November 30, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
I just love Luke. The man has style. And he displays that style in narrative after narrative in his Gospel and in his sequel, The Book of Acts. Tradition has it Luke was a doctor. He clearly came mighty close to missing his calling. Thankfully, the Spirit used Luke’s considerable literary powers after all to give a great gift to the world: Luke’s two contributions to what we now call the New Testament.
Here in this short lection from Luke 3, the reading devotes significant space to a listing of about seven names of the high ranking folks of that time. Today the list would be headlined by Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Paul Ryan. If it were a narrative taking place in New York, Andrew Cuomo and Bill DeBlasio might get thrown into the mix. These are the big names, Luke is saying. These are the folks you don’t really need Luke to tell you about—you can look them up in Josephus or Gibbon or Wikipedia or any other credible history book of the first century.
But the most significant action in the cosmos was taking place nowhere near any of those high and mighty types.
Oddly, it reminds me of that floating feather that opens and closes the movie Forrest Gump. The feather is a symbol that sometimes the most important people are those we don’t see, like Forrest Gump himself. Except in this case I picture the feather at first floating over Herod’s palace or Caesar’s Roman mansion only to have a gust of wind take the feather up and up and up and then far from the citadels of civilization. The camera follows the feather until it slowly begins to lilt downward out in the middle of a wilderness wasteland, coming to land at the calloused and filthy foot of a wild ox of a man called John. He’s got wild honey dripping off his scraggly beard and is arrayed in something that could best be described as resembling the fur of some road-kill animal from the side of a highway. He’s got a distant look in his eye, as though at any moment he might lunge forward and begin to spout off whatever fool things came into his head.
Except that Luke tells us that what’s coming into his head is a far cry from any fool thing. The man at whose feet our random Forrest Gump feather landed is the cosmic target for nothing short of “the Word of the Lord.”
Sure, let the big-wigs launch their policy initiatives, levy their taxes, try to keep Rome from going over one fiscal cliff or another. Let Caesar write himself into the history books and let Herod do whatever in the world it was Herod wanted to do. Let the religious folks carry out their sacred duties and keep up the rituals of the ages. But if it’s the climax of salvation you’re looking for—if it’s the Word of God that has become the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ that you seek—then turn away from all that. Go to the desert. Go to the crazy man who has just now lit out on a career of fire-and-brimstone preaching.
Because that, Luke is saying, is where the Salvation Highway of Our God is being constructed. Rome built its roads and highways and bridges, true enough. You could get around the ancient world better than at any point in recorded human history. The roads were grand. Caesar’s wife had begun a “Highway Beautification” initiative. The roads were grand, the travel was easy, the trade routes were prosperous.
But not one of those roads could finally take you anywhere worth going. Oh, traveling on them could help you get around in the world but not one of them could save the world or usher in a New World. For that road, you had to go to the place of death, to the dangerous wilderness where robbers lurked and wild beasts devoured the wayward traveler. You had to go to the place that symbolized everything that was wrong with this world because that was the place—logically enough, if you stop to think about it—from which God launched his final push to defeat the Chaos of evil and usher back in the cosmos of his original good Creation.
In our world today, we still mostly look to all the wrong places for hope: Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood, etc. Luke says, “Nothing doing.” Hope won’t come from those places. Not finally. Not ultimately. Look to the unlikely places. Look to the little white clapboard churches in the middle of nowhere in which sermons are preached full of Jesus and full of grace. Look to the relief worker ministering in Jesus’ name to people in West Africa who lost so much to Ebola some while back. You want change that lasts, transformation that taps into what C.S. Lewis called “the deep magic of the universe,” then those are the places to go.
In Advent, as perhaps at most any time of the year I suppose, it’s so easy for even people in the church to have the wrong focus, to look to the wrong things. Even the manger scene has been imbued with so much glitter that in truth we forget sometimes that Jesus’ birth also took place out in the middle of nowhere at a time when everyone else in the Empire was paying far more attention to the movers and shakers elsewhere than to anything happening out in a barn somewhere.
