–9 or Malachi 3:1–4
Written in the Book
The Gracious Promise (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
The Gospel according to Luke is the book of redemption. Luke displays particular concern for the marginalized and the dis-eased, whether from physical, spiritual, relational, or societal origins. This narrative, like the other gospel accounts, reaches back to the Hebrew Scriptures in remembrance of the past, linkage to the present, and direction for the future. Of course, this text does not hold this characteristic uniquely. The other gospel writers connect to the other ancient texts in their own way. Luke distinguishes his writings, including the Acts of the Apostles, by connecting the witness of the Old Testament and Jesus privileging of the marginalized through a prophetic lens.
From Luke’s perspective, the prophetic mantle continues through John the Baptist, Jesus, and those who come to follow Jesus:
He portrays a Spirit-filled Jesus who pronounces prophetic judgments, predictions, and supernatural insights not found in Mark or Q. What is more, Luke’s Jesus often resembles one of Israel’s prophets. His birth is similar to that of Samuel; he performs miracles like those of Elijah; he is rejected as were Moses and Jeremiah; he predicts the destruction of Jerusalem in the words of Hosea, Zechariah, Zephaniah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. All this leads other characters in Luke’s narrative to recognize Jesus as a prophet. Moreover, Jesus is not the only prophet in Luke’s two-volume work. Luke extends the motif to Jesus’ forerunner John as well as to Jesus’ followers—especially Peter and Paul—as portrayed in the Gospel’s sequel, the book of Acts. According to Luke, those who bear witness to Jesus are prophets. They, too, are filled with the Holy Spirit.Jocelyn Whirter
At times, it seems as if Christian teaching considers John the Baptist as finalizing the prophetic tradition, when the closer reality is that his ministry marks a pivot in redemption history. His message remains urgent and unapologetically calls for a turning and returning to God; this is consistent with the prophets of old. At the same time, John receives the responsibility to announce that the long-held promise is finally being manifested. The hope of generations will come to pass for this generation.
What do we do on the cusp of our dreams coming true?
We may struggle to believe it. We may cling tightly in fear that the moment is transitory and will slip away. We may look for reasons to protect ourselves through suspicion, distrust, and denial. Or, perhaps, we search for the signs that what is being revealed is true, real, and trustworthy.
The prophetic message contains the tension of warning and promise. Good news for the marginalized and oppressed threatens the comfort of the oppressor and those who benefit from a smoother path forged by the brick laying of others. This week’s passage opens by introducing John the Baptist in part by situating his message in the political environment of the day:
The opening verses of our passage establish John’s identity. The impressive list of political and religious rulers not only couches the narrative in history. It also confirms John as an Old Testament-style prophet whose work is introduced by referencing the ruler in whose reign (and against whom) he will speak the word of the Lord….As with the rulers addressed by prophets of old, the stature and power of those in charge are formidable. They will prove dangerous, not only to the prophet but also to the one whose coming he announces.Christine Chakoian
The gospel is good news but it presents no fairy tale. These prophets live as perilous lives as their Hebrew predecessors. In keeping with that tradition, the words of hope promise liberation and redemption to those forced into perpetual valley dwelling. At the same time, the message promises an end to a world out of order for those who build their mountaintop abodes on the backs of those held down in low places.
Advent in comfortable and privileged communities of faith would be well served to reclaim the early sense of the season even as it undoubtedly causes discomfort. The reason that Jesus was rejected by so many religious people in his day was simply because they didn’t want to hear it anymore than rulers and leaders wanted to hear from Elijah, Malachi, or Isaiah. Speaking truth to power does not win popularity contests or favor among the powerful. But, it will attract a following of those who recognize truth. John the Baptist didn’t minister in the formal places designated for worship. He didn’t receive authorization or recognition from religious leaders. In fact, his relationship with the powerful was distinctly antagonistic. As Clint Burnett notes, “Luke’s dating system also introduces several antagonists into his narrative. Readers who are familiar with Jewish tradition would likely also be aware of the strained relationships that God’s prophets typically had with earthly rulers.” Rather, he went out to meet the people in the spaces where life took place. This upends the cultural norms of the day and not only prepares the people for the coming Messiah in word…but also in deed.
