Second Sunday of Advent – December 8, 2012

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Malachi 3:1-4Luke 1:68-79Philippians 1:3-11Luke 3:1-6

By David Grant Smith

Malachi 3:1-4

“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…” Advent is a season of preparation. We are, of course, preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But to be faithful to the Hebrew Scriptures, we need to be careful to do our best to not read Jesus backwards or retroactively into the words of the prophets. The rich imagery used by Christian liturgy and tradition have woven a beautiful tapestry of the prophets of old together with the life of Jesus as seen through the eyes of his earliest followers. But the kaleidoscopic effect we have of blending Jesus’ life with the words of the prophets can blur our own sense of time, and can distort our understandings of which images are from which source. Despite the beauty created by weaving the two strands of proclaimed experience together, it is important for us to not confuse the already confusing tapestry by continuing to read Jesus backwards into the prophets.

Rather than Jesus being predicted by the prophets, the earliest Christian witnesses used the words of the prophets (because it was what they knew best) as a way of proclaiming their experience of Jesus. The prophets of old proclaimed a message of truth that was inspired to the degree that its relevance has been carried forth over centuries. Jesus of Nazareth was one who lived in such a way that his life and ministry were grounded in and gave witness to the same God and the same values as the prophets who had come before him. Additionally, there were those who saw so much of the prophets in Jesus that they used the words of the prophets to describe how much he was like them. Jesus was able to build on the foundations that the prophets had laid down before him.

This same principle is at play in this brief portion of Malachi. The prophet is proclaiming that there is a messenger who is coming—one who will “prepare the way” before God. We all know and understand that each moment of time is shaped by moments (and accumulations of moments) in the past. Therefore each moment is, in some way or another, laying the groundwork for all future moments. Knowing that each moment has the potential to shape future moments can be a helpful tool in discerning how we might choose to act in any present moment so that future moments might be influenced, preferably in a positive way. By choosing to act in each moment in a way that is grounded in God’s primordial nature of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love, we create a series of moments that, with God’s help, can shape future moments in similar fashion.

The messenger about whom Malachi speaks is one who will help to reshape the priesthood of the Jerusalem temple in such a way that it will become a priesthood grounded in righteousness—that is, in right relationships with God and all others. But the words of the prophet are more universal, and not locked to the ancient past experience of God’s people. All around us there are those who “prepare the way” for God and God’s purposes by following God’s lure of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love—and by enticing others to do the same. These, too, are “messengers of the covenant in whom [we] delight.”

Another way to look at those who “prepare the way before me” is to make it a personal statement for us in our contexts. There have been countless others who have worked tirelessly so that those who come after them might have lives which are more abundantly filled with beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love. We can ask ourselves, perhaps, who these people were who lived and worked (and, in some cases, died) so that we might enjoy the benefits of their labors. This rich field of past concrescent moments continue to harvest more creative transformation in the present moment, which leads to other future moments of creative transformation.

A concrete example of how this principle is played out is in the common task of writing a research paper. Each person who is writing on a particular topic draws on the published work of those who have written about it in the past (articles, journals, books, etc.), and then pieces them together with their own thoughts and experiences to create a new understanding of said topic. The interrelationship of past concrescent moments with the present work of the one writing the paper blend together in a new moment of creative transformation. It’s a web of past concrescent moments coming together to enrich the present moment in new concrescences. When we learn to look at life lived abundantly through this kind of a lens, we can’t help but have a response grounded in gratitude for all those who have helped to “prepare the way” before us. And, if we are truly grateful, we might want to live our own lives so as to “prepare the way” for others.

Luke 1:68-79

Designated as a response to the reading from Malachi, this text from the Gospel of Luke (often called “The Song of Zechariah” or “Canticle of Zechariah”) provides more of the same idea found in Malachi that there are those who “prepare the way” for others. On some levels it seems as though the author of Luke put words on Zechariah’s lips, which sing of both his son, John the Baptizer and his relative Jesus of Nazareth. In the opening verses, Zechariah sings of a “savior, born of the house of… David”—though in the narrative of the story, Jesus hasn’t been born yet. Then toward the end, the ecstatic Zechariah sings to his own son, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way…”

We, the readers of the Gospel of Luke, of course know that the birth of John is also about the birth of Jesus, simply because the author of Luke has constructed the Gospel to read in a way that alternates between the two conception/birth narratives. So on many levels it doesn’t confuse the biblically-adept reader in understanding the literary game that the author of Luke is playing here. But to the inexperienced reader, it might appear that Zechariah is proclaiming that his son John is the “mighty savior” in this passage. Might this be the case? The answer to that question may depend on one’s definition of “savior.” Perhaps a case can be made to state that John fits into the role of savior in the narrative of the Gospel (see Luke 3:7-18 next week).

