It’s Advent — This is how it begins

Maybe you remember the days when you could drop off a family member at the airport and then go out and watch the plane depart.  A small boy did that regularly with his traveling father.  When the little boy was about four, he took his first airplane ride.  After the family boarded the plane and buckled their seatbelts, the little boy began to scrunch up in his seat as the plane taxied down the runway.

“What are you doing, son?” his father asked.  “I’m waiting to shrink and disappear,” the little boy answered.[i]

What preconceptions, misperceptions and excess baggage fill you with fear?  The second and third Sundays in Advent are always house-cleaning Sundays.  Listen to the voice crying in the wilderness.  Prepare the way of the Lord!  This is how it begins.

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It begins with clearing out a path, making a way.  It begins with shedding the preconceptions, misperceptions and excess baggage that make us shrink and disappear.

This is how it begins—with a thorough cleaning.

At our house, we wade through stuff we can’t use or no longer need.  We have give-away bags.  We have recycle bins.  We have trash tubbies.  We have to organize the stuff that holds the stuff we can’t get organized.  And we’re pretty good at letting things go!

What a relief it is when all the excess baggage is removed!  This is true in our storage rooms.  It’s even truer in our hearts and minds and spirits.  What is taking up space in my head that really belongs to Jesus? What is cluttering up my heart so that God can’t even catch a breath?  What is smothering my spirit so that the Holy Spirit can’t find a crack to blow through?

This is how it begins.  Clear out a path. Make a way.

What’s the best way to get the house cleaned?  Invite some company!  The King is coming.  So let’s spruce things up.  What needs sprucing up in me so that Jesus can be welcomed?

If only it would be enough to just rearrange all the excess baggage!  If we could just put things in different slots, tidier boxes, or nicely labeled folders!  Anything more than that requires real change.  And real change is precisely what we don’t want.  A little repackaging—a little reorganizing—but no more than that, please.

According to sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Christianity is not the most common faith among America’s teenagers.  Instead, the most common faith among teenagers is that they call “moralistic therapeutic deism.”  In this perspective God is “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”[ii]

Smith and Denton have mapped that faith on to American teenagers.  I think it describes Americans in general.  American Christians embrace moralistic therapeutic deism.  They embrace the reshuffling of excess baggage and pretend to call it real change.  That’s a far cry from the one who baptizes us with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Moralistic therapeutic deism is not how it begins.

This is how it begins—with a real house-cleaning.

It begins with people sitting in darkness and longing for light.  It begins with people deep in despair, waiting for a word of hope.  It begins with people drowning in disgust and death, longing for life and love.  It begins with a word in the wilderness.

And here is that word.  You and I can be changed.

Drew Carey is a successful stand-up comedian.  He has starred in his own sitcom, run an improve-comedy show, hosted a daytime game show, written a bestselling memoir, owned a soccer team, and led several charities.  You might think Carey is the most organized person on the planet.  Instead, he spent years terrified of his own to-do list.

Carey was drowning in emails, scripts, meetings, invitations, requests, bills, letters and plans.  He was so daunted, in fact, that he spent tens of thousands of dollars to fix the problem.  He contracted with Dave Allen, the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.  Allen’s system results in four files—things to be done, delegated, dropped or deferred. There’s lots more to it than that, but you get the picture.[iii]

What if we made those files a template for our spiritual life this Advent?  What if we looked in our hearts to see what needs to be done, delegated, dropped or deferred?  Perhaps what needs to be done is a change in priorities.  Perhaps what needs to be delegated is control of the cosmos.  Perhaps what needs to be dropped in the resentment and rage that fill our days.  Perhaps what needs to be deferred is our desire to have everything perfect.

Done, delegated, dropped or deferred—it’s a great spiritual discipline in this Advent season.

We do this not only to let go of things.  We do this to make space for the life Jesus wants us to have.  In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor offers this little exercise.

“If you want to try it, then make two lists on one piece of paper.  On the one side of the paper, list all of the things you know give you life that you never take time to do. Then, on the other side, make a list of all the reasons why you think it is impossible for you to do those things.  That is all there is to it.  Just make the two lists, and keep the piece of paper where you can see it.  Also promise not to shush your heart when it howls for the list it wants.”[iv]

That seems like a wonderful Advent exercise.  There will be two results.  You will experience a sense of peace when you focus on what gives you life.  And you will discover that what really gives you life is the place where Jesus wants to meet you every day.

This is how it begins—with a real house-cleaning.

So let’s begin.  Then we might have room for some really good news.  Where will the cleaning begin for you this week?


[i] Illustration from Stephen Montgomery, “Beyond Fear, Fundamentalism and Fox News: The Active Hope of Advent.”

[ii] See Smith and Denton, Soul Searching¸ page 165.

[iii] From Roy Baumeister’s book, Willpower.

[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, page 138. 

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Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 5); December 12, 2021

Not the Most Wonderful Time

All of this talk about happiness and joy is really hard on people who face bereavement – either fresh or long term – in this season. And, if we’re honest, who doesn’t face bereavement this time of year?

I am just coming out of the least wonderful time of the year for me. It is the time of year when I remember the last Thanksgiving with my dad, unable to do anything but suck on an olive pit while the rest of us were supposed to feast on turkey and the fixings. I couldn’t do it, and I will not be able again to “celebrate” Thanksgiving.

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It is the time of year when I relive the twelve days of dying for my beloved first spouse. While it is not a debilitating journey for me as it was ten years ago, it is a stretch where nearly every minute is a reminder of some part of that process. I’m always glad when it’s over. And let’s not start in on moving from Thanksgiving Day to Native American Remembrance Day (a move for which I give thanks)!

Now we come into the season of mandatory happiness. I don’t have it in me. I find many secular Christmas songs highly irritating. At the top of the list today is “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” For many of us, it is not. It is not the “happ…happiest season of all.” The world around us insists on these facts. That assertiveness, however, feels like an assault.

I am so grateful for the spiritual gifts of joy and celebration my spouse brings to our life together. If it weren’t for her, I’d miss the whole season. She is able to bring Christmas joy into our home and into our life in the midst of and in spite of the realities of her life and mine.

That being said, no amount of elevator music can make the season the most wonderful time of the year for me. Happiness is overrated. For us as Christians, this is the season of joy. I want to spend a bit of time on the difference between happiness and joy.

The world demands happiness, and we won’t play. The real response to Christmas is joy. John Swinton spoke once about this difference between happiness and joy. Joy, he said, is the experience that comes in the midst of the darkness to create hope. Happiness denies the darkness. Joy dispels it. Happiness is temporary. Joy is lasting.

The Gospel of Luke has more occurrences of words for “joy” than any other book in the New Testament. The Lukan author wants to convey the notion that following Jesus is a joyous adventure in the midst of a dark and dreary world. It’s not that the Lukan account denies or minimizes that darkness. That is hardly the case. Instead, joy is what happens in the midst of the darkness, not in spite of it. Joy comes from knowing the darkness cannot last forever.

“For Luke,” writes Richard Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel, “the hallmark of right response to the message of Scripture is not so much obedience as joy: a glad and grateful reception of the powerful work of salvation performed by God throughout Israel’s story; in the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; and in the Spirit’s continuing work in the church.”

“Nothing that comes and goes is you,” writes Eckhart Tolle. In a daily devotion, Dr. Alan Wolfelt quoted this line. I have been privileged to study with Dr. Wolfelt. Dr. Wolfelt is the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has written nearly eighty books and hundreds of articles on grief and mourning. He is, in my opinion, the foremost bereavement educator and counselor in the world.

In that devotion, Dr. Wolfelt offers these comments on happiness and joy.

“What falls in that category [of things that come and go]? Your looks. Your weight. Your hair (ha-ha). Your job. Your basic belongings. Your feelings. Your thoughts. Day-to-day obligations.

What doesn’t come and go? Love. Once established, it tends to stick around, even if the object of that love doesn’t. Your most deeply held values, such as honesty and compassion. Your personality. The activities and special objects that have the power to make you gasp with wonder and joy.