The highway to salvation and the Word of the Lord come from and to the least likely places you could name, Luke is telling us in this Second Sunday in Advent reading. Ponder what those places may be and then go there. Because that is where you will find life, and life abundant at that.
The Synoptic gospels all do the same thing with Isaiah 40:3: namely, they take the line “in the desert” and make it the location where the voice is calling out (as opposed to what the NIV of Isaiah 40:3 does, which is make “the desert” the place where the way of the Lord is prepared). It’s the difference between saying “A voice calls out, ‘In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord’” and saying, “A voice calls out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
Maybe it does not matter which is the more accurate rendering: either way we find ourselves in the wilderness as the place to be when preparing to meet God’s Christ. Either we begin to proclaim this message in the desert or we say that the way of the Lord begins in the desert. Either way or both ways, John’s message brings us to a place that most people prefer not to associate with Advent or Christmas. But maybe this is where the gospel needs proclaiming today. Maybe this is the place where we need to see God inaugurating his saving activity yet today. Where does God need to work and where do we need to proclaim the reality of his saving work? In the desert. That is, in the cancer ward, in the AIDS clinic, in the inner-city slum, on the battlefields of Iraq, on the killing plains of Darfur, on death row and in the prisons of this land. In THOSE places prepare the way of the One who will take all that is crooked and rough in us and will make it straight and smooth and right and full of shalom after all.
Picture, if you will, what it might have looked like on a given day around 30 A.D. had there been at that time some equivalent of the CNN.com website. Along the top banner of the page would be the “Breaking News” of the moment. Perhaps on one particular day it would read “Jewish Zealots Attack Roman Forces: Troops Obliterate Zealots.” Below that would be a picture of King Herod the Tetrarch receiving a delegation from the Caesar in his regal throne room. Off to the right side would be a list of the day’s “Hot Topics,” that might have included news bulletins from Rome, from Asia Minor, and other such globally vital areas. Then would come the “Top Stories” for the day that might have included some political intrigue involving Pontius Pilate, a story involving a new retail market that was selling that year’s must-have toy, and a report on the doings of some of the more famous and beautiful people of the Roman Empire.
The homepage for the largest news network would contain scores of individual stories, others grouped under headings like “Politics,” “Sports,” “Entertainment,” “Health,” and “Justice.” Just possibly, though—way down near the bottom, down farther on the page than most people ever scrolled—there might be a category for “Oddments” that might have a stray story (written by some aspiring cub reporter who had a ways to go in terms of his journalistic skills) about a man named John who was creating a bit of a stir out in the desert wilds beyond the Jordan River. Few would read it. Fewer still—if anyone at all, truth be told—would conclude it rose to the level of “interesting,” at least not compared with all the other news of the day. And no well-functioning adult would tumble to the idea that this little “Oddment” was the most important piece of news on the entire website that day.
Scroll down the page, Luke 3 tells us. Because in our Father’s kingdom, the least and last news story will be the greatest and first story after all.
Author: Scott Hoezee
A friend of mine who is an English professor once told me that he suggested to a friend that he might enjoy reading the great works of the author John Donne. So this man did so. Some while later the two met up again and the English professor asked him “What did you think of John Donne?” “Oh, I loved his work,” the man replied. “But I was surprised how many clichés he used.”
Well . . . not really. It’s just that Donne is himself the original source of a goodly number of lines that are known to lots of people who never heard the name of John Donne. “No man is an island” and “For whom the bell tolls” are two examples.
Every once in a while you run across a well-known line, a familiar piece of music, and discover for the first time where it came from to begin with. “I didn’t know that George Gershwin wrote that music United Airlines always uses!!”
The Book of Malachi can create a similar experience. This book is terra incognita to most people. But were you to read this book from start to finish, even if nothing else struck you as familiar, one line from Malachi 3 would: “But who can endure the day of his coming . . . for he will be like a refiner’s fire.” Suddenly the strains of Handel’s Messiah get kicked off in your head as you hear that fiery run of violins and the chorus stretching out the word “purify” into a dozen or more syllables (“For he shall purifyahaiahiahiahiy . . . .” Go ahead and give it a listen).
