Sermon Seeds: Sound of a Promise Kept
Second Sunday of Advent Year C
Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9
Worship resources for the Second Sunday of Advent Year C are at Worship Ways
Additional reflection on Luke 3:1-6
Sound of a Promise Kept
by Kathryn Matthews
The Gospel of Luke begins, of course, with the story of the angel Gabriel foretelling the amazing birth of a baby boy who is destined for great things in the story of salvation. This birth is remarkable not because the boy’s mother is a virgin but because she’s old: this is Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah the priest, who is also old. These two have lived righteous and holy lives, but it appears that they are denied the blessing of children.
The story sounds familiar, especially after hearing about Hannah just two weeks ago, but this time Zechariah the would-be father appears to be the one who’s praying, in the depths of his heart, for what seems impossible: the gift of a child. Gabriel brings Zechariah the good news that his prayer has been heard and he is indeed going to have a son, whom he will name John.
Surprised by “Yes!”
Ironically, Zechariah appears to be unable to comprehend that the answer to his prayer might actually be yes, and he questions the angel, who doesn’t seem too pleased about being challenged, even by a priest. But, then, perhaps a priest ought to know even better not to question a messenger from God.
After Gabriel strikes him speechless, Zechariah spends the next nine months in silence; presumably Elizabeth enjoys many opportunities during that time to speak her own mind. When the baby is born, she insists, against popular opinion–and no one seems to know why the neighbors are trying to name this baby in the first place–that he will be named John, rather than Zechariah, after his father.
Full of the Spirit
How does Elizabeth know, we might ask, that the child’s name should be John? In any case, the old priest agrees, his speech is restored, and as he holds his son in his arms, he’s so full of the Holy Spirit that he can’t help bursting out in praise for all that God has done, and he looks forward to what God is yet to do (the text calls it “this prophecy” in verse 67). His prayer is called the “Benedictus,” which means “blessing” in Latin.
In this first chapter of Luke, we’ve already heard Mary sing the Magnificat; J. Clinton McCann, Jr., compares these hymns to the songs in a Broadway musical: the words tell a story and help us to understand what’s going on (Texts for Preaching Year C).
Singing our speeches
Like Mary, Zechariah uses language so lovely that we understand why this is really a song rather than a speech (even though Luke says in verse 67 that he “spoke” it), and why the church has loved it, and sung it, for so many centuries: this hymn connects the early Christians’ story to the story of Israel, remembered, redeemed, restored.
Israel, pressed down and even flattened by one empire after another (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome), is never obliterated or without hope of a future, because they know that God’s promises are true.
The elders remind us
Zechariah reviews those promises, recalling the voice of God through the prophets, the gift of the great king, David, and of course mercy and salvation even in the face of sin and in the wake of suffering, destruction, and death.
N.T. Wright reminds us that our elders are the ones “who cherish old memories and imaginations, who keep alive the rumour of hope,” and he notes that Zechariah “has pondered the agony and the hope for many years.” In Zechariah’s song, then, we hear the “larger hope” that “[t]hings will be put right” in the end (Luke for Everyone).
Turning the parents’ hearts
One of the most haunting lines from this first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is back in the angel Gabriel’s promise to Zechariah that this child, who would of course gladden the hearts of his mother and father, would also “turn the hearts of parents to their children” (v. 17).
Walter Brueggemann recalls the long wait and deep hope of the people of Israel, who looked for Elijah the prophet to return because they remembered him as one who “upset everything, healed things, made a difference.” They trusted that God would act to make things right, through one who would come into their midst to “reconcile the generations….[and] heal our families of old and young, poor and rich, of have-nots and haves…” (“An Intrusive Absence” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann).
Perhaps we could begin to reach across the divide between “the old and young” if we learn to appreciate the distinctive gifts that the different generations bring to the table. For example, the Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, calls Elizabeth and Zechariah’s generation meeting with the generation of young Mary (vv. 39-56) a “Pentecostal moment” (see “Where is God’s Spirit at work today?“).
Our story is part of a longer story
Scholars stress the continuity of the Christian story with the ancient story of Israel, and several read Zechariah’s “witness,” if you will, as a link between those stories, an affirmation that they are part of the same, larger story of God at work in the world, offering salvation to all the people (even the Gentiles!).