The stuff in the first paragraph is temporary. The stuff in the second paragraph is eternal and thus meaningful. Mindfulness helps us dedicate more time and awareness each day to the second paragraph—as well as discern the difference—so that we don’t stress out too much about the first” (from One Mindful Day at a Time: 365 Meditations on Living in the Now).

Happiness is temporary and external. Joy lasts and fills our hearts. So, the shepherds, in the dark of that first Christmas night, get good news of great joy. To us is born in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.

As Christians we claim unchanging joy. We are certain, as Paul reminds us in Romans 8, that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We are certain that because Jesus lives, we shall live also. We are certain that in the New Creation there will be neither tears nor pain, neither mourning nor death.

In his book, The Road to Daybreak, Henri Nouwen puts it this way. “I think that joy is much more than a mood. A mood invades us. We do not choose a mood. We often find ourselves in a happy or depressed mood without knowing where it comes from. The spiritual life is life beyond moods. It is a life in which we choose joy and do not allow ourselves to become victims of passing feelings of happiness or depression.”

So, we choose joy. We make that choice together. In many congregations this time of year, the communities use a ritual of remembering to bring light in the midst of the darkness. We name the names of loved ones who have entered the new life with Christ. We do not deny the pain, the grief, the loneliness, the loss. We weep with holy tears. We will not cooperate with the culture of death denial, the world that insists on hollow happiness to distract us from distress.

In a recent article, Dr. Wolfelt offers several suggestions for healing our holiday grief. First, he suggests that we “set our intention to heal.” This means that we make a commitment to positively influence the course of our life journeys. This is the change from being a passive witness of your grief to being an active participant in your mourning.

Nothing has made me more frustrated in my own bereavement journey than the phrase, “It just takes time.” Of course, it takes time, but what was I supposed to do while I waited?” I learned from Dr. Wolfelt to take positive actions in my mourning. Those actions don’t fix or resolve grief. But taking positive action to seek support and to mourn our loss is part of setting that intention to heal.

Dr. Wolfelt encourages us—especially during the holidays—to turn to ritual. Ritual gives structure to remembering. Ritual can do for us what thoughts and feelings by themselves cannot. I’m sure you have your personal rituals at this time of year as well. Find ways to use those rituals to help you heal.

And Dr. Wolfelt encourages us to live in the now. The loss of grief remembers us into the past and seeks to keep us there. The fear of grief projects us into the future and seeks to take us there. “But when remembering and projecting exhaust you,” writes Dr. Wolfelt, “and they will—return yourself to the present moment.” So, we focus on the here and now of our loss.

For us, it is not the most wonderful time of the year. But we do live with good news of great joy which is for all people. I pray that this Christmas joy will bring some measure of light in our dark places today and in the coming days.

Stanley Hauerwas writes that Christian joy “is the result of our letting go of the slim reed of security that we think provides us with the power to control our own and other’s lives. But such a letting go is not something we can will,” Hauerwas continues, “so much as it is learning to accept the whittling down that the difficulties and tragedies consequent upon our frantic search for power force on us” (page 148).

It is, therefore, no accident that repentance and joy show up in the same passage of Christian scripture. We find joy – no, more properly joy finds us – at those moments when we relinquish our efforts to make life turn out “right.” Hauerwas notes that “joy is thus finally a result of our being dispossessed of the illusion of security and power that is the breeding ground of our violence” (page 148). If that is the case, that helps us to understand that the Baptizer’s call to the tax collectors and soldiers to change their ways was an invitation to joy.

“And the irony is that the more we lose,” Hauerwas writes, “the greater the possibility we have for living life joyfully. For,” he continues, “joy is the disposition that comes from our readiness always to be surprised; or put even more strongly, joy is the disposition that comes from our realization that we can trust in surprises for sustaining our lives.” That’s quite a description of real Christmas joy in the midst of a world where loss and grief are still very real.

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brueggemann, Walter. Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Know Press, 2017.

Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan 2003;  65,  1;  ProQuest Religion pg. 80.

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

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

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-zephaniah-314-20-5.

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

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

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Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 4); December 12, 2021

Expect Joy

In the traditions of the liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is “Gaudete” Sunday – the Sunday of the pink candle. “Gaudete” is the Latin word for the command to rejoice. Thus, this third Sunday is the rejoicing Sunday.

It is the Sunday when we turn the Advent corner from judgment to joy, from preparation to celebration. But our Gospel text seems to be an odd traditional choice for Gaudete Sunday. On its face, Luke 3 and the dour preaching of John the Baptizer is not the first text that comes to mind when I think of joy.

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Perhaps the problem is not in the text but rather in me. Rejoicing is hardly one of my personal strong suits. It comes naturally to some people, and I envy them this personal quality. I find joy suspect, a trap of good feelings that will result in a disappointing end. I approach joy from a defensive stance. Better to forego a bit of emotional froth in order to avoid a dive into the dark chasm when the existential fraud is revealed.

No, I’m not great fun at parties.

I come by this approach to joy quite honestly. I come from people who like a good laugh as much as the next person but were disposed to see the glass as routinely half-empty (or completely empty a great deal of the time). My mother, of blessed memory, was orphaned young and had a difficult childhood afterward. She came equipped with a somewhat joyless demeanor and life built numerous structures on that foundation.

Any positive experience could be jerked away at a moment’s notice. So, it was better to maintain a gray exterior and an even keel. I tend to minimize the potential for disappointment rather than to maximize the potential for joy. I’m not recommending this as a general approach to life, but I know that I’m not alone in my experience. And I’m sorry that I have bequeathed at least some of this emotional framework to my children, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.

If we were to rely solely on the Luke 3 lection, we might find ourselves trapped into another depressing week of judgment and anxiety. That’s not really the heart of our text, as I hope I’ve pointed out previously, but it can be hard to see how John’s preaching leads to “good news.” Fortunately, we have the companion texts to assist us in embracing the joy of Gaudete Sunday.

The first lesson, for Zephaniah 3:14-20, may be an editorial insertion from a member of the Second Isaiah school during the Babylonian Exile. That suggestion comes from Rolf Jacobson in the current edition of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast at workingpreacher.org. With that background in mind, I can hear the echoes of Isaiah 40-42 in this prophecy.

There is the reversal of judgment, the promise of the Divine presence, the healing of bodies broken by oppression, and the promise that the people shall return home. “The presence of these exilic themes suggests that the book of Zephaniah was revisited and reshaped for a post-exilic audience,” Margaret Odell writes in her working preacher.org commentary, “an audience who had survived the judgments of the previous generations but still awaited the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises of restoration.”

Odell notes that Amos and some of the succeeding prophets had reversed the current understanding of “The Day of Lord.” That day had been regarded as a time of rejoicing over the Lord’s victories on behalf of Israel. But Amos and his colleagues declare that this Day shall be about judgment, not victory. The response to the Day should be fear, not joy. Much of Zephaniah has this tenor in regard to the Lord’s coming.

“Just as suddenly, Zephaniah 3:14-20 reverses expectations yet again.” Odell writes. “YHWH removes the judgments, vanquishes Zion’s foes, and comes once again to dwell in Zion’s midst. Zion and YHWH exult in this reconciliation. If Zion rejoices because of YHWH’s mighty acts on her behalf, YHWH rejoices over her. It is a shared joy that reverses a long and difficult history of shame and dishonor, as even the nations are summoned to sing Zion’s praise.”

Zephaniah 3:14 simply effervesces with rejoicing. Shout with joy! Rejoice exceedingly! Exult with all your heart! Do this in response to the rescue and renewal the LORD is bringing about. But verse 17 has a wonderful twist. The LORD, our God, will rejoice over us with joy and renew us in love. This is a Sunday not only for our rejoicing over God but for God to rejoice over us as well! I think this text would make a marvelous call to worship or declaration of absolution during a rite of confession.