And you think, “So this is where that line came from!”
Other than that, however, we don’t know much about the Old Testament’s closing book. This is the last word of anyone in the Bible until, some 400 years later, a prophet named John cleared his throat to shout out, “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!” And that most assuredly ties in with Malachi’s third chapter and explains why it is paired with Luke 3 for the Second Sunday in Advent in the Year C Common Lectionary.
In the canonical order of biblical books, Malachi is about twenty-two books removed from Ezra and Nehemiah. In terms of actual history, however, Malachi was likely a contemporary of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is the one who re-built Jerusalem after the Israelites returned to Judah following their seventy years as prisoners in Babylon. In some ways, that was a rather happy time for the Israelites.
To borrow President Gerald R. Ford’s language of forty years ago, there was a sense for Israel that their long, national nightmare was over. The wretched Babylonians were no more, having themselves been conquered by the Persians, who had let the Israelites go free to re-build their shattered homeland. True, the Israelites were not politically independent yet and so had to live under the rule of the local Persian governor, but still life was better now than it had been in a long time.
Despite that, however, Malachi is not a happy book. Its overarching message is encouraging: God still loves his people and will still send the Messiah one day. But in the meantime, the people were told by Malachi that they had better shape up spiritually. Because if they didn’t, then Malachi’s message boiled down to this: “Remember how bad it was when the Babylonians came? If you don’t shape up, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
A main target of Malachi’s prophetic fire was the clergy. According to an old adage, “the fish stinks from the head down,” and in post-exilic Jerusalem, that appears to have been the case. The priests themselves were spiritually lax. They didn’t preach the Word of God but instead whatever they thought would keep them popular. When it came to animal sacrifices in the restored Temple, it seemed that their attitude was “Anything goes.”
God’s Law asked the people to bring their firstborn cattle and their firstfruits, the best of what God had given to them. But that seemed a bit too much to ask, and so the people had gotten into the habit of bringing the worst they had so they could keep the best for themselves. According to Malachi, farmers were showing up at the temple with three-legged lambs and blind calves and cows suffering from hoof-and-mouth. When the priests would ask, “Is this the best that you have to offer up to your God,” with a wink and a smirk the people would reply, “Yup! Sure is!” and the priest would let them get away with it.
But with biting sarcasm, Malachi reminds the people that they would never treat anyone else in their lives the way they were treating Almighty God. If your boss came over for dinner one evening and asked for a porterhouse steak, would you dish up some of the beef suet you were saving for your bird feeder? If the Persian governor asked you to pay taxes in the form of some vegetables from your garden, would you dare to bring the governor only the wormy tomatoes and the stunted ears of corn?
Of course not! So Malachi’s burning question was “How come you treat other people more respectfully than God!?” The Israelites were holding back from God. They were feathering their own nests and padding their own bank accounts first, bringing to God whatever was leftover. But to Malachi’s way of thinking, that merely reflected the more distressing fact that God was not looming very large on the horizon of people’s imaginations.
So like his fellow prophets, Malachi was charged by God to get the people’s attention. He had to return God to the center of their lives. The good news is that if the people could achieve that kind of God-consciousness in their daily lives, God would shine down on them like a sun of righteousness with healing in his wings. If the people could come to realize once again that following God’s Law is not a restrictive way to live but a liberating one, then they would discover a freedom and a joy they had never before known.
Have you ever seen a calf get let out of its stall so it can go into the pasture? It’s a delight! If ever there were a spectacle in nature that you would recognize as pure, exuberant joy, then this would be it. We all chortle over the sight of a young calf or a young colt running through a pasture, kicking up its hooves and whipping its head around for the sheer pleasure of it. That’s one of the final images with which Malachi leaves the people: in following the way of the Lord, we get released into the unalloyed joy of existence.
