2nd Sunday of Advent

December 10, 2006
See Also: 

John Cobb on Incarnation
Daniel Day Williams on Incarnation

Reading 1: 
Malachi 3:1-4
Reading 3: 
Philippians 1:3-11
Reading 4: 
Luke 1:68-79 and Luke 3:1-6
By Russell Pregeant

The two readings from Luke focus on the ministry of John the Baptist. Although the identity of the “messenger” in Malachi 3:1-4 is obscure, the use of this passage in connection with the Lucan texts rests upon two traditions: a strain of Jewish thought in which the messenger was identified with the prophet Elijah who was expected to return, and the relationship between John the Baptist and Elijah expressed in some New Testament writings. Interestingly, however, the New Testament is by no means unanimous on this point. In Matthew 11:10-14, Jesus explicitly names John as Elijah and cites the Malachi passage. Mark 1:2 cites the Malachi passage just as John comes on the scene, and in 9:11-13 Jesus proclaims that Elijah has in fact already come, clearly referring to John. In Luke, however, the relationship between John and Elijah is stated with greater nuance: in his prophecy concerning John, his father Zechariah says only that he will go “with the spirit and the power of Elijah.”  (1:17) In John, moreover, we get a vivid illustration of the theological differences among the gospels. In answer to the direct question as to whether he is in fact Elijah, John gives this unambiguous reply: “I am not.”

While the above excursion into the John-Elijah connection might seem irrelevant to the concerns of a preacher, it serves as a strong reminder of the nature of the biblical texts. The connections that the New Testament writers make between passages in the Hebrew Scriptures and events in the time of Jesus should be understood as imaginative, not literal. In this regard their hermeneutical method was similar to that of other Jewish groups, who routinely interpreted the ancient texts as applying directly to their own contemporary situations. And this insight has some relevance to process interpreters. The texts from the Hebrew Scriptures that appear in the Advent readings should not be understood as literal predictions of Jesus of Nazareth (or John the Baptist), or even necessarily as messianic in their original contexts. They do, however, testify to the background of hope for the future out of which messianic notions arose and that provided a framework for understanding Jesus’ significance. In process terms, the New Testament writers

The passages from Luke, bound together by the theme of the forgiveness of sins (1:77; 3:3), provides a good opportunity for a thematic sermon that could draw from a wide range of texts in the broader narrative of Luke-Acts. Zechariah’s prophecy mentions forgiveness of sins, and 3:3 expands the formula to “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus himself calls sinners to repentance, as we see, for example, in 5:32 (“I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance,” 15:7 (“there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”; also 10:10), and 13:1-9 (“unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”). The Parable of the Prodigal So, moreover, (15:11-32) is an elaborate illustration of God’s mercy toward the repentant sinner. The theme, moreover, plays an important role in Acts as a focal point in the preaching of the apostles. Thus Peter, in his defense before the high priest in Acts 5:31, makes this declaration: “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” And in 10:43 Peter gives similar testimony to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius: “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives eternal life.”

There is also a point of connection with the theme of repentance/forgiveness in the Philippians passage. In 1:9-11, Paul concludes his prayer for his readers with this wish: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” This passage, in fact, provides an excellent complement to the gospel readings in that it makes more explicit the point of repentance. The coming of Christ—whether we think in terms of his birth, which we celebrate in Advent, or his return, which is in view in Philippians and Acts—provides the occasion for self-examination.

Although we do not expect a literal return of Jesus on the clouds of heaven or the actual birth of a messiah in our time, it is essential to Christian faith that we do expect continual encounters with God in our personal, social, and political lives. The function of Advent is to focus on this aspect of life, the always-to-be-expected coming of Christ into our experience, and the specific contribution of repentance-texts is encourage reflection upon all the ways in which our lives do not in fact manifest the love and devotion that are appropriate to relationships with God and our neighbors. Repentance does not, however, stand alone; its connection with God’s mercy and forgiveness is essential. And neither should it be understood as an act of human accomplishment, since in our texts it clearly appears as a response to the grace of God. The preaching of John, Jesus, and the apostles call it forth. In Acts 5:31, moreover, Peter states that God gives repentance to Israel; and in the parable of Prodigal Son the father runs out to meet the errant son before he even has a chance to speak.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).