The text of verse 17 is hard to translate and then interpret. “The Hebrew in these verses is so obscure,” Odell writes, “that there is little scholarly agreement about their meaning. What is clear is that YHWH rejoices over Zion, and that it is his love for Zion that motivates his actions.” For example, the verb for “renew” is really the verb for “to keep silent.” Odell offers a helpful commentary on this little challenge.

She suggests that it is not necessary to edit the text as the NRSV does and move to the word for “renew.” Instead, the LORD perhaps keeps silent in love in order to refrain from speaking further words of judgment. “And, since this silence is surrounded by song and rejoicing,” Odell proposes, “we can conclude that this silence is not simply divine forbearance but rather full acceptance of Zion as she is. Past conflicts, past complaints, remain definitively in the past,” she argues, “What now bind YHWH and Israel together is joy in one another, and song.”

Odell quotes Martin Luther from “Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day” in this vein. “For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine,” Luther writes, “then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart.” The call of this Gaudete Sunday is to expect joy!

This call is multiplied and magnified in the second reading from Philippians 4:4-7. “Rejoice in the Lord at all times,” Paul writes to the Philippian church. “Let me repeat that – Rejoice! Let your kindness be known to all people,” he continues, “the Lord is near!” This sounds a great deal like the Baptizer’s counsel when people asked what they should do in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom. Rejoicing is not expressed in private celebrations but rather in public behavior.

That is because living in the joy of the Lord is a subversive act. The powers of sin, death, and the devil – inhabiting the domination systems of the world – demand from us a depressed and dour acquiescence. Our rejoicing is a visible affirmation that the powers of the powers are not the final word, and that our lives are not determined by the drumbeat of domination.

Those powers seek to satisfy us with mere happiness so we will be distracted from authentic joy. I am re-reading Kate Bowler’s marvelous memoir of her journey in and through cancer, No Cure for Being Human. As a scholar and critic of the “Prosperity Gospel,” she was uniquely positioned to understand and interpret her own experiences of suffering and joy.

“American culture has popular theories about how to build a perfect life,” Bowler observes. “You can have it all if you just learn how to conquer your limits. There is infinity lurking somewhere at the bottom of your inbox or in the stack of self-help books on the bedside table. It taunts you as you grip the steering wheel in traffic, attempting your new breathing practice, or in the predawn minutes when you could be working out” (p. xiv).

Bowler knows that these pre-packaged promises of mere happiness are doomed to fail. They founder on the rocks of our finitude. But joy comes just as we strike those rocks and discover that the promises of God are with us in the midst of our changes and challenges. Paul knows this as well, writing one of his last letters before he heads to Rome and execution. I would consider using this text from Philippians as the sending of the congregation as the worship service is ending.

At our house, we are finding joy in our Advent devotions as we read from Walter Brueggemann’s Celebrating Abundance. His reflection for the second Monday in Advent lifts up the new and subversive song of joy. “The new song never describes the world the way it now is,” Brueggemann writes. “The new song imagines how the world will be in God’s good time to come. The new song is a protest against the way the world now is. The new song is a refusal to accept the present world as it is,” he continues, “a refusal to believe this is right or that the present will last” (page 22).

If joy is a delighted protest against the oppressive status quo and a laughing proclamation of the changes to come, then it is no wonder that we encounter joy most often in the midst of the changes and challenges of life. Brueggemann offers a joyful prayer for living in the midst of those changes and challenges. “In this Advent season, teach us the new song, which heralds the new world that is coming, the new reality that is taking shape before our eyes. May we rejoice,” he prays, “in its truth and power and join all creation in its loud amen!” (page 23).

It is Gaudete Sunday. Expect joy!

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brueggemann, Walter. Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Know Press, 2017.

Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan 2003;  65,  1;  ProQuest Religion pg. 80.

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

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-zephaniah-314-20-5.

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

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

Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 3); December 12, 2021

Yes, But…

“But since the people were looking forward, and all were wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John replied to all of them saying, ‘I, on the one hand, baptize you with water; but on the other hand, one is coming who is mightier than me…” (Luke 3:15-16a, my translation). The people were expecting, anticipating, looking forward to the coming of a Messiah. But what did that mean to them and for them?

Perhaps it is time for my annual Advent visit to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. I think that title could be the theme for Advent preaching and worship every year (but eventually some alert parishioner would probably catch on). Pip, the main character, was expecting great things to come his way. Everyone around him was aware of those “expectations” and treated him with respect and fawning commensurate with the supposed windfall awaiting him.

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Pip was not mistaken in looking forward to a life of some wealth and privilege. But he was quite mistaken about the source of those great expectations. He thought his benefactor was the cruel and capricious Miss Havisham, the local lady of the manor. His actual patron was Abel Magwitch, a convicted felon who was now on the run from the law. This mistake regarding the source of the gift motivates a significant plot line in the story.

A mistaken notion about the source of expectations underlies the conversation we hear in Luke 3:15-17. Based on his preaching and moral teaching, the crowds begin to wonder if John is himself the promised Messiah who will bring about the restoration and renewal of Israel. The word Luke uses in verse 15, prosdokao, literally means to think or to understand “forward.” It is a verb with an arrow of time built into it.

We need to ask two questions here? First, were the people in John’s time expecting someone who fit the description of “Messiah”? Second, was that a live issue in some way for the hearers and readers in the Lukan audience? These questions are related but are not the same. It is certainly the case that first-century Jews with a variety of perspectives were looking for a messianic figure of some kind.

Brendan Byrne offers a brief outline of these expectations in his article. He concludes that there is enough evidence from sources prior to and during the first century to believe that people had this expectation. There is sufficient evidence in the Christian scriptures to conclude that Jesus was at least aware of the expectations of a “Davidic” messiah held by at least some of the folks around him. And it is clear by the time of Holy Week that “he was recognized by some people as Messiah or at least as a messianic pretender” (page 81).

How this played out for the gospel writers is another story. “Reading the gospels, however,” Byrne writes, “conveys the impression that this ‘messianic issue’ was a confounded nuisance with which the authors had to deal rather than a helpful lens through which to view Jesus” (page 81). The gospel writers struggled to maintain the tension between Jesus’ death by crucifixion and the honor status of a Davidic king.

There is no question that Jesus was seen by some, at least, as precisely such a Davidic messiah, or as a failed messianic pretender in the Davidic mold. The dilemma after Easter, as Byrne describes it, was that the disciples as witnesses “could deny that the title…was rightly applied to him, or they could say, ‘Yes, he was/is the Messiah, but….’” (page 82). That is, they could argue that he is the Messiah but in a different way than was expected by those who witnessed his life and death. That is the choice that each of the gospel writers appears to make, although the details of that description vary with the account.

Byrne argues that the Lukan author makes this “Yes, but,” choice “not in a political sense that would pose a threat to the established order” (page 82). Byrne is of the school that believes Luke wants to make the Christian message less threatening to the Gentile authorities and more palatable to the Gentile audiences who occupy at least a part of the Lukan gaze. He contests the view that the Lukan account is intended to be subversive to the Imperial narrative of Reality.

Byrne’s strategy is, in part, to create distance between the notion of the expected “Messiah” and that of Jesus as the “Son of God.” While he doesn’t address our text in his article, those titles are juxtaposed and perhaps somewhat opposed to one another in Luke 3 and 4. In our reading and its context, it is clear that the “Son of God” title is the more important interpretive lens through which to view the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, at least according to the Lukan author.

Byrne sees this pattern of Lukan interpretation having been launched in the Annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. “What I am trying to suggest here,” he writes, “is that the annunciation of Jesus’ birth inaugurates a pattern whereby Jesus is presented as ‘Messiah, but…,’ the ‘but’ referring to what the reader knows from being aware of the mode of Jesus’ conception: namely, that he is uniquely related to God in filial terms vastly outstripping any conventional expectation of the Davidic Messiah and that this drastically transforms the nature of his messianic mission and behavior” (page 85).

