Sunday 6 December 2015 - Advent 2
John the Baptist / Purification / Completion of God's Work in Us
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3)
Praise and honour to you living God for John the Baptist,
and for all those voices crying in the wilderness
who prepare your way.
May we listen when a prophet speaks your word,
and obey with the strength of Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Psalm = Luke 1:68-79
The focus on "coming" this Sunday in Advent is on John the Baptist the one who prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ to minister. We have to be chronologically imaginative through these weeks. Last Sunday we focused on Christ's Second Coming (still in our future). This Sunday (Luke 3:1-6) and next (Luke 3:7-18) we are not so much preparing for the coming of Christ at his birth but at his baptism (Luke 3:21).
Malachi (which, incidentally, means "my messenger") foresees the Lord sending his messenger "to prepare the way before me [i.e. the Lord]" (1). In the Gospel of Mark (noted below) this messenger is identified as John the Baptist. Later in Malachi, 4:5-6 this messenger is identified as Elijah, an identification unsurprisingly made also in the gospels (Matthew 11:10; Luke 1:17; 7:27). A little confusingly some also think that Jesus is Elijah come again (e.g. Matthew 16:14). But that sense of multiple identification is a tribute to both Elijah as a "refining" prophet par excellence and to the "refining" work of both John and Jesus.
Malachi sees the one who prepares the way of the Lord as "like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; ... and purifier of silver" (2b-3). John's message (as we will see next Sunday) was a no holds barred, get your life sorted out message. Jesus was no less compromising when he preached. "Fullers' soap" refers to an agent used in the making of cloth which cleansed and whitening the material.
For Malachi this purification of Israel ("the descendants of Levi", 3; "Judah and Jerusalem", 4) will enable righteous offerings which are (finally) pleasing to the Lord (3-4). Later, Christians will understand that the (so to speak) combined efforts of John the Baptist and of Jesus result in the one pure and final offering, made by Jesus when crucified at the hands of the kingdoms his kingdom came to supplant.
Psalm = Luke 1:68-79
Zechariah bursts into song after a period of muteness (1:20-22; 64). He blesses God (68) for raising up his child as a special prophet (76). A great theme of this song is mercy: God looks "favourably" on his people (68), by raising up a mighty saviour (69) he has "shown the mercy promised to our ancestors (72), thus sins will be forgiven (77) and "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us" (78).
I am going to focus on just one element in this reading and relate that element to our other readings.
In those other readings there is a very strong sense of God working out a "plan of salvation." Through Isaiah and Malachi a future day of preparation for a saviour is seen as well as the future salvation through that saviour. Zechariah foresees the impact and outcome of his new son's future prophetic ministry.
Across centuries God's plan is being worked out, towards an outcome in which light supplants darkness, justice reverses injustice, impurity is purified and sins are forgiven (i.e. restoration of the sinner takes place).
In this reading, Paul, rejoicing constantly because of the progress of the Philippian Christians offers them an encouragement, flowing from his own convictions, and encouragement which will also inspire and motivate his continuing prayers for them (1:3-4, 9-11):
"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" (6).
For Paul, the God who has worked a good work of saving the world, through centuries of human history, is the same God at work in each Philippian Christian (and, by extension, in you and me).
Just as God is bringing that "global" work to completion, so (Paul is utterly confident) God will bring that "individual" work to completion. In other words, the gospel is both universal and local (or, perhaps, better, personal), it is about what God is doing in and for the whole world (see, e.g. Ephesians 1:9-10) and what God is doing in you and me. And what God is doing, we may be, we should be confident is a sure and certain work which will be completed. God is not finished with any of us and we should not be discouraged if we feel incomplete.
In the season of Advent we notice the twice mentioned "day of (Jesus) Christ" (6, 10). The Second Coming of Christ will result in a definitive moment in time when the world as we experience it will be brought to an end and the work of God in the world will be seen. For each Christian our hope is that on that day God's work within each of us will be complete and we will be found "pure and blameless" (10).
Luke tells us in his gospel about both the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist (not even Matthew's Gospel tells us the latter). So when "John son of Zechariah" is mentioned in 3:2 we feel that we know all about John, and Zechariah already.
In verses 1 and 2 Luke is consciously historical. When the events in Jesus' life took place, they could be cross-matched to other events and to other 'lords'. Interestingly, Luke is fairly general about dates prior to these verses. Zechariah and Elizabeth conceive John "In the days of King Herod of Judea" (1:5) and Jesus is born during a time of "registration" which was "taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria" (2:2).
But here in our passage there is great precision about the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, etc" (3:1). [However, from our calendrical point of view, there are different ways of reckoning what this "fifteenth year" indicated, so we are talking about a year between 26 AD and 29 AD].
We also see Luke being historical about geography and rulership: "Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of ..." (1) as well as about Jewish religious leadership, "during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas" (2a). The ministry of Jesus inaugurating the kingdom of God occurs within history, marked by reference to rival "kingdoms", political and religious.
But God intervenes in this historical account: "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (2b). This is in keeping with prophets of former days in Israel when the prophet's call and/or initiation of ministry was referenced to rulers of their day (e.g. Isaiah 6:1-8).
We are not told but presumably a word from God has already sent him into the "wilderness" where Luke placed him at the end of his growing years (1:80). This word of God sets John on the move, "into all the region around the Jordan", and gives him a message to preach, "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (3).
Noting (above) a possible intended parallel between John the Baptist's initial ministry and Isaiah's initial ministry as a prophet, we also note that Luke sees John the Baptist fulfilling words in the Book of Isaiah, 4-6 = Isaiah 40:3-5 (see also Matthew 3:3= Luke 3:4 thus Luke extends his citation from Isaiah; also Mark 1:2 who combines Malachi 3:1 with Isaiah 40:3). On multiple occasions New Testament scriptures witness to a very strong interest in the Book of Isaiah as forecasting key moments in the coming of Christ and concerning his ministry and final events of his life.
So, John is the "preparer" for the coming of Christ as "the salvation of God" (3:6). But talk of salvation presupposes a problem from which people need saving. There have been hints of this already in Luke's history of Jesus and the kingdom (e.g. in both the Song of Mary (Magnificat), 1:46-55; in the Song of Zechariah, 1:68-79; and in the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis), 2:30, 32): a dark world will be enlightened (1:79; 2:32) and an unequal world will be made just (1:51-53).
In other words, the kingdoms of this world, whether the Roman empire (see mention of Tiberias and his governor Pontius Pilate), or the local kingdoms with delegated authority (see mention of Herod, Philip, etc), or the religio-political-cultural authority vested in Annas and Caiaphas, are not capable of saving the world. Indeed as the gospel story proceeds and we see the forces which oppose and eventually kill Jesus, these kingdoms are part of the problem.
Finally, note that John's preparational work, according to Isaiah is to enable "all flesh [to] see the salvation of God" (3:6).
Luke's Gospel and its sequel in Acts is always telling us that the kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom for all, for Jews and Gentiles. A continuing challenge for God's church - in the sense of the people who belong to God and who hold the gospel message through time - is to keep facing outwards, to continue to live for the sake of the world which is not yet in the kingdom of God.
This Advent that challenge is as sharp as ever as violent persecution against Christians in some places and general cultural sidelining of Christians in other places (such as NZ) could be allowed to nudge us to turn inwards and look only on ourselves.
The Rev Dr Peter Carrell is Director of Theology House in Christchurch.