God wants this to happen and God has promised that for many, many people exactly this will happen. The Lord is coming. But are we ready to receive him the right way? God would surely do his part to send one to prepare the way. We read of this in Malachi 3 but we get a reprise of this in the second-to-the-last verse of the Old Testament is Malachi 4:5 where the prophet says that a kind of Elijah would come to set the stage. As we now know, Jesus himself identified John the Baptist as that Elijah figure sent ahead of the Christ to prepare the way. So it is fitting that just before the canon of Scripture falls silent for around 400 years, one of the last words points ahead to that time when, in the person of John, things would get rolling again.
Four hundred years to get ready. Four hundred years to wait for the Elijah to whom Malachi pointed.
That’s a long time.
We measure our lives in decades and quarter-centuries. The United States of America seems to most of us like it’s always been here. It’s a well-established nation, we think, yet it’s been in formal existence for only about 239 years. But we can scarcely bend our minds back to the days of George Washington and John Adams who founded this land in 1776. That seems impossibly long ago to us.
Yet the Bible routinely deals with chunks of time that are measured in centuries and millennia. There was Malachi mustering all of the prophetic zeal and robust energy he could to tell the Israelites to get ready for the Advent of God’s Chosen One. Malachi’s message had an urgency to it, it had zing and zest, vim and vigor, fervor and fire. And then, nothing!
Four or more maybe five centuries elapsed during which world history marched on. Alexander the Great and his empire came and went. Various Jewish revolts, including the one commemorated last week in Hanukkah, came and went. The Roman Empire came along. Julius Caesar arose and was killed. Generations came and went. People were born and people died, including every last man, woman, and child who heard Malachi’s message the first time. Four hundred-plus years. We read such spans of time in the Bible and we don’t even shrug. But if we bring it home to our own lives, it staggers us. Four hundred years ago it was the year 1609. Four hundred years from now it will be, if the world is still here, the year 2412, one century beyond even the fictional future world of the original Star Trek.
When we hear again the majesty of Handel’s Messiah, we move from Malachi’s “He Shall Purify” to the angels’ song from Luke of “Glory to God” in the span of maybe a half hour. The centuries between the two passages evaporate for us into a seamless, streamlined story of salvation. But, of course, we don’t have much choice but to tell the holy story that way, so why am I making such a big deal out of it tonight? Because those long stretches of time are important in that they are full of the grace of God.
The conclusion of Malachi’s message and the beginning of John the Baptist’s message is this: God is gracious and wants to shine down life on us. But sin is serious, and we cannot wish it or wave it away. God can’t, either. Is it rather sad, even startling, to find that the last word of the Old Testament is “curse”? In a way, it is, yes. But does that open up some huge gulf between the Old Testament and the New? No. Because if you want to see something cursed, look above my head at that cross. There is finally not enough tinsel, glitter, ornaments, garland, holly, or pretty strings of lights in the world to cover up what happened to Jesus on that cross because of the curse of our sin.
For the people in Malachi’s day, God had faded a bit into the background. He wasn’t the center of their lives, and so they didn’t even try to give him their best. Malachi brought God back into focus by, among other things, reminding them of sin’s weightiness. He does that also tonight in this season when God can likewise get lost in the background behind the season’s outer trappings. Tonight Malachi has reminded us that if it weren’t for the curse God declared on sin–and the way that curse fell on the Christ–there would be no carols to sing. It is only when you recognize that truth that you can say, with the verve of a calf leaping in a meadow, “Let us sing for joy!”
As parents, maybe some of you utilize the “1-2-3” method of discipline (we even had a book that was titled 1-2-3 Magic when our kids were little). If a child talks back or does something wrong, you respond by saying, “That’s 1!” If it happens again within a few minutes, you say, “That’s 2!” And finally if the bad behavior persists, a minute or so later you say, “That’s 3! Into time-out you go for 5 minutes!” Boom, boom, boom, the chain of discipline proceeds. As parents, we can’t let misbehavior persist. (Despite that book’s title, however, I did not find this method to be quite “magical” but it was effective in keeping things under control, sometimes more for the parent than the child!!)