“Though he may have been crucified by a Roman governor as a dangerous political rebel inspired by messianic delusions,” Byrne argues, “this is a total misrepresentation created by his enemies, as the governor himself several times acknowledged.” Byrne argues that Jesus’ movement was “prophetically critical of, but not fundamentally hostile to, the prevailing civic authority and order.” Byrne concludes that the Lukan author wants to communicate this view of Jesus to establish Gentile Christian identity and to encourage “the success of the gospel in the wider Greco-Roman world” (page 95).

The people were looking forward and wondering. To what were they looking forward and wondering? The answer to that question makes a difference, I believe, in our own Advent expecting and wondering. I think Byrne is quite correct in reminding us that each of the gospel writers is offering a “Yes, but” answer to the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah. But I’m not sure this entails, even in the case of the Lukan account, that the answer serves to make the Jesus movement more palatable to Roman authorities and to Gentiles generally. Please see my previous work on the Lukan account as a hidden transcript of resistance.

We can be clear that none of the gospel writers, and the Lukan author in particular, want us to wonder if John was indeed the Messiah. It may well be that there were sects devoted to the memory and veneration of the Baptizer still active toward the end of the first century. Therefore, Luke needs to tamp down that sort of expectation and to put John in the proper place in the narrative.

Who are we expecting – in general, and in this season of Advent? At least some so-called Christians in the United States are expecting the return, sooner rather than later, of a White, Warrior Messiah rather than the presence of a humble and nonviolent (Brown, if you need a color) Suffering Servant. In fact, for many we live in a time of nostalgia rather than expectation. We are awash in longing for a time when White Male American Christianity was the dominant demographic reality in the West. As that demographic reality fades into the past, the anxiously violent reactions increase.

We can and perhaps should asks ourselves a question in this Advent season. If we are looking for something, what direction are we looking? Are we looking backward with that nostalgic longing, or are we looking forward with expectant hope that something new is about to happen? Of course, we can see and understand Jesus as Messiah (“Christ”), but…

We tend to see precisely what we expect to see. More than that, we accept evidence that confirms what we believe, and we reject evidence that contradicts what we believe. This is called “confirmation bias.” Pip, in Great Expectations, provides a case study in how confirmation bias operates. He collects an abundance of evidence to support his belief about the identity of his benefactor. And nearly all of that evidence is either useless or wrong.

So, the question about who or what we are expecting is a critical one in this Advent season. Our expecting can and will shape what we see and how we see it. In the Lukan account, John has to correct this bias quite forcefully for his first audience. Perhaps the Lukan audience needed a similarly forceful correction in their expectations. Perhaps we do as well.

John himself requires some measure of perception correction. You will recall that as he sits in Herod’s dungeon, he sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is the Coming One or if John should “expect” another. The verb there is the same as it is here in Luke 3. John receives a correction to his expectation that may have reshaped his perception, both of himself and of Jesus.

In addition, as we have noted before, the Lukan account is helping to manage not only who we expect but when. Luke is doing more than explaining the delay of Jesus’ second coming. Instead, the Lukan author wants to rekindle the flames of gospel hope for the long haul.

As preachers, we may want to challenge our listeners with a simple Lukan question. What do you expect?

References and Resources

Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly;  Jan 2003;  65,  1;  ProQuest Religion pg. 80.

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

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

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

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Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 2); December 12, 2021

First, Do No Harm, but Then…

In Luke 3:18, John’s proclamation is described as “good news.” On the face of it, that seems like a somewhat odd characterization. We don’t tend to hear words about the coming wrath or unquenchable fire as positive predictions. Perhaps we need to listen with ears better tuned to the message.

Levine and Witherington suggest that “the more informed among Luke’s readers would have recognized the Baptizer’s allusion to Isa. 51:1-2” (page 87). If that is the case, then we have the chance to do some “little text, big context” work to better appreciate what the Lukan audience may have been taught to hear. The verses in question say,

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (Isaiah 51:1-2, NRSV).

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If you are going to look to “Abraham your father,” John may be saying, then this is the place to look. Isaiah 51:3 offers words of comfort to those who are returning from the Babylonian Exile. That comfort will come in the waste places, and the wilderness will become like the Garden of Eden. Here’s a connection to John’s place of residence (as Luke describes it) in the wilderness. This will be a place of joy and gladness, of thanksgiving and the voice of song.

John’s proclamation in verse six ends with the declaration that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. “Salvation” comes into the poem in Second Isaiah three times in five verses. God’s salvation has gone out in the new regime of God’s rule over all the peoples. Heaven and earth will vanish like smoke, but God’s salvation will be forever, and God’s deliverance will be unending. Those who revile and reproach God’s people will be eaten up like old fabric, but God’s deliverance will be forever and God’s salvation to all generations.

The poem in Isaiah 51 carries the Good News of God’s faithful deliverance. That deliverance will set people free from domination and oppression. That deliverance and salvation shall have universal scope and shall be available for all peoples. This universal deliverance and salvation shall be about justice and redemption. The first result of this salvation shall be the return of the “ransomed of the Lord” with songs on their lips and joy on their heads.

If this text is part of what stands in the background of John’s proclamation, then it is more plausible that it would be heard as “good news.” If that is the case, then the question, “What, therefore, shall we do?” is not a fearful response. It is rather something more like, “What can we do to help?” If things are getting better, then count us in! For the first time in a long time, there is reason to hope.

The popular notion is that the essence of the Hippocratic Oath taken by (some) doctors is the phrase, “First, do harm.” It is often noted in its Latin form, “primum non nocere.” In fact, this language doesn’t show up in the Hippocratic oath. When it does show up in the writing of the ancient Greek physician, in a work entitled On Epidemics, it is more ambiguous than perhaps we would like. Physicians and their instructors debate the practical meaning of the phrase and know that in the real world applying it is always complicated and sometimes counterproductive.

“First, do no harm” seems to be more John the Baptist than Hippocrates. Tax collectors, don’t gouge the public. Soldiers, don’t extort more than you have coming to you. However, this is perhaps about more than refraining from criminal behavior. Richard Swanson helps us to see this urging in a wider and deeper context.

“Even people who made their living collaborating with the enemy,” Swanson writes, “heard the call to turn the world right-side-up” (page 67). He suggests that John tells them to do just what the rules require and not one thing more. “John tells even the collaborators that they can join the resistance against Rome,” Swanson continues. John “tells them simply to do the bare minimum, to do what native peoples have always done to resist powerful colonizers: never to make it easy for the oppressors, follow their orders, but no more than that” (page 67). John offers the soldiers similar counsel.

It is certainly the case, as I noted in the previous post, that John urges his listeners to do what is possible within the scope of their daily lives. But that doing may be more than trying to straddle the fence between collaborator and revolutionary. If the Lukan account is a hidden transcript of resistance, then these small actions are part of that hidden transcript. Done enough times, such actions can cause a large system to simply grind to a halt.

Scheffler notes the slight change in Luke 3:17 as compared to Matthew 3:12 (page 24). In the Lukan recension, the clearing of the threshing floor and the gathering of the wheat are aorist infinitives rather than future tenses. These things are happening in the ministry of Jesus, according to Luke. Only the final judgment is put off to the future. Salvation is happening in the here and now. That is part of the good news the people are hearing.

This can help to make some sense of the final paragraph in this section. Immediately following this declaration that John’s proclamation was “good news,” we hear the Lukan report of John’s arrest and imprisonment.

I think the Lukan author has provided an inclusio at this point in the text. That’s another of those oral/aural techniques for which we need to keep our eyes and ears open. Herod is noted in verse one as the ruler of Galilee. He is described again in verse nineteen as “the ruler.” In both cases, the formal title of “tetrarch” is used in the Greek text. The “good news” leads, in literary terms, to an immediate and negative response from one of the so-called rulers.

