December 9 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Second Sunday in Advent
Texts: Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Theme: Orthodox choices would include "Prepare the Way", or some direct reference to John the Baptist as the Forerunner. Staying with last week's idea of reality and fantasy, I'm tempted to go for "Nothing Trivial".
Introduction. As I noted last week, we seem to walk backwards (to Christmas) during our Advent journey. Last week we looked ahead to the return of Jesus at the end of the age. This week (and next) we look back to Jesus' coming into the public arena as an itinerant preacher, healer and holy man, by focussing on one of the most perplexing characters in the New Testament, the one we call John the Baptist. (His importance in the scheme of things can be seen in the fact that he is featured at least 4 times in the Lectionary.) Today's gospel passage is short, giving us the historical and theological background, before we look more closely at his message next week. He himself identified his ministry with the prophet Isaiah's prophesy, but today we have a similar word from the lesser known prophet Malachi. The "typical Advent package" is completed by a reading from St Paul's letter to the Philippians exhorting godly and faithful living while we await the return of Christ.
Background. Recently a property visible from our lounge window changed hands, from a farmer to a contractor. For days now we have heard the distant buzz of earth-moving machinery as the new owners have been making a flat area for parking, and putting in a long driveway to give better access to their site for their trucks. Bulldozers, diggers, and goodness-knows-what-else have been carrying out a sort of ballet of their own, as heaps have been levelled, holes filled in and crooked paths made straight. Signs of Advent are truly all around us. For those not so blessed here is an invitation to see in the high number of road works that seem always to break out at this time of the year something other than an irritating and dusty cause of delay: as you wait for the road-worker to turn the sign from stop to go, remind yourself of the purpose of the works, and pretend they are doing it all for you. They are straightening the crooked road or smoothing the rough way for you! Not as appealing visually as a red carpet, perhaps, but far more enduring. So give them a cheery wave and an Advent blessing as they let you through!
Advent seems to be a time for violent language. Last week we heard of trials and tribulations to come on an unimaginable scale. Next week we will hear John at full-roar, calling the crowds "a brood of vipers" and warning them that the axe is already at the root of the trees, which goes quite a way towards explaining why, in any popularity poll, he would lag some way behind Santa. But he would, I think, enjoy a book I have been reading with some interesting things to say about Advent. The book is Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, whose day job is religious correspondent for the National Public Radio of the USA.
She has a gift for the striking phrase, and there is no better example of that than the title to chapter 2 of her book: The God Who Breaks and Enters. How's that for an Advent stunner! It stopped me in my tracks when I first read it; frankly, my immediate reaction was negative. I thought she was being shocking for the sake of it; but then the voice of Scripture took up her theme. Into my mind came the phrase "like a thief in the night", closely followed by this: Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. (This is from Luke 12:51, but Matthew has much the same in 10:34.) Now I ask you, when did you see anything like that in a Christmas card, even a supposedly religious one?
Our God doesn't just come, says Ms Hagerty, he breaks and enters; and to illustrate her point she gives us the story of one Sophy Burnham. At age 42 Sophy was living the American dream: she had two teenage girls, a caring and successful husband, a glittering social life, and a demanding career of her own. Then she joined a tour party to Machu Picchu, the sacred Inca mountain ruins in Peru. There she had a profound religious experience, and she heard God say to her, "You belong to me." She described what happened when she returned to her old life in Washington:
O, yeah, I'm a successful writer, I'm married to a successful journalist for The New York Times... But that was ashes in my mouth. I could not bear it. It was physically painful to sit at a dinner party and listen to the shallowness of the conversation. I was so sensitized. I could hear what was going on underneath people's conversations. This woman is telling a story at a dinner party in a brittle, gay, happy way, and underneath it, I can hear her heart breaking! I wanted to shake people and say, "Stop it. I can't bear it!"
Did she get over it? No, within three years she had ended her marriage, given up her longtime friends, and abandoned her comfortable life as a Washington journalist. She is now about 70, still living alone, still in love with the God who breaks and enters into our lives unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. Come, Lord Jesus? As a friend of mine is fond of saying, be careful what you pray for!