Advent also holds the “already and not yet” in view. The hand of God is already at work, and still there’s more work to be done. Each of the gospel writers introduce John the Baptist early on in their narratives. Mark and Matthew emphasize the changing of hearts. John’s account explicitly clarifies John the Baptist’s identity through a confession that the prophet is not the Christ. In Luke’s account, the emphasis is on salvation. But, that saving work is not reserved for the work of the individual heart, but a communal turning toward the ways of the Holy One. This point is made more clearly as we consider the framing and placement of this version of John the Baptist’s introduction in the larger story:
Luke’s placement of these characters in relation to his infancy narratives is rather interesting and creates a sense of literary irony. The birth stories, which likely function as an introduction for the entire two-volume work, acclimate readers to Luke’s perspective. Therefore, as readers of the gospel encounter the Emperor Tiberius and other earthly rulers, they are already aware that God has begun a great divine reversal and “scattered the proud,” “brought down the powerful from their thrones,” and “lifted up the lowly” (1:5153).’ As a result, Luke encourages readers to form a negative opinion of the rulers of 3:l-2a, and see them as antagonistic forces throughout his work.Clint Burnett
Luke’s account is decidedly political. He cautions the reader against aligning with earthly rulers who use their power to lift up themselves rather than bringing up the lowly. Luke’s gospel presents the kindom of God in stark contrast and opposition to the rulers and reign of this world. John the Baptist helps to usher in that proclamation.
Which world order do we proclaim today? Have we fallen into the lure of earthly power and reduced the kindom of God into a side to root for rather than an assignment to participate in the redemption of the Creator’s creation? Marvin A. McMickle challenges the church to be what she was birthed to be rather than cling to what makes her comfortable:
People long “to see the salvation of God” (v. 6). They eagerly wait for the day when crooked things will be made straight and rough ways made smooth (v. 5). Sadly, all that most churchgoers do is wait for God to do this work alone. Rather than using its resources and influence to help shape a just society, the church merely waits for the day to come. John calls upon the church to repent of its sins and then to challenge the world to do the same….Today, we must declare that same message of repentance as a first step on the road to becoming a just society, the beloved community, and to God’s reign in our midst!Marvin A. McMickle
The words of Isaiah recited by John speak of preparation for a journey we are called to take. The valleys and mountains will level out, the roads will become passable, but we still have to navigate them.
These are the signs that inform us that God is at work in our midst. There is a song that Bishop Paul S. Morton sings that prays to the Sovereign One that in whatever God is doing, “please don’t do it without me.” That is a response to the call coming from the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist that prepares for the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ that then calls followers to join, proclaim the good news, and continue the work.
As we navigate this season of anticipation and remembrance, let us remember that our story continues to be written. Where is God moving…and how is God preparing the way for the next leg of our journey?
Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study. For the season of Advent 2021, these passages/pericopes were curated by Rev. Mark Koyama and Harriet Ward:
Those Winter Sundays By Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
For further reflection:
“O Heavenly Children, God’s messengers are as limitless as the fish in the sea. They come in all colors, regions, languages and creeds. But their message is one and the same, don’t you see? He only wishes to unite all His children under one family tree.” ― Suzy Kassem
“We all serve as a vessel to be messengers for one another. Are you sharing the messages you are inspired to speak? Someone is waiting to hear your words.” ― Nanette Mathews
“We must allow the Word of God to confront us, to disturb our security, to undermine our complacency and to overthrow our patterns of thought and behavior.” ― John Stott
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the congregation to send a message of hope, peace, joy, and love into the world that can be distilled into a sentence or two. Turn those messages into ornaments, social media posts, Christmas cards, etc. that can be shared widely.
Burnett, Clint. “Eschatological Prophet of Restoration: Luke’s Theological Portrait of John the Baptist in Luke
3:1-6.” Neotestamentica 47, no. 1 (2013): 1–24.
Chakoian, Christine. “Luke 3:1-16.” Interpretation 53, no. 4 (October 1999): 400–404.
McMickle, Marvin A. “Second Sunday of Advent.” Andrews, Dale P. et al, Ed., Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012.
McWhirter, Jocelyn. Rejected Prophets: Jesus and His Witnesses in Luke-Acts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Baruch 5:1–9 or Malachi 3:1–4
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
2 Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
3 for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
4 For God will give you evermore the name,
“Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”
5 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.
6 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.
7 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.
8 The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God’s command.
9 For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
3 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. 2 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 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. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 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. 7 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. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
3 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, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 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.
5 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;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”