Scheffler points to this connection in his article. “Luke pictures the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus, not only as far as the latter’s socio-ethic is concerned, but also with regard to his suffering. As was the case with Jesus,” Scheffler continues, “the notion that a consistent socio-ethic leads to suffering also applies to John. Therefore,” he concludes, “it is important that John’s sufferings are mentioned here where he explicitly reports about the relationship between John and Jesus” (page 25).

I think the context supports the notion that the socio-ethical actions John advises are more than “good deeds.” Instead, they are actions of resistance against oppressors. They are part of the larger reality of the Kin(g)dom of God that challenges the domination systems which embody the oppression of Evil in the world. John urges people caught up in the System to find ways to resist the System and to make it grind to a halt. John takes on the corruption of the rulers directly and pays for that confrontation with his life.

The Lukan author is a master of the oral and/or literary technique of foreshadowing. The shadow of the cross falls over this part of the narrative as John is hauled off to prison for eventual execution. On the one hand, John proclaims the Good News that will be fulfilled in Jesus. On the other hand, he is apprehended by the forces of Evil who seek to suppress that good news.

“John’s message is, given his audience, one of comfort,” Levine and Witherington write, “people who have brought themselves to John and repented are the wheat; those who deny John and his baptism are the chaff…” They suggest that we have a clear indication of such chaff in verses 19-20. Herod Antipas and Herodias represent the chaff that will be destroyed.

I think that the Lukan account picks up a new section at verse 21, although the connection to “all the people” keeps a bridge to the previous section. Luke 3:21 through 4:30 is tied together by a reflection on the nature of Jesus as the Son of God. Therefore, as I suggested reading Luke 3:1-9 for last week, this week I would read Luke 3:7-20. I don’t think we honor the Lukan text by stopping at verse 18.

In the previous post, I encouraged us to wonder (at least by implication) how we can prepare the way of the Lord through our everyday lives and small actions. I want to stick with that wondering. But I think the text in its fullness urges to think not only about where we might engage in such actions, but where those actions might be tools of resistance to the powers that seek to dominate. And if those actions are such tools of resistance, then perhaps we should be ready to suffer as a result of our engagement with the powers.

It takes very little effort, for example, to speak up in support of someone who has endured a racial slur in our presence. Yet, we White people find it incredibly difficult to respond to such language with resistance to the wrong and support for the sufferer. We know that if we do, we may experience some suffering on our own. At the very least we will surrender some of our White solidarity, and we hate to relinquish that property.

Yet, that is precisely the sort of action I suspect John would call forth from us as the fruit that befits repentance.

References and Resources

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

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

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

Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 1); December 12, 2021

Last week we noted two things about the Lukan account.

First, the Lukan author is writing an orderly account for the long haul, for a setting in which it appears that the Second Coming of the Son of Man will be “delayed” indefinitely. I want to take a moment to reflect on what that means. It doesn’t mean, in the Lukan perspective, that there has been a change in the Divine Timetable. Instead, the Lukan author is suggesting that perhaps the generation of the Markan composition hadn’t gotten the eschatological expectations quite right, especially in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

I worked for a boss once who insisted that we would never suggest that the boss was “late” for anything but rather was “delayed.” The purpose was to indicate that our boss was organized and stuck to a schedule unless some unavoidable task came up unexpectedly. That is not really the case with the Lukan account. The issue of the “delay” was with the schedule assumed by early Jesus followers, not because God was disorganized or needed to go to Plan B.

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Second, the Lukan author is addressing a complicated mix of people in sociological, psychological, and theological terms. The Lukan audience is largely Jewish-Christian, but Gentile god-fearers are becoming more and more numerous in those communities. While the great majority of the Markan audience likely came from the lowest socioeconomic segments of the Roman populace, the Lukan audience seems to have more people of wealth and influence, as well as soldiers and mid-level bureaucrats. We can see that difference reflected in the characters who take center stage in the Lukan drama.

We will come back to that second point in a moment. But first, let’s think about what this difference might mean for how the Lukan account was delivered to readers, or was it listeners? The addressee of Luke/Acts, the “most excellent Theophilus,” was clearly literate. Some scholars wonder if Theophilus was an actual person or simply a stereotype, a literary conceit by the Lukan author. For present purposes, that distinction doesn’t make a difference. Whether Theophilus was real or fictional, the character was assumed to be literate.

That is quite different from the clear Markan assumption that the composition would be primarily spoken and that the written document was really a transcript of one or more of those oral performances. But this doesn’t mean that the literacy rate in the Roman Empire suddenly skyrocketed between 70 and 90 CE. At best, the Lukan author could have assumed about a ten percent literacy rate. It is likely that the real number was somewhat lower.

The great majority of people who came into contact with the Lukan account would have heard it read aloud rather than reading it themselves, either aloud or silently. So, it is worth our time to continue to ask performance critical questions of the texts as we go through this lectionary year. One of those questions entails wondering who was really addressed in a text. More properly, this question invites us to imagine who it was who heard themselves addressed as these texts were read aloud.

In Luke 3:7-22, the text contains clear indications about who was being addressed. In verses seven and ten, it is the “crowds that came out to be baptized by John” who are addressed and then raise questions in response to John’s proclamation. In verses 15, 18, and 21, it is “the people” (and then “all the people”) who are the target of the text. As I noted last week, this is different Matthew’s targeting of the religious authorities. This is a direct address similar to the “you (plural)” passages in the Markan composition.

That direct address takes up most of verses seven through nine. It continues in verses ten through fourteen and is focused on specific social groups. In verses fifteen through seventeen, John responds to questions which may still have reverberated in the Lukan community fifty years after the fact. And in verse twenty-one, we hear that “all the people” have been baptized, a remarkable statement on its own. John’s work was finished, and Jesus’ ministry could then begin.

As we look more closely at the text, and as we remember that oral/aural techniques still apply, we can begin to look for (and to see) some of those techniques and use them in our interpretation. You may recall the Markan fondness for chiastic structures. And you may recall that this is a characteristic of oral/aural presentations in the Greco-Roman world. In Luke 3:7-10, I would suggest that we have a small chiasm. It works like this:

A:        Luke 3:7 – John warns the crowds

B:        Luke 3:8a – Be fruitful trees

C:        Luke 3:8b – Children of Abraham from stones

B’:       Luke 3:9 – Unfruitful trees are cut down

A’:       Luke 3:10 – The crowds ask their question

The center of this paragraph is John’s reminder to the crowds that their cultural and religious pedigree is neither necessary nor sufficient to “flee the wrath to come.” Stones don’t have such a pedigree. Neither do Gentiles, by the way. Remember that the Lukan author always has an eye toward how this will all work out in the Book of Acts. One of the major themes of Acts is that new “children of Abraham” will be raised up in the most unexpected of places.

On the one hand, this is a caution to Jewish Christians who are perhaps tempted to lean back on their pedigrees and relax a bit as the Second Coming seems to recede into the historical future. On the other hand, it is good news for those who do not have and cannot have that pedigree. They may become living stones just as Jesus is the living cornerstone upon which the Church is now built. Regardless of their backgrounds, the listeners can indeed “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

We contemporary Jesus followers are long past the Jew/Gentile divide of the first century. We are not, however, long past the boundaries we create between “insiders” and “outsiders” in most of our congregations. Pedigree, whether in terms of genealogy or tenure, does not substitute for repentance – changing one’s mind to be aligned with God’s intentions. Nor does recent arrival require one to sit on the sidelines until one has “earned the right” to be part of the real community.

The Lukan author moves from a chiastic paragraph to one that exhibits the Rule of Three. Did you happen to notice that? The crowd replies to John and says, “What, therefore, shall we do?” Rather than offering a broad-brush description, the Lukan author has John respond to three specific situations: less-poor people, tax-collectors, and soldiers. I want to make a few observations here.

First, John accepts the question as the right one. But his reply might not be quite what the first audience or the Lukan audience was expecting. I would connect Luke 3:10 to the previous paragraph in part because it is connected with an “and.” Luke 3:11 has a “but” in it to indicate a mild adversative sense. While we might expect John to urge some “spiritual” reformation, he goes for the pocketbook, at least metaphorically.

