Text Study for Luke 3:1-6 (Pt. 4); December 5, 2021

A People Prepared

We prepared for the birth of our first child during Advent of 1984. We were living in a parsonage, and we got permission to redo an upstairs bedroom as the nursery. While I was too distracted to wax theological at the time, I have often reflected in the succeeding years about what it meant to prepare for our baby as a window into what it means to prepare for The Baby.

One of the most vivid memories I have of that time is removing wallpaper. We wanted to paint the walls with soothing colors and cute stencils. We – well, I’m using the royal “we” here, since I was clueless as to how our nursery should look. In any event, the walls were covered with seven layers of wallpaper, the earliest layer dating from some time in the 1930’s. While at the time I missed the mystical significance of the number of layers on the walls, it is clear now that this was a perfectly horrid task that needed to be done.

Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels.com

We rented a steamer for a week in order to move the work along. The paper was so thick and the gluing so generous that I need to hold the steamer pad on an eight-inch by twelve-inch section of the wall for up to a minute. Then we had to let the heat and moisture do their work for a time before we could begin to scrape of the old stuff. Of course, there were places where we could tear away larger pieces. At those points we could see the changing fashions in wallpaper over the decades and could marvel at the things other people found attractive.

Preparing for the baby required, first of all, removing the remnants of older ways of life. To be fair, those older wallpaper choices weren’t bad. They were, however, no longer useful. This is one of the actions that John, through Second Isaiah, proclaims in his preaching. Mountains and hills will be leveled, and the slag will be used to fill up the valleys. That leveling is a prelude to straightening out the roads that formerly snaked around the geography. The bumps and ridges will be smoothed to allow for trouble-free transportation.

Neither Second Isaiah nor John the Baptist is really talking about physical road construction here. What is at stake is the renovation of human hearts, human relationships, political structures, and social boundaries. That is what’s at stake in our own Advent journeys as well.

I do recall being at least somewhat reflective as I stood holding the wallpaper steamer. I was noticing that my internal “wallpaper” (and overall architecture) was being refashioned to a degree as we prepared for parenting. I was aware of the obvious changes upcoming – financial demands, limits on personal freedom and social life, changes in alcohol consumption and time-wasting behaviors. I found that, whether I wanted it or not, I was moving into “adulting.”

It’s not that these changes were bothersome or burdensome. They were simply part of the deal. They were signs to me (and to the world, I hope) that the baby was coming, and we were getting ready. And they were changes which, taxing as they might have been, were making me into a better person for the long haul.

The prophet Malachi describes this personal, spiritual, communal, and social renovation as a “refiner’s fire” and “fuller’s soap.” Margaret Odell offers an excellent commentary on Malachi three on the workingpreacher.org site (did you make your contribution to the fundraiser?). In addition, the focus of Malachi’s proclamation is on the Levitical priesthood, rather than on the whole covenant community. Thus, Odell writes that “Malachi 3:1-4 challenges preachers to consider their own preparation for this particular season of the Lord’s coming. What,” she asks, “does Malachi envision as a necessary first condition for being ready to meet God?” For the Levitical priests, that first condition is apparently the burning and scrubbing which will render them transformed to a condition that makes their faithful ministry once again possible.

“This little text suggests that the first order of business as we prepare for the Lord’s coming is not endless discussion—no more endless questions, please, about how we came to be in the mess we are in—of who is right and who is wrong, or, for that matter, whether God sees these things as we do,” Odell writes. “Rather, the first order of preparation,” she continues, “is to establish the conditions for reconciliation—to consider how this God who desires life and peace may once again be encountered in ordinary human communities of conflict and tension.”

Odell reads Malachi as urging this “first order of preparation” as the more fundamental problem, prior to but not excluding issues of justice in the community. I’m not so sure that either the Malachi text or the trajectory of the Lukan reading support this as clearly as Odell presents. As she notes, Malachi 3:5-6, refers to some heavy-duty reforms in the community.