For example, Sharon Ringe hears the prophet Isaiah echoed in this song, and the theme of the forgiveness of sins recalling the Year of the Jubilee, which we will encounter again in Jesus’ inaugural address, in chapter four of this Gospel (Luke, Westminster Bible Companion). Also, Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson see Zechariah the priest “as authorizing the ministry of John, and, hence, the ministry of Jesus and the church” (Preaching the Gospel without Blaming the Jews).
Raising up a savior
Zechariah doesn’t just sing about God’s ancient faithfulness; he also sings of the new thing God is about to do, raising up “a mighty savior” from the house of David. In fact, he sings as if God has already done this great thing. Luke is telling us these stories together, but we understand why John is important only if we understand the central importance of Jesus, the mighty Savior, whose “way” John prepares.
Zechariah looks at his newborn son John, whose name means “God is gracious,” and feels God’s grace through the sweep of history as well as the promise of what is yet to be. How many parents have looked at their newborn child and felt a mysterious but powerful hope for the future of the world in the small miracle they’re holding!
Theology at unexpected moments
My own experience of parenthood affected my theology just as much as it affected everything else in my life. When I held my baby boy, also named John, for the first time, I became something of a theologian, long before I went to seminary and studied theology. As I gazed at that baby, I did not wonder why God looked at the beautiful work of creation and saw that “it was good.” I recognized that God’s creation of this little baby, in the same way, was good.
While I understood that “my” John was created in freedom and could and would make wrong choices now and then, I knew in my heart that we are created in beauty and innocence and grace, and that each new baby is a moment of hope, not just for one family, but for the whole world.
It occurs to me that Zechariah, the priest who knew what it felt like to stand in the most sacred place of all, “the sanctuary of the Lord” (1:9), what Richard Swanson calls “the center of the world” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke), seemed to be having the most profound spiritual experience of his life at home, holding a newborn baby.
John was important, too
Many scholars note that the story of Zechariah the priest long ago was the early church’s way of teaching about the importance and the role of John the Baptist. Marvin A. McMickle ties this Sunday’s Old Testament reading to Zechariah’s song in this way: “If Malachi 3:1-4 tells us that God will send a messenger who will prepare the way and cleanse the temple, then Luke 1:68-79 tells us that messenger is John the Baptist” (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C).
Yes, John was important, but he wasn’t the most important, and the early church wanted to make sure everyone understood the difference between John and Jesus. Of course, no one I know thinks John the Baptist was really the Messiah, but there’s more than one lesson in this story, as so often happens in the Bible. That beautiful moment, and that realization, and that hope in Zechariah when he looks at his newborn son…I think that is a teaching moment for us today, in the church.
The personal and the public, stories large and small
There are several more themes running through the commentaries on this text that offer good material for preaching in this season of Advent, when people are perhaps a little more in touch with the deeply personal and yet also yearn to connect with the wider world, in generosity and peace.
There’s that connection, that continuity, between our “small” lives and the “larger” events of history: N.T. Wright says that “Luke’s story vibrates equally with the personal hopes and fears of ordinary people” even as he tells the story of God at work in the sweep of history; “both the big picture and the smaller human stories,” Wright says, “matter totally” (Luke for Everyone).
Searching, like our ancestors in faith
Zechariah and Elizabeth are experiencing the most remarkable things happening to them personally, but they look at their little baby, and they see God’s promises kept for their whole people, past and present, and even more wonders to unfold in the story of God at work in the world.
We need to find the meaning of our lives, our stories, then, in God’s larger story. How do we do that, and how do the church and the story it tells in every age help us with this lifelong task?
Living joyfully in God’s presence, now and later
There’s also the tension that we often encounter between salvation as something that we experience here and now, the healing for our souls and our families and the world, even for creation itself, and the salvation that will come after we die, when we will live joyfully in God’s presence.
Mostly, people of faith seem to focus on the latter, on “getting to heaven.” And yet, those who live under someone else’s heel, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, and like Luke’s own little early Christian community that knew Rome’s harsh oppression, have to wonder when God is going to deliver them and punish “those who hate us” (v. 71).