Throughout especially the Old Testament, God “counts” a lot and so threatens punishment. He is often telling Israel, “That’s 1! That’s 2!” And the boom is always on the verge of getting lowered. But sometimes it takes forever, centuries, for that boom to fall, if, in fact, it falls at all. Why? Because God has far more patience than any of us do. Why? Because in the final analysis, God is in no hurry to dole out punishment and is looking for any and every chance to bring grace and salvation instead.
So the Old Testament closes with Malachi shouting, “That’s 1!” Then some time passes. A lot of it. Four, maybe five centuries. Finally John the Baptist stands up to shout, “That’s 2!” Now that’s one long pause between warnings! But the miracle of the gospel is that before God says, “That’s 3!” he’ll send his only Son, who himself ends up being the one who gets quite literally nailed with all the full weight of every punishment God ever warned us about. It’s Jesus who bears the curse. It’s Jesus who ends up being put under the ban, who is the one marked for annihilation in a way no one could prevent.
Author: Doug Bratt
Has the Lectionary lost its way already on the second Sunday of the church year? The “psalm” the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is, after all, not actually a psalm, but the song that Zechariah sings at his son’s birth. He was, of course, an elderly priest who was unable to bear children with his wife Elizabeth. Yet God promised him that they would have a child together whom Zechariah was to name John.
The sign of this promise was that God would render the doubting priest unable to speak until his son was born. In our text we read that John is, in fact, able to speak again when people ask him what to name his son. Verse 64 reports that when God finally does “loosen” Zechariah’s tongue, the Spirit equips him to break out in a song of praise to the Lord.
While Zechariah’s song shares some characteristics with Mary’s (Luke 1:46-55), it doesn’t emphasize God’s reversals of human fortunes the way hers does. Yet the priest’s song does emphasize, with Mary’s, God’s faithfulness in sending Israel salvation. It speaks of the way God has kept God’s promise to rescue God’s children from God and their enemies. As a result, Zechariah sings, God’s people can now serve God without fear and be guided by “the rising sun from heaven … into the path of peace.” In doing so, Cynthia Rigby notes, he prophecies about the coming roles of both his son John and distant relative Jesus by pointing to salvation history.
Verse 79 points to the human dilemma into which God sends both John and Jesus. We live, Zechariah mourns, in “darkness” and the “shadow of death.” This, of course, echoes Psalm 23’s reference to walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.” It’s a reminder that death, both spiritual and physical, naturally dogs our every step from birth until God gathers us into the new creation.
This reference offers Luke 1:68-79’s teachers and preachers an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the kind of darkness to which Zechariah refers. Darkness is a physical reality in the season of Advent in which the days shrink and the nights stretch out. It’s also, however, a spiritual reality not just in Advent, even as our malls echo with carols and people speak of holiday cheer. Spiritual darkness plagues every day of our lives. Preachers and teachers of this text might invite those they lead to reflect on evidence of that darkness.
Yet Zechariah can praise God because God has responded to that human darkness by redeeming Israel (68). Of course, he repeatedly speaks in the past tense. In doing so the priest doesn’t refer only to the countless ways God has intervened in Israel’s history to rescue her from all sorts of messes, many of which she created herself. He’s also employing a popular prophetic practice of speaking as though God has already accomplished what God has shown the prophet God will do.
Rigby notes that by using past tense verbs, Zechariah is also reminding worshipers that in a real sense, God’s salvation is always both on the way and a present reality. Jesus, God’s “rising sun” has already pierced our spiritual darkness by coming to be born, live, die and rise again from the dead. Yet even as we await Christ’s return, we celebrate his unfailing presence with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). So even as during Advent God’s children prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, we also look for evidence of his presence now and eagerly anticipate his glorious return.
