Readings for Second Sunday in Advent Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

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First Sunday in Advent Textweek

Malachi 3:1-4; The Song of Zechariah; Philippians 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-6
“We are the messengers of the thing in which we delight”

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There has been a real, subtle theological shift that has taken place and it has taken place as we have moved from the end of one liturgical year into the Advent of a new year. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s an important shift. In the last few weeks of the old liturgical year, leading up to and including the Feast of Christ the King, the readings Sunday to Sunday were focused on the second coming of Christ - they pointed towards the Second Coming. Now in Advent we’re called to focus on the Nativity event, to the first coming of Christ. How can this be, how can we make sense of such a shift? Does it not appear to be a backward shift? Well, the answer of course is, that it does make sense. It makes sense when we can appreciate that these comings are one and the same event and they’re the very same event that we await in our present Advent. So to assist us in our contemplation of Advent, to the coming of the Christ, to give purpose and direction to our waiting, we have today the figure of John the Baptist - the herald, the forerunner, the prophet of truth. And in front of the altar we’ve added the symbolic element of earth - it’s actually Australian earth, because it’s sand, and it’s there to symbolise and to perhaps call us to ground our theology in this place and at this time, to ground our contemplation of the coming of Christ in this place, at this time.

Malachi gives us a prophetic introduction to John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the messenger sent by God, it says in verse 1, and the one who is sent to prepare the way. Like the church, John the Baptist points to Christ and prepares the way for His coming, be it the first, the second or the present. Malachi does not, unlike the church, he does not avoid the enormity of the task. ‘But who can endure the day? Who can endure the day?’ And the language he uses, his language of refining, purification, would have been readily understood by the artisans of his day, in a culture that makes things with their hands. But not so for us, for gold, silver and fuller’s soap are the products of a shopping expedition, rather than a process involving our hands, our talents and our participation in creating. It’s also quite interesting to note that such processes are today more readily associated, rightly or wrongly, with the Buddhist spirituality, where the process of refining and of purification are associated with the stilling of the mind, the renouncing of all distractions, for the desired clarity in which peace can be established.

Malachi also gives us an understanding of the desired outcome from our Advent waiting; it is the outcome that we anticipate as we turn towards the orientation of the baptiser. In verses 3 and 4 Malachi says that the outcome is that we can present offerings to the Lord: ‘an offering that will be pleasing to the LORD’. It’s interesting that in Advent, as we await the divine giving, the gift of God to us, at the same time what lies in waiting is our gift to the divine.

Luke takes the prophesy of Malachi and earths it for us in time: ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius’. It’s important to realize that Luke is locating the prophetic not into a past age. Luke is not seeking to locate the prophetic word into Roman history, rather Luke locates the prophetic word in the present, in Luke’s present and that’s how we should read it today, to see the word of God the prophetic word, being revealed in our present. And we’ve got two narratives in today’s reading from Luke, both about John the Baptist. First, from chapter 1, which is where we get the Song of Zechariah and it’s the song of one who witnesses to the birth in the temple of John the Baptist. Then what we get in the Gospel reading is a little bit from chapter 3, and here we have a narrative about John’s revelation to the world. So for Luke, birth and revelation are important John-events, just they’re important Jesus-events, and perhaps therefore, they call us to reflect on our birth-event - that which earths us – and also to our revelation event - that in which we bring earth to others.

To see John the Baptist as the church is to see ourselves in these Advent narratives, to look into our birth, our baptismal naming, our calling, our promise, our purpose; to look into our revelation - the revealing of ourselves as the Body of Christ. Malachi calls us ‘the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight’. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight: what a stunning and apt identity for the Church! What a stunningly apt identity for our very sense of being. Maybe that is who we are:, we are messengers of the covenant that we delight in. Very easy to see with children, very easy to see at Christmas – they unpack it, they grab the Gameboy, they turn it on, they run next door and they become messengers of the thing in which they delight. Do you know, I don’t think we ever grow up from that – think about it as we wait in Advent. What if that’s what we are, we are the messengers of the thing in which we delight. [Mobile phone rings] And we bring messages to each other, to the tunes that we delight in! Just stay with it, stay with the idea that this is an identity, prophetically given. If we don’t receive that as our identity from the prophet, we have still received our identity from somewhere. We still are messengers, messengers that bring a message to others of that which we delight.

The song of Zechariah is a song filled with hope. He sees clearly that by divine mercy, in verse 72: God has remembered his holy covenant, even if we forgot, or we’re busy on the phone. God has remembered his holy covenant, so that we, in verse 74, ‘might serve the divine purposes without fear’. Just a clue there in what keeps us from the divine purpose – while we wait during Advent, become aware of the fears that have been given to us. Not the real ones that we have, don’t worry about the real fears, there’s a purpose in those. The fears that have been given to us, that distract us from the divine purpose – not having enough, three spare bedrooms are still not enough because next door’s got four; the fear that my car is eighteen months old and everyone else is driving a new one – those fears. Become aware of those fears for they are distractions from the divine purpose.

The Song of Zechariah is filled with a sense of promise. As soon as we turn away from those distractions we will find ‘the one who remembers the covenant.’ Luke again affirms exactly the same promise in the Gospel reading, right at the end, just in case we fell asleep part way through, right at the end, the line to take away: ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God. All flesh - you will not be left out. You can choose not to be there, not to be present, we do that all the time - you know that glazed over look, looks like I’m listening but actually I’m somewhere else. Ever tried to watch a television show with intent, apart from the cricket? It’s really, really difficult – I just drift off. Four hours later you wake up from some sleep. All flesh shall see the salvation of God; the covenant is remembered, there for us to see.

So what’s required of us? Back to the Song of Zechariah: ‘And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.’ You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. Right, OK, but I’m still wondering how, what is asked of me, what do I do, how do I begin preparations? And the answer is given in the word of John the Baptist, very simple: repent. Repent, turn, turn again Dick Whittington, turn, change direction, course correct. Don’t continue going round and round the board, don’t pick up $200 each time you pass go, repent, shift, change direction, move, look for an alternative way.

This is the call of Advent. And the great thing this Advent, one of the other stunning signs of hope is that the Advent call to repent is being heard everywhere in every land, in every parliament, in every university and just about in every coffee shop, repent is being heard. It is the gift, I believe, of Global Warming and maybe that is a gift that is another coming. Tt is a calling, like the Baptist, to new directions, new ways of being, new ways of living and new ways of relating, to each other and to the whole as one flesh and as all flesh. ‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’


The Lord be with you.

Peter Humphris