However, according to Clinton McCann, “[d]eliverance comes not by the military defeat of the oppressors, but by the forgiveness of sins, by the light that illuminates darkness and death, by walking in the way of peace (1:75-79)” (Texts for Preaching Year C).
Marvin McMickle also emphasizes the message of the forgiveness of sins over the “prosperity gospel” so popular today that promises “to make people wealthy and healthy”; instead, we are reminded that God’s people are saved “through the forgiveness of their sins.”
This is where that tension lies in living an authentic faith: “walking in the way of peace” may be easier for someone not living under the heel of an oppressor (and that oppressor may be a “force,” like debt or illness or poverty). Christians have to discern where the “way of peace” leads them on behalf of others who suffer, especially if we benefit, even indirectly, from that suffering.
Perhaps McMickle subtly ties these two threads together when he claims that “God is surely a God of wrath where injustice is concerned, but Zechariah points to ‘the tender mercy of our God’ (v. 78)” (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C).
Righteousness is justice, not self-righteousness
There is, then, something very real, something embodied about this salvation, not just a heavenly, spiritual one but also a healing of the damage caused by sin and brokenness, violence and greed: a restoration of things to what they ought to be. Zechariah sings of forgiveness, of light, of holiness and righteousness. (More than one scholar notes that “righteousness” could be understood as “justice,” which makes a lot of sense if we’re talking about the damage done to one another and to the earth by our sin and selfishness.)
All of these promises of God and all this hope engage us in the story of salvation; they draw us in rather than relegating us to spectators on the sidelines. Do we embody God’s own tender mercies, right here, right now, toward the poor, the orphan and the widow, and the stranger in our midst? We can hardly preach on this text, this vision, this hope, without expressing our sorrow and concern, for example, over photographs of small children being tear-gassed at our border.
Pay attention to the women
In the Bible and in most of human history, men have claimed center stage and most of the power, but Richard Swanson’s reflection draws our attention to the women who seem to be bystanders in this story. (Actually, how the mothers of these two important babies are “bystanders” in these events is hard to comprehend; presumably, they were central to the births.)
Swanson suggests that Zechariah’s long silence, however much he may not have chosen it and however much it contributed to his spiritual growth, is underneath the voices of the women, Mary and Elizabeth, who voice the “powerful hopes” of their people: “Only after women have sung the hopes of the Jewish people into the story is that silence punctured. Zechariah reveals that he, too, shares the hopes that give life to the Jewish people. The story holds open the possibility that these hopes were breathed into life by the singing of Mary and Elizabeth, which he could have overheard in his silence” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke).
Silence, then, gives others a chance to speak, and a chance to teach us something, a chance to voice shared hopes and longings. The baby, John, is seen by his father Zechariah as the one who will prepare the way for Jesus, the “mighty savior” God has graciously sent, and so the role of this tiny child in salvation history is obviously crucial. How do you experience your own role in salvation history: as a participant, or as a “bystander” in this unfolding and yet ancient drama?
Barrenness as part of the human condition
Another subtle theme is the somewhat troubling one of “barrenness”: G. Lee Ramsey, Jr., suggests that we might reflect on the fact that “God comes to Israel and all of humanity especially in our waiting periods marked by barrenness” (New Proclamation Year C 2012). What he says is true, in that God often works most powerfully with and through us when we feel that we have nothing left to give, when we are at our lowest, when we feel empty and–a huge taboo in our driven society–“non-productive.”
However, the word “barren” is a sensitive one for women: we remember the biblical (and historical) women whose “barrenness” defined them as human beings, and their roles in any given story. We also consider the women in our congregations who do not have children, by choice or not, and how such a word sounds to them.
It would be worth a second thought on how we use the word in the pulpit and in Bible study as we work with this text. Still, the word “barren” can apply to more than humans, and to more than simply having children, so it can be quite evocative as a metaphor for emptiness, if used with care.
Reversing their fortunes
A recurring theme in the Gospel of Luke is that of reversal of fortune, and we are already hearing this kind of song sung by both Mary and Zechariah, in this very first chapter. According to Rosetta Ross, Zechariah and Elizabeth are not among the poor, singing of their liberation from poverty; instead, they are from the “Jewish upper class,” since he was a priest.