Malachi. I do realise that those who put our Lectionary together have tough choices to make, and that I ought to be grateful for all the work they do, and I ought to pray for them far more often that I criticise them, but really! If we really do need a break from Isaiah this Advent – and I'm not at all sure that we do – I have no objection to Malachi (in fact, I've had a bit of a soft spot for him ever since a reader announced many years ago that "our reading this morning comes from the lesser known prophet Malarkey"!), but was it really necessary to save us from the horrors of verse 5? (Yes, I'll wait while you look it up and read it.) Apparently we are grown up enough to cope with the general concept of divine judgment, as long as it is hidden behind images of blast furnaces and laundry soap, but we must be spared the specifics. Anyway, the point of the passage remains the same as it was from Jeremiah last week. The Promised One is coming, but disabuse yourselves of any warm and fuzzy feelings. As Sophy Burnham will tell you, when Reality breaks and enters into your lives it causes havoc.
Taking It Personally.
· Spend some time pondering Sophy's story. How do you feel about it? How does the idea of "The God who breaks and enters" strike you? Is it a helpful image for you as we progress through Advent or not?
· Notice in verse 1 the promise that the Lord will come to the temple. Fast forward in your mind to the story of Jesus "cleansing the temple". Does this help to understand the rest of this passage?
· Now focus on the word "offerings". What offerings are you bringing to God at this time? Are they acceptable to him?
Philippians. Characteristically St Paul begins this letter to the faith community at Philippi with a wonderful prayer of thanksgiving and intercession for them. It is rather similar to the passage we had last week from his first letter to the Thessalonians. The whole passage is based on the idea of spiritual growth: he starts by referring to the beginning of their faith journey, and expresses confidence that "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus". He prays that their love may "abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that they might be able to discern what is for the best. All this is framed by the confidence that Christ will return to them one day.
Taking It Personally.
· This is a great passage for slow tasting, phrase by phrase. Sense Paul's love for those he is addressing, and for whom he is praying. Use this passage as a template as you pray for your own faith community.
· Notice how Paul gives in this passage an outline of the spiritual journey, from when the gospel was first received until the end in Christ. The journey is one of growth in love, knowledge and discernment (depth of insight). Another opportunity for your own spiritual stock-take today.
· Focus on verse 6. Are you confident that the Spirit has begun, and will carry it on to completion, a good work in you? Talk to God about that in prayer today.
Luke. It would be a good idea to re-read 1:1-4 as background to today's passage. Here we have the methodical scholarly approach that Luke claims for himself at the outset of his gospel. Scholars claim to have detected some historical difficulties but the general thrust is clear: what is even clearer is what Luke the storyteller is doing by starting with these histori-political data. He is emphasises that what follows happened in real time: what he is giving us is a factual, historical account of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. [Compare Isaiah 6:1, "In the year King Uzziah died..."] It is not a legend, an allegory or an early example of Tolkien fantasy. So he has placed his story at a precise moment in history. Then he turns to faith history, and he does the same sort of thing. He reminds us that the great prophet Isaiah had prophesied about a voice calling (or crying) in the wilderness. Right, says Luke; hold that thought in your mind because I am now going to tell you about a man called John who is the fulfilment of that prophecy. John has both historical reality and biblical pedigree of the highest order.
Taking It Personally.
· Think about a particular event in your life. Where did it occur? Who was the mayor of that place at the time? Who was the Prime Minister of New Zealand then? Who was the Governor-General? Who was the monarch? Now put all that together in a sentence equivalent to 3:1. Do you see what Luke was doing?
· Focus on verse2 – "the word of God came to John". This seems to have been before Jesus, the Word of God, came to John at the Jordan. Reflect on those two comings together. What do you make of them?
· John then went "into all the country around the Jordan". He didn't just stand by the Jordan and wait for the crowds to come to him. Take time to ponder the work and effort John put into his ministry as the Forerunner and give thanks for him.
· Now ponder the quotation from Isaiah. Spiritually, what might you need to do this Advent Season to clear the way for Christ to come more fully into your being and your life?