God has, after all, raised up for God’s adopted sons and daughters a “horn of salvation” to rescue us from those enemies who oppose God’s good and loving purposes. God has also sent that salvation in order to empower God’s children to serve the Lord without fear (74b) and in holiness and righteousness (75). God’s salvation is never, after all, just for human comfort. God rescues in order to free us to serve God and each other in love.
This offers those who preach and teach Luke 1:68-79 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the nature of our faithful response to God’s amazing grace. Saving faith, after all, is never just an intellectual affirmation of Jesus’ role in saving us from our sins. Purely intellectual faith, James reminds us, is dead faith. Faith that receives God’s grace is always eager to respond to God’s gracious act of salvation by serving God and our neighbor “in holiness and righteousness” before the Lord all the days God gives us.
Of course, one of God’s chosen instruments of this salvation is Zechariah’s own child John. His neighbors had asked him, “What then is this child going to be?” (66). The priest’s answer probably startles them. John will not become a priest like his dad or carpenter like his distant cousin. Instead, Zechariah insists, people will call him “a prophet of the Most High.” John will, in other words, speak God’s word to God’s sons and daughters. Because God is so merciful, God will also send John to go before the Lord to prepare the way for him. In doing so John will offer God’s children knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. So Zechariah praises in song not only his son, but also God’s Son, Jesus.
Salvation and redemption are major themes in Luke 1:68-79, as they are in all genuine Christian praise and preaching. However, John reminds us here that we celebrate them not because we deserve God’s rescue, but because of the “tender mercy of our God” (78). God sends God’s “rising sun” Jesus into our spiritual darkness, not because we desire that Light of the world, but because God loves God’s world so deeply that God is determined to do what it takes to redeem that world.
The “rising sun” is a fairly common phrase used in phrases as diverse as the nickname for the country of Japan and the name of a city in Indiana (that, ironically, has a number of gambling casinos). But perhaps few links to the phrase “rising sun” are more evocative and, perhaps, fertile for contemplating Jesus as the “rising sun” than the old folk song, “The House of the Rising Sun.”
While no is sure of its authorship or the house’s exact nature, it’s the song of a young man whose life has careened “off the tracks” in New Orleans: “There is a house in New Orleans/ they call the Rising Sun/ And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy/ And God knows I’m one.” Since the ballad calls the House a place where the narrator has spent his life in sin and misery, preachers and teachers might draw a contrast between the destruction caused by the House of the Rising Sun and the redemption offered by God’s “rising sun.”
Author: Stan Mast
Of the four lectionary readings for this Second Sunday of Advent, this passage from Philippians gives the lightest and least obvious perspective on Advent. I say, least obvious, because apart from the two references to “the day of Christ,” there’s no clear Advent character to Paul’s words. These two references occur in an otherwise standard greeting in a Pauline epistle. On the other hand, these references to Christ’s coming in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable greeting may say something about how we ought to observe Advent in the midst of our everyday lives.
When I say that this is the lightest of the four readings, I mean that it has the most upbeat mood. Malachi 4 is filled with warnings about the coming of The Messenger who will prepare the way. “Who can endure the day of his coming? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” Luke 3 shows us that Messenger, John the Baptist, preparing the way by calling folks to repentance. And while the reading from “the Psalms” is Zechariah’s “Benedictus” in Luke 1, the old man’s ode to joy is thick with Old Testament prophecy and theological concepts. Preaching on any of those texts will get us into heavy stuff. The coming of the day of the Lord is almost threatening or at least filled with so much meaning that it is nearly overwhelming. The Day of the Lord feels like a giant thunderstorm looming off on the horizon. While that cloud may eventually “burst with blessings on our heads” (as in the hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”), it still looks ominous from a distance.
Instead of blazing fire and harsh soap, an old man spouting prophecy and a wild man shouting in the wilderness, our reading from Philippians 1 gives us a much lighter image of Advent, the image of harvest. I pick that up from verses 10 and 11, where “the day of Christ” is followed by “filled with the fruit of righteousness….” Paul looks toward that day of Christ’s coming as the day when the fruit is ripe and ready for the harvest. While it’s true that we could take the phrase about “completion until the day of Christ Jesus” in verse 6 as an image drawn from the building trades, it could also refer to the completion of the farmer’s work, when the fruit of his labor is ready to be harvested.