When this member of the upper class sings about God at work, making things right, he illustrates how there may be some surprises, and not just a few ironic twists, in store for us: “New sight, resulting from the dawn breaking in and giving light, insinuates possible paradigm shifts and the reversals identified with Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps those identified as enemies earlier in the song may become friends” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).
How do you describe peace?
Is there a better way to describe peace than former enemies becoming friends? Well, there is certainly a fuller, more comprehensive one, and the end of Zechariah’s song inspires writers like Marvin McMickle to draw a picture of “a time of wholeness, well-being, security, happiness, and contentment that will extend to all people”–which is what it means to walk “in the way of peace” (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C).
When Zechariah becomes a father, and when he sings of his joy as he gazes at his newborn son, it feels like he yearns even more deeply for peace; doesn’t our longing for peace in the world, and the healing of creation, become more pressing when we have children whose futures stretch out beyond our own? Looking at his baby, Zechariah sings of a salvation that is healing for the damage the world does because of sin and brokenness, because of greed and hatred and violence; he sings of a restoration of things to what they ought to be.
When Zechariah sings of God’s forgiveness, he isn’t describing a legalistic transaction, a reward we earn by our deeds, but a movement of the heart, God’s heart, toward us even in our weakness and humanity. But he also sees in his son the beauty of hope and the promise of God’s tender mercy, and, most of all, the promise of peace.
Repentance and peace
Peace: this is the first, but certainly not the last, time we hear Luke speak of “peace.” Randle R. Mixon echoes the prophet Isaiah in dreaming of a peace that is more than “the absence of violence”: true peace “allows the world to live with the lamb and the leopard with the kid,” which means that we need to do some hard work this Advent, and in every season of the year, to examine our lives, “both personal and corporate,” and repent the brokenness, the damage, we have caused.
Mixon makes uncomfortable observations: “The condition of souls and the condition of creation is troubled by self-centeredness, self-absorption, and failure to understand what is available in true communion with God, what God has offered us in the ancient covenant and offers us still in the coming of Jesus, the Christ.” Then, he challenges the preacher: “What might Zechariah predict that his son John would preach to us in this Advent?” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).
Such a seemingly impossible dream for us this Advent: that enemies might become friends, that emptiness might become fruitfulness, that the earth might be healed and the world might know peace. Perhaps not so impossible, for every light that breaks through, every blessing that heals our heart and gives us hope, every newborn baby that reminds us of the newness of God’s tender mercies each morning, is an Advent kind of experience, a taste of what is yet to come, of sign of what God is about. As Lee Ramsey observes, “While we are not yet ready to sing ‘Joy to the World,’ there is much to be grateful for in Advent” (New Proclamation Year C 2012).
Where can we find “the way of peace”?
When we consider those beautiful words at the end of Zechariah’s song, when we hear of light, of dawn breaking over us, we too feel a longing for such light, especially in a world, a nation, so divided today. While our painfully long election season divided us more bitterly with each passing day, we’re also shaken by mass shootings, massive wildfires and hurricanes (and environmental degradation), the rise in nationalism and racism and wealth disparity (violence in slow motion) and the threat of more danger hovering over us.
Many of us, especially during the holidays, struggle to make peace in our own families before grappling with the challenges that face us in the larger community. The world around us once again (and again) worries about terrorism and war in dozens of places around our now-tiny-and-well-connected globe, and we argue in demoralizing ways about how to “protect” ourselves while we respond to the needs and suffering caused by those threats and that ugly violence. Our defensiveness and fear do not speak well of us as human beings, let alone as people of faith.
And yet, individually, so many of us also live with illness, poverty, and addiction–as well as threats and violence in our neighborhoods and even our own homes. We may have relationships that are painfully difficult for us. We may struggle with depression, anxiety, and worries over financial problems. Our children cause us concern and our parents need our care; forces much more powerful than we are, and yet forces in which we participate, pollute the air, the water, and the earth that our grandchildren will need. The world seems like a mess much of the time.