Second, John affirms that the crowds can indeed do something. They have, in contemporary language, agency. That agency is not determined by economic status. It is not only people of means who can do something that matters. Someone with two coats was not a wealthy person. But that someone was also not the poorest of the poor. Do something with what you have. Tax-collectors could obey the rules, and soldiers could be satisfied with their wages.

These are actions from normal, everyday life. On the one hand, the Lukan author is not advocating for a social or economic revolution on some historic scale. On the other hand, a modest social position is no excuse for doing nothing. We can all do something, the Lukan author seems to say. And that something will likely be specific to the dynamics of our particular situations.

I cannot do “everything.” So, I am sometimes tempted to do nothing. But the fact that I will not bring about change on some historic scale is not a reason to despair. I don’t think that my commitment to a plant-based, whole foods diet will solve the climate crisis or reform industrial agriculture. But it is something. I don’t think my charitable gifts to a variety of organizations will eliminate hunger or childhood poverty. But those gifts make some small difference. In the language of the theater, there are no small parts – only small players.

In addition, doing something changes me. Remember, this is about bearing fruit worthy of repentance. The Western, Enlightenment assumption is that we think ourselves into acting. But the truth is that we more often act ourselves into thinking. When I share my cloak with the one who has none, I nudge myself to be more of the person who does such things. Habits form character and change minds. That sounds like repentance to me.

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Text Study for Luke 3:1-6 (Pt. 7); December 5, 2021

Further Complications

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I think it will be most helpful to read through verse nine of Luke 3 this Sunday. Take a look at the first sentence in Luke 3:7 in particular. “Therefore [John] said to the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him, ‘Offspring of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’” It’s worth comparing this to the other Synoptic accounts and then reflecting on the differences.

The Markan composition doesn’t portray John the Baptizer as yelling at anyone about being the illegitimate children of serpents. The writer of Matthew, on the other hand, really likes this description. That writer likes it so much that it shows up three times in the Matthean account, in Matthew 3, 12, and 23. Matthew applies the tag first to the Pharisees and Sadducees, then to the Pharisees by themselves, and then to the scribes and Pharisees.

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Luke has John yelling in general at the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him. There may well have been Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes in those crowds – as well as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. It’s clear that Matthew and Luke share this label from a source upon which they both relied. But why does the Lukan author make the particular editorial choice to spray this insult with a firehose rather than to apply it with a squirt bottle?

I think the Lukan author is addressing a mixed crowd, even though the author appears only to be addressing a member of some elite group, the “most excellent Theophilus.” The Lukan author is not merely worried that the Markan composition is somehow incomplete, although that is a concern for the Lukan author.

I think much more is going on. A generation after the Jewish War and two decades after some thought the End of the Age would arrive, Jesus followers appear to have become complacent. On the one hand, the Lukan author is encouraging Jesus followers to settle in for the long haul and to see the Kin(g)dom of God already in their midst. On the other hand, the Lukan author is challenging the Jesus followers not to settle for the values and practices of the larger culture.

As I read the Lukan account, it strikes me that the author has at least three groups in mind here. Next Sunday, we will hear from the “little people” who come out to John. We’ll look at this in more detail in upcoming posts, but we can make some transition here. The Lukan author does not ask those people to give up their “jobs” to resist the values of Empire. Instead, the author reports that John calls them to do their jobs with integrity rather than in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement.

In particular, the Lukan author singles out those who would experience the greater pressure to conform – tax contractors and mercenary soldiers. I think these two classes were made up primarily of Jews at the time of John, and that fact continued to hold in the time of the Lukan account. The author will spend more time with such folks in the coming chapters, but we get a preview here of how Jesus followers engaged in “The System” are to behave.

John also addresses the poor and indigent in the crowd. Who could blame them for trying to come out on top in the day-to-day struggle for survival? But John commands the standard of “enough” even for those whose daily bread is a daily question. In John’s time, this group would have made up an increasing percentage of the population, as the Romans squeezed the Syrian province for more and more funds to underwrite adventures elsewhere in the borders of the Empire. The Lukan audience would not have experienced much change in that dynamic in the two generations after the Resurrection.

The third group, the one that seems to get the most attention in the Lukan account, is those who can presume upon their pedigree and privilege. “Produce fruit that is worthy of repentance,” John commands them, “and don’t begin to say in yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as father…’” That reliance on the holy genealogy will get them precisely nothing. That status is worth as much as the stones along the road. If God wants to turn those stones into children of Abraham, God can do it with a word.

The Lukan account will criticize repeatedly those who presume upon their power, position, privilege, and property. I think of the parable of the Rich Fool. The real punch of that parable is the smug self-satisfaction of the rich man. “Self,” he says to himself, “you have plenty laid up for years to come; take it easy, eat, drink, and be merry!” Of course, it didn’t work out all that well for the Rich Fool. The conclusion of this line of thought is clear – where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

It’s clear from the introduction to the Lukan account, that the primary audience for Luke-Acts is this population of the relatively privileged. They have survived the debacle of the Jewish War. Jesus has not returned to make their riches irrelevant. Now they must learn how to follow the Jesus way rather than the Roman way, despite the fact that they are attached to that larger cultural system through their status, wealth, and privilege.

While the Book of Acts moves the narrative into the larger Gentile world, it begins with a concentrated focus on how those with wealth can be part of the community of Jesus followers. In Acts 4, we get the description of the common life of the early Jesus community. They held in common their trust in Jesus as if they had one heart, one soul, and all their physical possessions in common. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35, NRSV).

The Lukan author then tells the story of the Cypriot Levite, Joseph Barnabas. He converted his property to cash and placed the offering at the feet of the apostles. In contrast, chapter five begins with the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They, too, converted some of their property to cash and delivered a portion of the proceeds to the apostles.

The problem, apparently, was that they wanted the community to think they were more generous than they were. They held back a portion for security and thus lied to the Holy Spirit and the community. The result of this deception was the consecutive deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.

It should be clear to us as readers that the Lukan author is addressing a number of relatively wealthy members of the Jesus community. There’s no reason to discuss the proceeds of real estate transactions with people whose property inventory consists of a second cloak. One of the questions facing the Lukan community as they settle in after a generation of relative chaos is not whether the privileged can be part of the community but rather what to do with that privilege as part of the community.

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.

Mora, Raul Alberto. https://centerforinterculturaldialogue.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/key-concept-counter-narrative.pdf.

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.

Pickett, Raymond. “Luke as counter-narrative: The Gospel as social vision and practice.” Currents in theology and Mission 36.6 (2009).

Pickett, Raymond. Luke and Empire. https://www.academia.edu/7832495/Luke_and_Empire_An_Introduction?from=cover_page.

Miller, Amanda C. Rumors of Resistance: Status Reversals and Hidden Transcripts in the Gospel of Luke. (preview, 2014). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Rumors_of_Resistance/QwQDAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PR3&printsec=frontcover.

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

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

Underneath History

How does the Lukan author view and evaluate the Roman Imperial culture and system? Some scholars have been sure that the author of Luke/Acts is writing a version of the gospel that will be less threatening to that Imperial culture and system than was the abrupt and radical version of the Markan composition. In the process, this orderly account written for the cultured and urbane “Theophilus,” would be less offensive and more attractive to Gentiles generally.

There’s lots of evidence for this assessment in Luke-Acts itself. Pilate pleads repeatedly that Jesus is innocent and should be released. Centurions are portrayed as “good guys” in the drama rather than as villains. Paul appeals to the Emperor and relies on his Roman citizenship to grant him access to the slow-grinding wheels of Imperial civil and criminal proceedings. These are only a few of the many details that support a relatively “pro-Empire” position or at least one that is somewhat neutral toward the Empire.