Even though the NRSV begins Malachi 3:5 with “then,” the Hebrew text has a simple “and” at the beginning of the sentence (the same is true in the LXX). It seems as likely to me that concerns for purity and justice are concurrent in the text as that they are consecutive. My Hebrew is far too rudimentary to get into the niceties of the vav-consecutive and its impact on verb tenses here. In any event, the burning and scrubbing will go hard on those who engage in idolatry (perhaps for money) and those who oppress and exclude the hirelings, the widows, the orphans, and the resident aliens. If this is addressed to the Levitical priesthood, there are some damning accusations here.

Michael Chan says it well in his workingpreacher.org article, “A Season for Truth-telling.”

“Whatever Malachi means by ‘refinement,’ it includes identifying and exposing acts of unfaithfulness. Yahweh’s fiery, refining love burns for those who suffer and are mistreated in this world. For those left out in the cold, the divine fire provides warmth. For those who break faithfulness with God and neighbor, the fire singes and purifies. In Malachi, Yahweh’s judgment attacks human indifference, along with its tempting tendency to view oppressed workers and vulnerable people as just another feature of the created order.”

As we prepared the nursery space to welcome our new baby, my heart, mind, spirit, and worldview were being refurbished and refashioned as well. So, it is in this season of Advent. Part of the joyous discipline of this season is the challenge prayerfully to ask myself what valleys need filling, what mountains and hills need leveling, what crooked ways need straightening and what rough roads need smoothing – in me as well as around me.

It became clear as we continued our room preparation that we were making others ready to welcome the baby as well. Through announcements, showers, celebrations, and casual conversation, we were reconfiguring the world around us for the change in our home, our hearts, our relationships, and our priorities. The world was going to be different for grandparents, aunts, uncles, parishioners, co-workers, and neighbors. The world was going to be different because we were going to be different. In fact, we were preparing a community to receive the baby.

That is another dimension of the Advent journey. Zechariah learns that John was going to “turn many of the sons of Israel upon the Lord their God” (John 1:16, my translation). He hears that the ministry of John is “to prepare for the Lord a people purpose-built” (John 1:17c, my translation). Relationships will be remodeled and hearts re-fashioned as part of this preparation. Zechariah affirms that calling in the Benedictus, in John 1:76.

One thing I know about that first nursery-making experience is that no matter how much we prepared, we weren’t prepared. I’m glad we did so much advance work, and it was exciting to do all that preparation in expectation of a great joy. The preparation made it possible for us to not only survive but to flourish in and through everything we didn’t know and didn’t anticipate. Just because we did lots of prep work doesn’t mean that we foreclosed on all the surprises and challenges of being new parents.

We were preparing for a different life, a new life, a transformed life. We could not imagine the extent of the differences, the changes, the transformations. All we could do was to put ourselves in the best place we could to receive whatever was coming. Getting ready for the baby was an exercise in trust and hope. There wouldn’t be much point in preparing if we weren’t pretty sure that someone new was coming.

So, we make changes at our house to get ready for The Baby. We are worshipping face to face in a local congregation weekly for the first time in eighteen months. The coincidence of that personal return to in-person worship and the beginning of a new church year has been refreshing and stimulating. Everything old seems new again. Worship has a fresh edge to it for me, and I find myself anticipating Sunday in ways I haven’t for some years.

We are reading Walter Brueggemann’s Celebrating Abundance as our Advent devotional discipline at the breakfast table. Brueggemann’s bracing readings of Hebrew and Christian scripture perks up my ears and focuses my attention. I find myself being on the alert, as Jesus urged us to be last week in the gospel reading.

I’m still steaming the wallpaper off my spirit – a lifelong task, for certain. But I also find that we are painting Advent blue in our lives and in our devotions, with some sparkles thrown in on the ceiling to make us look ahead to the Holy Night. That, by the way, was the decorative scheme of our first nursery – my only contribution to the aesthetics of the space.

After all, it was Advent.

References and Resources

Burnett, Clint. “Eschatological Prophet of Restoration: Luke’s Theological Portrait of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-6.” Neotestamentica, vol. 47, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 2013, pp. 1–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048893.

Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/a-season-for-truth-telling.

Hearlson, Adam. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-168-79-5.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Norton, Yolanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-168-79-7.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-malachi-31-4-6.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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