Still, we gather…
And yet, and yet. We gather in church, together in a time of fear, and like Zechariah living under the heel of the Roman Empire, we know that we, too, are children of promise, and God has not forgotten us. We hear the story of God’s love, and, here and there, we experience that light breaking over us.
In our time and in the midst of this people, we listen for the story again, we wait in the darkness together, we gather our strength, renew our courage, and feast upon the mercy of God so that we can go back out into the world and be light and love for those who, like us, long to find the way to the path of peace.
What can it mean to be the Body of Christ unless we give ourselves to the coming of God’s grace and mercy, and participate in bringing it to reality for one another, and for each of God’s children? “And you, child…”: these are the words that God sings over each one of us, not just at our birth, but each new morning, God’s tender love rejoicing at our beauty, God’s tender mercies leading us onto the path of peace.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Fred Rogers, 20th century
“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
Black Elk, 20th century
“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams, 20th century
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”
Thích Nhat Hanh, 21st century
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.”
“There is a reality in blessing….It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.”
Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.
“Hope is a waking dream.”
Bill Watterson, 20th century
“‘How come we play war and not peace?’
‘Too few role models.'”
Carl Sandburg, 20th century
“A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”
Additional reflection on Luke 3:1-6:
By now the world around us is decorated for Christmas. Many of us have tried to make our homes and churches ready for the approaching holiday by adding touches of seasonal beauty: green trees, red ribbons, and bright lights for the basics, and myriad variations on the theme of home, from little wood or ceramic villages to gingerbread houses and Christmas cards with scenes of sleighs that carry families back to see grandparents for the holidays.
We spend so much time, effort, and money on these preparations that we often miss the enjoyment and, perhaps even more, the deeper meaning beneath them. Before we know it, Christmas is over and we’re both tired and relieved. We may even wonder, “What was that all about, anyway?”
The universal reach of the gospel
Thank God for Advent. While we shop, trim the tree, and plan parties, the church is preparing, too, not for a holiday but for a holy day. Our communities of faith are preparing the way for the Christ Child to come into our homes but into our hearts as well. Or is it better to say that we are preparing for the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh, into the world again, bearing hope and good news, forgiveness and peace?
Yes, Jesus didn’t come for just you and me, but for the whole world. Luke makes that universal reach of the gospel quite clear: the good news isn’t our little secret, our private possession or privilege: it’s for all of God’s children. Not just one people or one kind of people, or one nation, or one time in history, but for all of us, every nation, and every age. And it’s not just good news; it’s really big news for us all, today, just as much as two thousand years ago.
Fred Craddock evocatively describes the worldwide breadth of the good news in Luke’s story, beginning in the Gospel (Jerusalem) and continuing through Acts (all the way to Rome), “[encountering] not only…the poor, lame, halt, and blind, but also the synagogue rulers, high priests, governors, kings, treasurers, city officials, leading women, philosophers of Athens, captains of ships, imperial guards, and finally the emperor himself” (Preaching through the Christian Year C). Good news, for all of us, indeed.
A different beauty
And how does the church prepare us for this greatest of homecomings? By immersing us in a different kind of beauty: a quieter, more reflective time, with somewhat muted (and yet rich and lovely) colors, shadows and light, one more candle on the wreath lit each week…the haunting melody of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” running beneath our reflections, and stories of prophets like Mary and Elizabeth, Isaiah and Zechariah, all of whom speak passionately, eloquently, of God’s salvation about to break into the world, delivering us from sin and making us–“the whole world”–a whole and holy people.
And yet. There are no beautiful canticles from Mary or Zechariah in this passage from the Gospel of Luke, no visit from the angel Gabriel promising the birth of a Savior, not even the child leaping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb in recognition of the salvation that is approaching. (Our psalm reading is in fact Zechariah’s canticle in Luke’s Gospel; Luke’s mention of Zechariah connects the two readings.)
No, in this second week of Advent we actually hear from Elizabeth’s child, her son John, much later on, now a grown man bursting onto the scene from out of the wilderness, a man on a mission from God. This time, instead of leaping for joy as he did in his mother’s womb so long ago, he announces the time of God’s salvation by proclaiming a message of repentance, and preparation of a different sort: all of us had better get ready for what’s coming, he says.