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Other scholars see Luke-Acts as a revolutionary, subversive account with a particular emphasis on reversing the status of marginalized groups, such as the impoverished and women. One only has to refer to the language of the Magnificat for evidence to support this perspective. God “has demonstrated the strength in [God’s] arm, God has strewn about the arrogant by the wild fancies of their hearts; God has thrown down dynastic rulers from thrones and elevated the humble, God has satisfied the hungry with the good stuff and sent away the rich empty” (Luke 1:51-53, my translation).

Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4 continues this theme with its emphasis on reversal and the coming Day of Jubilee. The parables of want and plenty in the Lukan account build upon the reversal of the rich. The parables of the Rich Fool and the Rich Man and Lazarus attack both the structures of wealth and poverty and the substitution of material plenty for Divine Abundance.

Strong exegetical and historical cases have been made and continue to be made for each view. How can one document produce such diametrically opposed interpretations? We got a glimpse of this dynamic in the previous post as we reflected on the “counter-narrative” character of Luke-Acts. The Lukan documents present to us a “hidden transcript of resistance,” in the words of anthropologist James. C. Scott. Amanda Miller offers a helpful summary of Scott’s work and applies it to the Lukan documents.

“In this study, I will argue that the reign of God as espoused by the Gospel of Luke utilizes, among other strategies of imperial negotiation,” Miller writes, “a significant resistance to some of the dominant values and practices of the Roman Empire. Central to that vision,” Miller continues, “is the challenge issued to readers and hearers from all levels of social status to confront and transform their prejudicial or dominating attitudes and actions in light of the reversals proclaimed in the text” (page 2).

What is the relationship between the Christian Way and the Roman Way, according to the Lukan author? Well, it’s “complicated.”

In our text, for example, the Lukan author acknowledges the characters in “Big History.” Emperors, governors, tetrarchs, high priests – these are the people noticed in the official histories, both then and now. These are the people who make and record History from “above,” from the heights of power, privilege, position, and property. The Lukan author takes Big History into account. But the folks on the heights don’t call the shots in the way they think.

The Lukan gospel happens mostly in the history populated by the Little People. The Gospel happens in the history underneath, among those who have little power, privilege, position, and property. That’s the real story, no matter what the writers of the Official History might think. Such Official History also reflects the perspectives of the powerful and is often commissioned to sustain and give credibility to just those perspectives.

Real history happens underneath. I think, for example, of the three stories that structure Isabel Wilkerson’s beautiful work, The Warmth of Other Suns. While Wilkerson is tracing the historical arc of the Great Migration, the movement of seven million black people from the South to the North between 1915 and 1975, she does it through the stories of quite ordinary people – people who are just trying to survive and hoping to thrive. The main characters have no great philosophical ax to grind or ideological cause to champion. They’re just trying to get through the day.

Yet, in that struggling and striving, American history, society, and culture were changed. It wasn’t any one of the Little People who did it. It was all seven million of them. History was written from underneath, not from on high. The stories of those three Little People, when taken in sum, were counter-narratives to the stories told by White People. They were “hidden transcripts of resistance” lived out day to day over the decades of the Great Migration. Without the work of scholars such as Isabel Wilkerson, those stories would have remained hidden, but no less real.

While the three main characters in Wilkerson’s work were not culture warriors or intentional agents of social change, their stories have the power to open our minds to a past we White people have ignored and to open our eyes to new possibilities for the future. In reporting these stories, Wilkerson makes them unhidden transcripts of resistance, especially as she frames them in the larger history of the United States at the time. The Lukan author does something similar.

Miller notes the tendency among the privileged and powerful to read the Lukan account as a purely metaphorical, that is “spiritual” text. In the same way it can be tempting for White people to read Wilkerson’s accounts as “past” and as lovely human-interest stories and nothing else. “The vehement espousal of spiritualized and therefore ‘safe’ readings of the Lukan reversals by wealthy and elite readers, even today,” Amanda Miller writes, “reinforces the conviction that there is something deeper, more threatening, and more potentially transformative at work here, alongside the more conciliatory strategies of imperial negotiation” (page 12).

It is that “something deeper, more threatening, and more potentially transformative” which demands our attention as we hear the Lukan account once again. It is hidden precisely because it will be regarded as dangerous. Therefore, it has to be uncovered and interpreted. “If these passages are indeed part of a strategy of hidden resistance by non-elites,” Miller will argue, “this deeper meaning must include an element of real social commentary and change, or at least the desire for such. Otherwise,” she continues, “it would not have to hidden, nor would it create the need for such passionate (and sometimes convoluted) opposition from the socially and materially comfortable” (page 12).

There is certainly a place for the Big People in the real Lukan history. But it’s not the place they think they have. That’s true elsewhere in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and no more so than in Second Isaiah, the home of the quote in Luke 3:4-6. Cyrus the Persian, for example, is called a “messiah” in Isaiah 45. Cyrus certainly sent the people of Judah home from the Babylonian Exile. But he didn’t do this as an act of faith. Instead, he likely rid himself of a quarrelsome lot who were costing money, and he could be the “hero” while doing so.

The Big People, the Lukan author reminds us, think they are bending history, and perhaps even God, to fit their plans and purposes. Yet, underneath that Official History of the Big People, the Gospel is working to accomplish what seems to be impossible. It’s no accident that one of the recurring themes in the Lukan account is the plans and purposes of God. No matter what the Official Historians write, God’s plan of salvation is moving along underneath history and through it.

The Little People will collide with the Big People at the necessary times. John takes on Herod Antipas. Jesus debates Pilate. Paul appeals to the Emperor. But the Big People are bit players in the real Divine Drama happening under the historical radar. The Lukan author tells their stories to declare the Gospel that happens in spite of and in resistance to Official History.

We can ask ourselves, therefore, a somewhat complicated Advent question. Do I trust in the Big History from above or the Little History from underneath? Personally, I tend to invest far too much credibility in the Big History. I allow my moods and perceptions to be shaped too readily by headlines and announcements, by Big Politics and Big Money. When power, position, privilege, and property call the shots and rule the day, I see very little hope for the world and the future.

But the Lukan author invites me, teases me, into looking from underneath. The Lukan author invites me to hear the subtext, not only in the Gospel account but also in my life in the here and now. If I take the time to stop, look, and listen, I can see and hear the Good News lived out in a thousand daily happenings that will never make it to the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Yet, if the Lukan author knows something, these thousand daily happenings are places where the Good News is working out.

The Lukan author is not inviting us to withdraw from the Big History, to pretend it doesn’t matter, to become so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly good. But, the author pleads with us to see underneath, to know that much of the real history is hidden and demands closer examination. The author urges us to remember that just because the Big People say things are a certain way don’t necessarily make it so.

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.

Mora, Raul Alberto. https://centerforinterculturaldialogue.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/key-concept-counter-narrative.pdf.

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.

Pickett, Raymond. “Luke as counter-narrative: The Gospel as social vision and practice.” Currents in theology and Mission 36.6 (2009).

Pickett, Raymond. Luke and Empire. https://www.academia.edu/7832495/Luke_and_Empire_An_Introduction?from=cover_page.

Miller, Amanda C. Rumors of Resistance: Status Reversals and Hidden Transcripts in the Gospel of Luke. (preview, 2014). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Rumors_of_Resistance/QwQDAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PR3&printsec=frontcover.

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

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

Living a Different Story

“Luke’s story of Jesus offers an alternative vision of life and practice,” Ray Pickett writes, “that promises God’s deliverance from the dehumanizing effects of imperial society for the covenant community that hears Jesus’ words and does them (page 432). Pickett encourages us to read the Lukan account “as a tightly woven counter-narrative that sets out an alternative vision of life that challenged the foundational values and structures of Greco-Roman society” (page 424). Pickett’s article is worth examining in some detail.