The preparation and anticipation of Advent is often done with a mood of introspection and even penitence. If my reading of Philippians 1 is right, Advent can also be a time of celebration, of downright jubilation. That is the mood here in our reading. There’s thanksgiving and joy, love and peace. It makes me think of Thanksgiving Day with a table sagging under the fruits of the harvest, or the annual Christmas feast with family gathered around the table in boisterous good cheer, or the Cornucopia filled with fruit and vegetables and grain on the Communion Table at my last church during the holidays. This text and its image of harvest will elevate our celebration of Advent far above the world’s “have yourself a merry little Christmas.” Overflowing with thanksgiving and joy and confidence and love, we look forward to the coming of the Lord of the harvest who will gather in the full fruit he planted at his first coming (John 12:24).
Whenever Paul thinks of his congregation in Philippi, he bursts into prayer with the positive spirit that permeates this text, because he is so sure of the harvest on the day of Christ Jesus. His prayer could have been different. It often is for us. We pray with anxiety or sorrow or despair, because we aren’t sure that God will bring good out of our dark time. Advent is a call to believe that the God who has been working in our lives from the first day until now, from the first Coming of the Christ right up to this moment in our lives, will keep working until the day of Christ’s Second Coming.
Yes, hard times may come. Paul is not only in prison as he writes this letter; he also has enemies right there in his beloved church. But Paul is confident that the God who entered into partnership with his people will not let go of them until he completes his work of salvation. (Yes, I know that Paul is talking about the partnership between this church and himself, but behind that human koinovia is the deeper covenant between a loving God and his sinful people.) Looking back at God’s covenant faithfulness and ahead to the coming of Christ, Paul is confident that God will complete his work in his church. So, on that great and terrible day of the Lord, there will be great joy because the harvest is full. Thus, we can pray with thanksgiving and joy and confidence today, even with a thundercloud looming overhead.
As he was with the Thessalonians, Paul is effusive in his expressions of love for the Philippians. Of all the expressions of affection scattered throughout the letters of this allegedly stern apostle, verse 7 is perhaps the tenderest. “I have you in my heart.” The next verse tells us the theological basis for his tender love. It isn’t just that there is a human bond between them. It is, even more, that Christ’s own love for the Philippians has filled Paul. “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” “Affection” there is the Greek splangchna, innards or, more graphically, intestines. Picking up on the universal human experience of being moved in our guts by fear or sorrow or love, the Greeks saw the intestines as the seat of affection. Christ loves us not just with his head, but with his inmost being. And, says Paul, that’s how I love you all– with Christ’s own love. As one older commentator put it, “My heart throbs with the heart of Christ.”
Paul does give a very human reason for such divine love; “for whether I am in chains or defending or confirming the Gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.” In other words, they were not fair weather friends. Whether Paul was out and about preaching the Gospel on street corners (one meaning of apologia and bebaiosis), or he was in court defending himself and thus the gospel (the other, more technical meaning of those two Greek words), or he was just languishing in his jail cell—no matter what his circumstances, Paul knew he could count on his friends in Philippi. Their koinonia did not depend on circumstances, because they were all sunkoinonoi, sharers in God grace. They were held together not by happy circumstances or by their shared goodness, but by the grace of God that held them close in spite of their sin or circumstances.
These attestations of love can serve as an Advent call to koinovia. During the holidays we spend a lot of time at parties sharing the good cheer of the season with folks we often don’t like very much. This overabundance of false camaraderie is often balanced by our disappointment at family and church gatherings, as our expectations of affection from those closest to us are dashed on the rocks of old wounds, inbuilt personality differences, and family dynamics. Let us call for a real love fest, an agape feast, based on the grace of God to us and in us. Sometimes we can barely tolerate our fellow church members because we have so little in common with them. Paul shows us how to love people regardless of outward circumstances; we must see them as sunkoinovoi in the grace of God. They need grace as much as we do. As we look forward to the coming harvest, may the fruit of love ripen in our interactions with fellow sharers-in-the-grace-of-God.