Preparing the way, and the room
I’m reminded of a lesson I learned by example when I was an associate pastor: the senior pastor who mentored me in ministry, the Rev. Laurinda Hafner, used to walk around the church every Sunday morning, before worship, looking at everything through the eyes of the visitors she prepared for, lovingly, each week. She told me that she felt she was inviting them into her home, and wanted them to feel that we had carefully and thoughtfully prepared for them.
In the same way, John tells us to take a good, hard look at ourselves and at our world. The hour is at hand, the time has come, he warns, for a radical change of heart and mind, a dramatic course adjustment, a renewal of our spirits, a metanoia. This conversion experience is sealed and expressed in a baptism that expresses the commitment to a whole new way of living the life of faithfulness to God. This is much more than just cleaning house!
Finding John in place and time
Who is this prophet, John the Baptist? Like any good historian, Luke situates him in both time and place by reciting the names of important people who were in power at the time, both secular (instruments of the Roman Empire) and religious (high priests of the Temple).
According to R. Alan Culpepper, our system of dating events from the birth of Christ (the Christian Era, or Current Era, or C.E., or A.D.) was begun in the 6th century by Dionysius Exiguus, and Luke uses the more ancient method of listing the rulers of the period (“Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible).
It’s amusing to think, as Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen observes, about how the high and mighty would have reacted to being included “in an obscure tract of a marginal religious movement of the time” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). In any case, this is no story from someone’s imagination but a real, historical, flesh-and-blood, look-these-names-up-in-a-book account that confirms that God is at work in this world, in our very real, historical situations of pain, injustice, and need.
Hearing from the prophet
This is a God who hears the cry of the people, knows the longing of their hearts, and responds to their need (see, for example, Exodus 2:24). John, just like the prophets of old, is the messenger who carries that response to the people. Of course, prophets have a way of telling it like it is, and John is no exception, as we will see in next week’s continuation of this account.
Luke uses the words of another prophet, Isaiah, to describe John’s dramatic and bold preaching about preparing the way for the Lord, with mountains falling and valleys filled, crooked ways made straight and the rough ways smooth. Things will no longer be as they were, and this will come as quite a shock to some.
No wonder that God, then, didn’t choose one of the “important” people in the seats of power to deliver the message of the high and mighty being brought low, and the lowly being raised up: it’s easy to see why the powerful ones wouldn’t consider that news “good.” Perhaps, even under the heel of the Romans, the high priests themselves still had too much to lose. And so, William Herzog writes, “The Word of God came to a nothing son of a nobody in a godforsaken place” (New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007).
This prophet, John
Perhaps the people were beginning to despair of ever hearing from God again. After all, it had been a very long time since there had been a great prophet in Israel. “The spirit of prophecy had been quenched. God was silent. All one could hear was ‘the echo of his voice,'” Albert Nolan writes, that is, until John the Baptist stepped out of the wilderness and began to preach (Jesus Before Christianity).
John was an edgy presence, working on the fringes but actually steeped in the tradition of his people; Marcus Borg writes that he “stood in the charismatic stream of Judaism.” When John drew the people of Israel back out to the river Jordan, the boundary their ancestors had crossed hundreds of years before in order to enter the Promised Land, he reminded them, Borg writes, that they needed more than their connection to Abraham; they needed “a more intense relationship to God sealed by a ritual of initiation” (Jesus: A New Vision).
No doubt John knew how to “ring the bells” and stir the hearts of his people’s imagination and messianic hopes by quoting the great prophet Isaiah, which helped the people, Mariam Kamell writes, to hear John as “the voice that was to prepare them to receive the promised redemption” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).
What was John talking about?
What was the meaning of John’s message? There seems to be a common misperception about prophets predicting the future: “A prophecy is not a prediction, it is a warning or a promise,” Albert Nolan explains; “The prophet warns Israel about God’s judgment and promises God’s salvation. Both the warning and the promise are conditional. They depend upon the free response of the people of Israel.” John’s message of both warning and promise is meant “to persuade the people to change or repent. Every prophet appealed for conversion” (Jesus before Christianity).
