Exiles and Messengers: The Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Advent

Exiles and Messengers: The Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Advent November 29, 2015

 

 

The Deesis Mosaic, at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, featuring John the Baptist on the left and Mary on the right of Jesus.
The Deesis Mosaic, at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, featuring John the Baptist on the left and Mary on the right of Jesus.

Baruch 5:1-9 and/or Malachi 3:1-4

What It’s About: The Baruch text is about restoration after destruction–in this case, after the destruction of Judah at the hands of Babylon. Baruch was, by tradition, the scribe of Jeremiah, and this book is attributed to him. It supposes to be a letter from Baruch to Jeremiah, although scholars have a lot of reasons to doubt this attribution. This passage, though, is about a kind of hopefulness seeping into the life of Jerusalem and Judah after the exile; it speaks of a gathering in of all that was lost, and of a kind of restoration under God. The Malachi passage is about something different; it is about a messenger preparing the way of the Lord, who is coming to bring a kind of purity.

What It’s Really About: The exile was the defining experience of ancient Judaism. In some ways, the exile created Judaism; it is what marks the border line between ancient Israel and something that can be called Judaism. The experience of destruction at the hands of Assyria (in the north) and Babylon (in the south, a couple of centuries later) came to define the history of the people. Both of these texts speak to that catastrophe and that creative moment, when the old structures of life (national identity, centralized temple worship, etc) was lost and new structures (centrality of text, different geopolitical orientations) came into being. For the Jewish people, the trauma of defeat and exile gave birth to literature that expected the triumphant return of God and of the old ways–the Davidic monarchy. That’s what the messiah is: an anointed one in the line of David, who would restore what had been lost. Christians pick up on this to talk about Jesus, which is why these texts are being read in the season of Advent. Both Judaism and Christianity begin, in some ways, in the trauma of the exile.

What It’s Not About: I am like a broken record on this, but it is essential for Christians to remember and understand that these texts were not written to be about Jesus. They can be interpreted to be about Jesus, in the light of hindsight, but in the first case they are about the loss and grief of the exile, and the chaos that it created in the collective life of Judah. Christians read these texts to refer to the advent of Jesus, who we call the messiah, but that would have been nonsensical to the writers and hearers and readers of these texts. We should always remember and hold intact the experience out of which these texts arose: the experience of national dissolution, of the breaking of families, of the deaths of loved ones, and of the tearing-down of God’s temple. That is the context for these texts of expectation and hope, and while we Christians can see fulfillment of that hope in Jesus, we must take care not to do violence to the hopes of others in our proclamation.

Maybe You Should Think About: What does beginning with the exile do for our experience and celebration of Advent? Does recalling the experience of violence and the destruction of Judah bring us into closer community and conversation with people who experience violence and destruction today? Does remembering the context for Jesus’ coming help us to find a context for Jesus’ coming today?

 

Philippians 1:3-11

What It’s About: This is a Pauline greeting, the kind of thing Paul always puts at the beginnings of his letters (except in Galatians, where he is not so eager to praise and feel the warm-fuzzies). This is Paul’s apostolic persona at work; he sees it as part of his work, apparently, to uphold and build up his communities with prayer and remembrance of their good work.

What It’s Really About: I struggle to understand why this text is here in the second Sunday of Advent. I don’t really get why it’s included.

What It’s Not About: It’s not really about Advent, is it? I can’t see a way that it is. Maybe in some general way, in the way any biblical text could be about Advent? It’s about building each other up, and remember each other, and the shared work of Christian community, I suppose. But I don’t think I could find anything in here to latch on to for a sermon.

Maybe You Should Think About: Maybe you should think about preaching on one of the other texts this week–or, say in the comments below what you found in this text to preach on! I’d be interested in your insights.

 

Luke 3:1-6

What It’s About: This is Luke’s introduction of John the Baptist (or as some of my southern friends say, “John the Baptizer, since John was not a Baptist.”) John, for Luke, is the kind of figure envisioned in the passage from Malachi: the messenger preparing the way. John is always treated awkwardly in the New Testament; there is a kind of uneasiness with him, as a potential rival to Jesus, that is never quite solved. John had his own movement, that could look messianic at times; John had followers even in the narration of the New Testament, and there is some evidence that a cult of John the Baptist continued into the 5th or 6th centuries. It’s not surprising, then, that the gospels would be at pains to depict John as a subordinate figure, a messenger or forerunner figure, in order to avoid any confusion about him being equal to Jesus.

What It’s Really About: This is Luke at his most Luke-y. Look at how he starts: with a recitation of various political figures, starting with Roman rulers and local officials, and then moving to Jewish religious figures. There is a broad agreement (though far from unanimity) among scholars that Luke was written with a particular audience in mind–Roman officials. So Luke is always depicting Jesus as a nonthreatening person, unjustly killed as a kind of martyr. And he is always contextualizing Jesus in history; Luke’s gospel is where we get that famous “in the reign of Caesar Augustus” verbiage (that I always associate with Charlie Brown). Luke is a self-conscious historian, in a way that the other gospel writers are not, and so he gives us the most context he can for understanding John (and therefore Jesus), in a way that he thinks will make the most sense to his Roman audience.

What It’s Not About: It’t not about John in this passage about John the Baptist. Notice how, even in these verses that are all about John, that Luke is already drawing the reader forward toward Jesus. He quotes Isaiah 40:3-5, a similar passage to the Malachi above, to say that John’s primary mission is that of a forerunner to the real envoy from God. John cries out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord, but it is Jesus who is the one we are waiting on.

Maybe You Should Think About: Think about how this passage, even in the New Testament, is rooted in the experience of the exile. Go back and read Isaiah 40, from which the quote in Luke is taken, and see how much it depends on the trauma and terror of the exile. Even in the events leading up to the ministry of Jesus, the specter of the exile looms, and it is the expectation and hopefulness produced by the exile that fuels the work of people like John and Jesus. The “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” language of Isaiah (and Luke) is not simply geography; it is a messianic and eschatological hope, born out of the pains of the exile.

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