After all this outpouring of positivity, it’s a bit surprising to hear Paul end our reading with a prayer for change. Well, actually not change as much as a continuation of what these Philippians are already doing. It’s a harvest prayer, a prayer that the fruit already growing in them may grow “more and more… until the day of Christ, [when they will be] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” It’s not surprising that Paul would pray that love would grow, since that is the first (some say main) fruit of the Spirit. More surprising is his linkage of love with knowledge. He prays not just for love, but love with knowledge—not a full heart with an empty head, or an empty heart with a full head, but both heart and head full. In I Corinthians 13, Paul warns that knowledge without love is worth nothing. Now here he says that love with knowledge isn’t a good thing either. It can lead to foolish decisions or to well-intentioned actions that actually do harm. Neither the heartless Tin Man nor the brainless Scarecrow will do.
Only if we grow in a love that knows God and sees deeply into complex issues will we be able to “discern what is best and be pure and blameless….” Paul is writing to a community that is prone to disunity and faultfinding. It was difficult to tell who is right and what is best, because there were so many versions of the story, so many different ways of looking at things, so many shades of gray. Living by some hard and fast rule, abiding by a set of regulations isn’t going to make the fruit of the Spirit grow. What we need most of all is love abounding with knowledge of God and the deep wisdom the Spirit gives. Then the harvest will be full on the day of Christ.
Let’s use this second Sunday of Advent as a time to call people to spiritual growth, using the specific terms Paul uses here. Pray for yourself and for others that the fruit of the Spirit will grow here: love, joy, peace, wisdom, purity, righteousness. But let’s preach this not so much as a call to action, but more as a call to prayer, and, even more, as a call to Christ. Paul says that “the fruit of righteousness… comes through Jesus Christ….” Jesus said it long ago. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in him, that person will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) This text in Philippians gives us the opportunity to turn this Advent season into an “altar call.” Christ is coming for us on that Day. Let us come to him on this day.
Because of this image of harvest, we can issue such a call to commitment as a joyous invitation to sit down at the table of grace, sagging with the fruit of righteousness given by Christ and grown in us. With love and joy, let us call saints and sinners alike to come to the Christ who is coming to us.
Here’s an old hymn that captures what I’ve been trying to say:
Come, you thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in ere the winter storms begin;
God our Maker, does provide for our needs to be supplied;
Come, with all his people come, raise the song of harvest home.
Even so, Lord, quickly come to our final harvest home;
Gather all your people in, free from sorrow, free from sin—
There, forever purified, in your presence to abide;
Come, with all your angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.
The use of the Greek word eucharisto in verse 3 (translated “I thank”) suggests the Eucharist. What a good day this would be to celebrate the Lord’s Supper! A table with a light supper set in our midst is a foretaste of the lavish heavenly banquet. It is a table focused on the Christ who came to be our righteousness and who told us to celebrate his death until he comes again. It can be a table that calls us to give thanks with all joy for the love that will hold us until the day of Christ. Let it be a table that calls to eat and drink Christ, that is, to take Christ into ourselves again and again until he comes to take us home.
One of my pastors recently wrote a piece reflecting on her first year anniversary in our church. Expressing her love for her new church, she also says that she regrets not knowing our 1800 members better. “I thought I’d be further along,” she wrote, speaking for many of us. She takes some solace from Lewis Smedes, the great Reformed theologian. In his late-in-life memoir, My God and I, Smedes expressed disappointment that growing older had not brought him closer to God the way he thought it would. After many years of faithful service and spiritual growth, Smedes faced his death with a sense of incompleteness. Don’t we all? That makes Paul’s words in verse 6 all the sweeter; “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Even if it’s hard to believe now, God will continue working in us “until the day of Christ,” when we will finally be “filled with the fruit of righteousness.”