“Warning,” of course, strikes fear in our own hearts even two thousand years later, especially when it concerns things like the judgment of God and the catastrophe that Nolan claims that both John and Jesus saw coming. “Promise,” on the other hand, sounds much better to our ears and hearts, especially as Christmas approaches, but our hearing of the gospel is only partial if we neglect one and focus only on the other.
The people’s memory of the wilderness is marked by this two-sided experience of God at work in their lives: they remember the feeling of being lost and abandoned by God, led away from the “comforts of captivity” in Egypt and disciplined when they worshiped false gods, and yet it was also in the wilderness where God fed them, provided water, gave them the Law, and formed them as a people before bringing them to the Promised Land.
Mixed feelings about where he’s coming from
It’s understandable, then, that they might have mixed feelings about the place from which this new prophet-preacher has emerged. Here, at the beginning of the Gospel and the New Testament story, John the Baptist is rooted in the Old Testament as well, a “liminal figure,” Herzog calls him, “on the border between two incompatible regions, the wilderness beyond the Jordan and the land of promise on the other side of the Jordan” (New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007).
John dressed and spoke like an Old Testament prophet even as he delivered warnings and promises about the coming events of the New Testament. Perhaps both John and Mary, the mother of Jesus, could be considered “liminal figures,” as Leonard R. Klein observes that “John the Baptist, like Mary, straddles the two Testaments and, like her, embodies both promise and fulfillment” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
Ancient, stirring words
In this beautiful season of Advent, the commentaries on our texts are especially moving. An example that stands out is Richard Swanson’s reflection in his book, Provoking the Gospel of Luke. As we read Swanson’s words, we hear in our minds the stirring words of the Magnificat of Mary and the Canticle of John’s own father, Zechariah, both ancient prayers of the church recalling and reaffirming the promises of old.
When we meet this John for the first time and listen to his words of promise and warning, we remember that “[t]he song that was sung at his birth called for the ‘right-side-uping’ of the world,” Swanson writes. “John’s entry into the story out of the wordless wilderness begins with a listing of those powers who hold the world upside down.” John calls the people of Israel to “a more thorough living of their identity.” (Once again, we hear the exhortation, “Remember who you are.”)
A world turned right-side-up
Swanson expands on John’s vision not only for his own people but for the world, “all of God’s creation, for the moment when the world will be turned right-side-up. This is a central and insistent perception of Jewish faith: the world is upside down.”
On the “promise” side of John’s proclamation, Swanson recounts the history of the Jewish people who had received God’s promises long before John came along, the people who “sang the song” as they held onto those promises: “And now John begins his career by singing the old song again, by holding out the old hopes, still alive and still strong even after six hundred years. He says that this very moment is the moment for which our grandmothers waited, this moment is the moment about which they sang” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). How gorgeous is that image!
Warnings among the festivities
And then there is the “warning” part of John’s message, the part that is harder to preach to a congregation (and a world) that is immersed in festivities and fatigue. Where’s the good news in a warning of catastrophe from a wilderness prophet long ago? However, Leonard Klein cautions us not to miss the Advent message of repentance in our rush toward Christmas and its joy; after all, forgiveness is at the core of the Christmas proclamation itself.
Klein’s reflection on the state of our world in an “era of tolerance and cheap grace” is both thought-provoking and acutely perceptive (like a prophet, perhaps?), for he laments the way we dismiss sin, and leave people feeling helpless and perplexed by what afflicts them. But there is good news here, nevertheless, for even sinners can come to encounter the God who forgives them (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Again, the glad tidings hold not only the promise of turning things right-side-up, but getting us right with a loving God once more.
Our lives, turned right-side-up
Perhaps we wonder, as we hear this text, how our own lives might be turned around, and how we might participate with God in turning the world right-side-up, even if the wilderness we live in looks very different from John’s. And yet the biblical message itself, in every age and place, calls us to be open to the ongoing work of the God who is present and active in the great affairs of history and the everyday events of our own lives as well.
This God who created the wondrous universe and set it in motion, who placed the stars in the sky and made the sun to warm the earth, is the same God who heals our personal brokenness, forgives our sins both great and small, and showers us with grace that empowers us to be agents of healing and mercy in a world starved for both.