Pickett argues that this counter-narrative “was designed to shape the identity and practices of assemblies of Christ in the last couple of decades of the first century” (page 424). For those of us who were trained to see the Lukan account as a way to accommodate to the Roman Empire and the Gentile world in general, this perspective is challenging, refreshing, and intriguing. In his contribution to Luke and Empire, Pickett argues that the Lukan assessment of the Empire is “neither pro nor con.” There is a difference between resisting the totalizing claims of empire over its inhabitants and actively challenging that ideology in political terms. Pickett and others would describe the Lukan account as more resistance that revolution.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

This means that the focus of the Lukan account is not really the Roman Empire. The Empire is the context, the framework, the air that Lukan Christians breathed. But the focus of the account is not so much on what is wrong with the Empire as it is on how to live as a faithful Jesus follower in spite of breathing the air of Empire. Pickett writes that “Luke’s representation of the imperial system serves as a backdrop against which the practices and patterns of life characteristic of God’s reign are depicted in the narrative. Throughout Luke-Acts,” he continues, “Jesus and the community of his followers mediate and embody divine power in ways that cause them to act contrary to the imperial cultural system and those who represent it” (Luke and Empire, page 15).

We should take a moment to review the role and function of counter-narratives in the formation and sustaining of communities. “Counter-narrative refers to the narratives that arise from the vantage point of those who have been historically marginalized,” Raul Alberto Mora writes. “A counter-narrative thus goes beyond the telling of stories that take place in the margins,” Mora continues. “By choosing their own words and telling their own stories, members of marginalized communities provide alternative points of view, helping to create complex narratives truly presenting their realities.”

I think it’s important to note the sociological framework of counter-narratives. The Lukan author is not writing from or to a cultural or political dominant community but rather one that is on the margins. Christians live in an imperial system but give allegiance to a different Lord. Following the destruction of Jerusalem, Christians live in a Diaspora among the nations, that is, the Gentiles. The Lukan author is giving an orderly account of the gospel, not only to tune up the Markan composition, but also to stand up the narrative against the dominant story told by empire.

Pickett notes that the Empire controlled and distributed all the economic, social, and political goods available to people. The Gospel critiques this system and offers a resistant story. That’s the thing about a counter-narrative. It’s not just an alternative account. It’s an account designed to push back. “The Gospel of Luke is a counter-narrative,” Pickett writes, “inasmuch as the divine beneficence and healing mediated through Jesus are set in contrast to an experience of imperial society as one of scarcity and subjugation” (page 425).

Pickett argues that Luke’s Gospel “does not directly challenge the Roman Empire as an ideological system. Rather,” he writes, “as prophet Jesus critiques the social system from a more practical perspective, and as teacher he articulates specific principles and practices that serve as the foundation for a way of life that is set in contrast to the Greco-Roman way of life” (page 425). Pickett proposes that Luke’s counter-narrative is not a theoretical assault on imperial theology but rather the description of a counter-cultural way of life.

“The Gospel of Luke is designed to shape the communal identity and practices of audiences by showing how Jesus and his followers exemplify God’s love and purpose,” Pickett suggests. “As a counter-narrative it provokes hearers to be and act differently. As is characteristic of Judaism,” he notes, “the narrative is more on the formation of character and community through praxis than on theology per se” (page 426). Picket cites the work of Shari Stone-Mediatore to point out that such an emphasis on praxis rather than theory is characteristic of counter-narratives produced by marginalized communities. He summarizes this part of the argument as follows:

“In reading the Gospel of Luke as a counter-narrative against the backdrop of imperial society, Jesus and his followers are viewed as representatives of such marginalized experience advocating for a subaltern politics, namely ‘the kingdom of God,’ and calling into question the ‘common-sense’ knowledge and practices that form the foundation of Greco-Roman society” (page 426).

If the Lukan author wrote this counter-narrative to resist the dominant imperial culture and to promote the “subaltern” Christian communities, then we contemporary readers need to do our best to read it in an analogous way. We need to do that if we are to allow the text its appropriate authority. The challenge is that Luke, of all the four gospels, has been the most co-opted in supporting precisely the “common-sense knowledge and practices” that undergird our own dominant culture.

For example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is known by many people who have basically zero Biblical literacy. It is told as a cultural “just-so” story about being nice and neighborly. It is the stuff of greeting cards and gift-store baubles. The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been psychologized and popularized almost beyond recognition in some accounts and has lost its counter-cultural edge for most hearers. Part of the challenge of preaching from the Lukan account, I think, is to recapture the counter-narrative character of the text for our own audiences.

Pickett observes that “salvation” is a central reality in the Lukan account. This salvation refers in particular to the restoration of Israel as God’s witness to the world. We run into questions and assertions about this restoration from the beginning of the Gospel (in the Song of Simeon, for example) to the end (in the melancholy hopes of the Emmaus pair and the question of the disciples at the Ascension).

“In Luke-Acts,” Pickett writes, “the offer of salvation requires a human response of ‘repentance’” (page 428). Now we come to the texts before us this week and next. John the Baptizer challenges his listeners to bear fruit worthy of repentance, that is giving external evidence of internal change. “Specific social, moral, ethical, financial, and religious inequalities are challenged in Luke-Acts,” he continues, “and repentance is presented as the means of correcting them.” This repentance is not only a “theological principle” but “denotes a change in behavior” (page 428).

The Lukan counter-narrative tells a different story, but it also calls forth changed ways of living and being. Pickett wants us to “pay attention to how the narrative works to alter day-to-day patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and behaving. Salvation and the restoration of Israel and the nations,” he argues, “are presented in the Gospel of Luke as an ongoing process of social transformation” (page 428). Here in Advent, we can prepare our listeners to hear and read the Lukan account with just such a framework in mind.

Pickett begins his concluding reflections with this summary. “Luke’s story of Jesus offers an alternative vision of life and practice that promises God’s deliverance from the dehumanizing effects of imperial society for the covenant community that hears Jesus’ words and does them” (page 432). He suggests that the Lukan account holds up the values of hospitality and economic redistribution as counters to the imperial patronage system that values hierarchy and competition for the scarce commodity of honor. The restoration of Israel now includes the restoration of all the nations (Gentiles). “Transformation occurs as people begin to live according to God’s purposes,” Pickett says, “by appropriating Jesus’ teaching in their life together” (page 432).

What can we do with that as preachers here and now? Pickett argues that reading the Lukan account as such a counternarrative would allow us to interrogate our own secular myths of salvation and “the cultural systems to which we are beholden that deform and dehumanize us” (page 432). He suggests that these myths and systems come to us in the forms of totalizing politics, the market as a secular divinity and radical, expressive individualism as a secular spirituality (my terms, not his).

Of course, here (as my father would have said) is “where the cheese gets binding.” We White, Christian, American, privileged, propertied, and positioned people bring the current culturally dominant system in the door of the church with us every Sunday morning. I can’t really hear the Lukan account from the place of the marginalized. If I actually listen to the text as it is, I may well experience it as a counter-narrative, but its “counter” quality will deconstruct my privilege rather than encourage my endurance.

That’s not such bad news. This is precisely the effect of John’s wilderness proclamation. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’” John thunders, “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8b, NRSV). Presumptions of privilege are the first items on the homiletical chopping block for John, so I might expect to get the same treatment. Thus I would now certainly read Luke 3:1-9 as the text on Sunday.

Yet, there is hope for change. The axe of judgment may be in mid-swing, but there is opportunity to bear fruits worthy of repentance. The specifics of that response come next week. This week perhaps we preachers in places of privilege can prepare our listeners for the transition from beneficiaries of the dominant culture to alternative communities living in and on the counter-narrative of Jesus. That shift is happening, and it hurts. But at least we might be able to name it here.

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.

Mora, Raul Alberto. https://centerforinterculturaldialogue.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/key-concept-counter-narrative.pdf.

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.

Pickett, Raymond. “Luke as counter-narrative: The Gospel as social vision and practice.” Currents in theology and Mission 36.6 (2009).

Pickett, Raymond. Luke and Empire. https://www.academia.edu/7832495/Luke_and_Empire_An_Introduction?from=cover_page.

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

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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