Lectionary Reflections on The Second Sunday of Advent: December 9, 2012
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
This week’s lectionary explores the many faces of divine providence. Providence can be gentle and incremental, as described in Philippians, but it can also be challenging and abrupt, calling for an immediate decision, as Luke describes John the Baptist’s message. Either way, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts, divine providence, expressed in novel possibilities and challenges, always aims at the best for the particular impasse, or situation, in which we find ourselves personally or culturally. God’s movements in our lives are always aimed at wholeness and Shalom, but the path to healing is variable depending on our previous decisions and context. Still, it always aims at strengthening and refining our spiritual lives and social conscience.
Philippians 1 expresses Paul’s gratitude for the faithfulness of the Philippian community. Marginalized in a pluralistic society, they remain faithful to the good news of Jesus the Christ. Like a good teacher or leader, Paul prays for this community constantly. His heart is filled with joy – a theme woven throughout Philippians – as he hears of God’s good work moving through their lives. To quote Paul, “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.” I have often used these words in my work with pastors – and they apply to all of us – as a recognition that God is working in every life; God is calling every person; and that, in the words of Jeremiah, God’s vision for us is for good and not destruction, for a future and a hope.
Paul imagines this community and its members coming to fruition and bearing a harvest of righteousness. Paul’s affirmation of a harvest of righteousness begs the question: What good work is going on your life? What good work is going on in our congregational life? And, what harvests are on the horizon for us personally and communally? This is Paul’s version of “appreciative inquiry” as it invites the faithful to experience God’s passion and possibilities through our own passions and possibilities. Providence moves creatively and non-coercively, expanding our own ability to make good decisions for ourselves and the larger the world. (For more on Philippians, see my book Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide, Energion Publications.)
Luke roots John the Baptist’s message in a particular historical context. God’s inspiration is always concrete, even if it expresses universal truths. While John the Baptist will describe his listeners as a brood of vipers, his ultimate purpose is to prepare them for God’s revelations in their lives and in the world. Crying in the wilderness, the Baptist’s eventual goal is repentance, transformation, and healing of persons and their social context. His word is harsh, and like a refiner’s fire (Malichi 3:1-4), but beneath God’s contextual movements – often confronting our injustice and waywardness with apparent severity – is the promise of wholeness for all who respond: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” John’s condemnation is a wakeup call to God’s vision and not the final destination of God’s movements in our lives.
Providence may afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted but its ultimate goal is God’s Shalom, the realm of God emerging on earth as well as heaven. Providence calls us to be partners in God’s vision of “tikkun ‘olam,” healing the world. Zechariah’s prophesy about his son John’s destiny foreshadows God’s vision for John’s life. Yes, John may be harsh, but his life will be an expression of God’s vision of forgiveness and salvation. The “celestial surgeon” is always motivated always by tender mercy and the quest to enlighten those in darkness and guide us toward Shalom.
With Christmas barely two weeks away, John’s message can strike us as the expression of a “killjoy.” Think again, however, about where we need greater integrity, courage, and commitment. The Christmas message of joy is not hedonism but incarnation and embodiment – the recognition that God’s presence in the world demands transformation of our values; the valleys will need to be exalted and the mountains laid low; the poor will need to be fed and the wealthy more sacrificial; hard work needs to be done to let the Christ child be born in our lives and in a world poised between poverty and wealth and environmental destruction and health.
Paul’s words and John’s message provide a holistic antidote for every season of our lives, trusting God’s providence to guide and empower us toward healing this Good Earth.