This is God at work in the world
That may be one reason Luke makes sure that we hear the story of John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness as history, as real-life events and words, but it’s also why our response to the story is “real-life,” with our lives being transformed right here, in this world. In the United Church of Christ, we say that “God is still speaking,” but we also believe that God is still acting, as well.
What can we do this Advent to prepare the way of the Lord, or, as Richard Ascough puts it, to “re-prepare (or ‘repair’) the way of the Lord” (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001)? Here it would be wise to keep our vision both wide and yet closely focused at the same time.
William R. Herzog provides an excellent metaphor for the everyday, small changes we can make that will lead to a life profoundly changed, when he compares them to the “mid-course corrections that were part of the Apollo space program. The space capsule would burn its rockets only a few seconds, but the course change was immensely significant” (New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007).
Slow and steady progress
If we set our hearts and minds, one day at a time, on formation, on slow and steady and small changes, won’t we find ourselves shaped into people of stronger and more beautiful faith? A sudden and dramatic conversion may make for a good story, but so does the long and persistent, consistent effort to let ourselves be shaped by the Potter who loves us and never loses hope in the possibilities our little lives hold. The process may be long and un-dramatic, but it is filled with grace.
On the other hand, we can’t focus solely on our own spiritual health or even our own personal relationships. Clearly, God cares about the way our world is organized, and each of us has a role in shaping it. For example, in case we wonder how John’s message long ago applies to us thousands of years later, Richard Swanson describes what happens when the world gets “turned right-side-up,” when “the goods of creation will fall from the inverted pockets of the hoarders and thieves and will rain down on the poor” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke).
How do we react, in our present economic situation (whether “the times” are good for us, or bad), to such a thought? Do we feel defensive, or filled with hope?
The mood of the world around us
How do we connect this text about John the Baptist, a grown man coming out of the wilderness to preach warning and promise, with the mood of our congregations and the state of the world around us, in the midst of another Christmas season? Perhaps the pairing of this reading with Zechariah’s exquisite canticle helps us to pull together the themes of hope and longing with the need for self-examination and preparation.
What exactly are we getting ready for? What is this all about, anyway? Leonard Klein brings it all together when he hears echoes of Isaiah in the voice of the angel who brought “Glad tidings of great joy” for “all people,” for this is indeed good news for “all flesh,” all humankind (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
Good news, not just for them, long ago, but for us, and for the world God loves. Good news, powerful enough to change our lives, and that world as well: the world that God loves.
For further reflection:
Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“This grace of God is a very great, strong, mighty and active thing. It does not lie asleep in the soul. Grace hears, leads, drives, draws, changes, works all in man, and lets itself be distinctly felt and experienced. It is hidden, but its works are evident.”
Jim Wallis, 21st century
“The times in which we live cry out for our conversion.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 21st century
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
Miraslov Volf, 20th century
“We need to let our effort to know God slide out of our hands, and open them to God’s continued and unexpected self-revelation.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, 20th century
“Nothing we can do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”
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.
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.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on
his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth
of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy
promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued
from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called
the 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 and
in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
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.
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
‘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.'”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
Notes on Advent and Christmas
There are different approaches to the colors associated with Advent; both have historical precedent.
Violet–once a very expensive color to produce (remember Lydia in Acts?)–was associated with royalty, and so with some traditions of Christ the King. It was also adopted in many churches for use in Lent, and so acquired penitential associations. The Rose color used on Advent 3 — Gaudete (Joy) Sunday, when readings traditionally employed imagery of rejoicing, offered a break from the penitential themes by pointing to the joy, or the dawn, drawing close at Christmas. Some advent wreaths include three Purple and one Rose candle. (Remember that “Gaudete” comes into English as “Gaudy,” and choose a deep, rather than a pale, shade of Rose or Pink!)
Another Advent tradition employs deep Blue, suggesting the long nights in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year. We wait in expectation and hope in these long nights, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Candle lighting rituals may take on a particular poignancy in such a context. In this setting, using the Rose candle on the third Sunday of Advent–Gaudete (Joy)–points to the dawn that is coming.
White, or its variant, Gold, first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are festivals related to the incarnation of Jesus Christ.