Contained in the “narrative” of Zechariah’s prophetic song, however, lies the idea that within this baby (and within all babies for that matter) can be found an infinite amount of potential and promise. Countless parents, of course, see in their newborn child the best, the brightest, the most beautiful. And in process theology we can affirm that within each new life there is tremendous potential. Those who have been newly born don’t have the baggage of a “past-gone-wrong” which they carry with them as they move toward their future, other than the past which they may carry from DNA and/or the birth experience itself. And because of that, perhaps each newborn child also has a greater potential than any adult for following God’s lure of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love. Due the innocence of wee ones, perhaps they have what it takes to be agents of God’s initial aim, incapable of resisting God’s invitation through them to lure us jaded adults to beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love! Could this be salvation, too?

The canticle wraps up with the assertion that in the “tender mercies 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…” Luke the poet shines through in this passage, speaking of the brightness of future concrescences because of the life of a child who has yet to live into his own future, but with faith that he will. Whether the line is about John, Jesus, or both, becomes a moot point. What matters is that in a context of faith, we can depend on God’s presence to be a companion to all young and innocent life, from birth onward. And we can be assured that in all newborn life there is the promise and potential to “guide our feet into the way of peace”—as well as the ways of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, and love!

Philippians 1:3-11

“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.” Philippians 1:6 can be summarized in the sentiment which was widely expressed on bumper-stickers and buttons in the 1970s and 1980s: “Be patient with me… God isn’t finished with me yet!” We as process people affirm the notion that each individual and each community—indeed all of life—is a work in progress. Evolution is, of course, the greatest witness to this truth! The legacy of Paul gives witness to this in spiritual terms in other letters as well… e.g., “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” [1 Corinthians 13:12].

The idea that our formation as people of faith is complete at a particular point in time is widespread in many Christian traditions. But this notion bears the potential of robbing faithful people of the opportunity to continue to grow, or (more dangerously) want to grow, in their faith journeys. There is always room to grow, there is always something to learn, there is always awe and wonder to experience.

Paul speaks of God’s work, which is begun in us as being brought to “completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Here lies a rich opportunity for an exploration of eschatology and the tension which exists between the “already” and the “not yet” in Christian time and faith. On the one hand, “the day of Jesus Christ” is something that is understood to be a far-flung future date in time when our work is done in this life, and we are received into the fullness that is God. At that time, the work that God began in us will no longer be carried out in us, as it will ultimately be continued in God.

Yet on the other hand, in the Christian sense of time and faith, the “day of Jesus Christ” is right now. Each moment is a concrescence of possibilities intersecting with our life experience and God’s lure to the initial aim. We are at all times, and in all ways, always in the “day of Jesus Christ” with something coming into fruition. Advent is a season which rehearses the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of Christian time and faith. And this little gem from Philippians invites us to dance in that tension with all the grace given to us!

Luke 3:1-6

Today’s Gospel reading begins with a litany of time-machine recitations. Whether it is real, mistaken, imagined, historical, or metaphoric (let’s leave that discussion for historians and biblical scholars to work out), the literary and spiritual impact of these verses is that the reader is led to conjure up the notion of a particular timeframe and/or context. Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas all had a place in history—at least in the mind of the author of Luke, and the minds of the author’s faith community. And for us, in our minds, we can imagine a temporal context for each of these people; and whether their lives actually intersected or overlapped in time or not isn’t the point. What matters is that all their respective contexts bring to the reader an awareness that what follows (the stories of John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth) took place in history.

Each of these people listed provide a backdrop to the narrative of the Gospel, and their respective narratives are back-stories to the Gospel. And, as we often say in process theology, what is in the past shapes the present moment, as well as future present moments. All these people, and their historical contexts, and their narratives, helped to shape the events of the Gospel by providing a framework in which something particular took place… in this case, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

The author of Luke, who also seemed to understand somehow that the past is always carried into the future, goes on to further state that John’s work in the region of the Jordan River is somehow related to what Isaiah said several hundred years before! What was taking place in the life of John wasn’t predicted by Isaiah (see remarks on Malachi above), but the words of Isaiah were used to show how John’s prophetic role was something quite powerful in his own day, much like the old prophet’s was in his.

Although we do get to hear John’s voice next Sunday (Luke 3:7-18), this week we don’t. What we hear is a recitation of Isaiah’s voice—or “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” which was heard by Isaiah! The message of “Prepare the way of the Lord” resonates not only with Isaiah, but also with Malachi (see above). But this time with the admonition to “prepare the way” comes the command to make God’s “paths straight”—the valleys are filled, the mountains are leveled, crookedness is straightened, the rough is made smooth—so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Perhaps another way to hear the “voice in the wilderness” (instead of “prepare the way of the Lord”) might be this: “Receive the lure of God!” Advent could easily be a season in which we work to clear the road between ourselves and God. If we think of the metaphoric road as something upon which we travel toward God (and not the other way around), we can easily see this passage of Luke for being the Good News that it is—that the pathway on which God lures us is an even and smooth path easily traveled. And the creative transformation that takes place is that we (both collectively and individually) are those who see—and co-create with God—salvation.