Weekly Seeds: Written in the Book

Sunday, December 5, 2021
Second Sunday of Advent

Focus Theme:
Written in the Book

Focus Prayer:
Sovereign of Heaven, may we delight in your presence. Wrap us in justice and show your glory as we seek your kindom on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Luke 3:1–6
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.’ ”

All readings for this Sunday:
Baruch 5:1–9 or Malachi 3:1–4
Luke 1:68–79
Philippians 1:3–11
Luke 3:1–6

Focus Questions:

  1. Is there a book/saying/quote that you repeatedly revisit due to its influence upon you?
  2. What scripture passage speaks to the ministry of your life–your unique purpose and calling?
  3. What makes you cry out in the world?
  4. What message of hope do you offer to the world?
  5. What do you consistently proclaim about God?

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.[5] 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 cause 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!

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 were 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

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.