2nd Sunday of Advent

December 6, 2009
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Baruch 5:1-9
Reading 3: 
Philippians 1:3-11
Reading 4: 
Luke 1:68-79 and Luke 3:1-6
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Baruch 5:1-9
In last week’s First Testament reading, Jeremiah promised that Jerusalem would receive a new name, “The Lord is our Righteousness,” at the advent of the heir of David. In this week’s reading from Baruch that thematic element is repeated, as the scribe declares to Jerusalem “God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.’” The entire passage is a joyous call to the holy city to “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God,” in response to God’s promise of restoration after the devastation of conquest and exile. Writing ostensibly from the time of exile, the scribe foresees the time when the scattered residents of Jerusalem will be “gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.” To facilitate that gathering, Baruch declares, as Isaiah does also, that “God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God”; this vision of the leveling of a safe way provides the connection to John the Baptist’s preaching as described in the Gospel passage from Luke below. Beyond the basic historical reference, the invitation to “put on the beauty of the glory from God” can be understood as being extended to the church today, and to its individual members. God brings many into one; God gathers diversity into unity; just as God made the safe way to bring exiles home, so also God creates the condition of the possibility to bring many influences into dynamic harmony in one experience. In what ways do practices and disciplines of faith help believers gather their many experiences into a coherent way of life? In what ways do the activities of the church community engage the diverse skills, gifts, orientations, economic resources, social locations, gender identities, needs, hopes, and loves of people into one social whole? How do we represent righteous peace and godly glory in the ways our moments concresce with the beauty of God? These are themes a process-minded preacher can explore with Baruch as guide.

Luke 1:68-79
The response today, rather than being a Psalm, is a series of verses from Chapter 1 of Luke, the story of the birth of John the Baptist; vv 68-79 are sometimes known as the “Song of Zechariah.” In context, this is the song or prophecy Zechariah sings when John is born. The angel Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah when he was on priestly duty in the Temple and had announced that Zechariah and Elizabeth would together conceive a son and would name him John; Zechariah disbelieved, and for that reason was deprived of speech until the moment John was born. When Elizabeth and Zechariah agreed the boy should be named John, apparently without first conferring about it, the minor miracle released Zechariah’s tongue, and he sang this song. In Luke’s careful construction of his first chapter, this song is the parallel to the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. Structurally, the song begins with a rehearsal of the messianic hope of the heir of David, through whom “we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,” so that we “might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” The second section of the song, however, adds a new element to the basic messianic trope, predicting that the newborn John will be “called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” While older messianic texts, such as Malachi 3:1-4, the alternate reading for today, speak of the messiah himself as the messenger who will prepare the way for God, Luke makes John the messenger to prepare the way for the messiah, who will in turn guide believers’ feet into the way of God. The use of the song as a response on this Sunday gives us the backstory, as it were, to better appreciate the Gospel reading of the adult John’s appearing in the wilderness.

Philippians 1:3-11
Like last week’s reading from 1 Thessalonians, this section from the letter to the Philippians speaks of “blamelessness” as growing in community love. Paul knows of the congregation at Philippi that “you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me”; in turn, Paul himself “longs for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” Their mutual support and love is the soil for “the harvest of righteousness,” a process of growth in which “your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” reaching to maturity in Christ. This love is not their own accomplishment, but is the effect in them of the work of the Spirit, such that Paul can say “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” It is because God is at work in them in this way that they will be “blameless” “in the day of Christ.” The relational field of the Christian koinonia provides the environment in which God-inspired lures to feelings of love, service, and devotion can be entertained, embodied, and fulfilled in the individual believers’ lives. In this context, the element of judgment in “the day of Christ” is presented not as a terrifying threat of condemnation, but as the critical exposition of the work of love, both attempted and accomplished, in the believers’ inspired actions. Paul’s prayer for overflowing love and knowledge and insight among the Philippians can be prayed for any and all Christian communities, as we all strive to receive God’s aims for us and embody them in our concrete actions, becoming the environment where many diverse influences can be gathered into unity of love.

Luke 3:1-6
By long tradition the gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent always focus on the ministry of John the Baptist. The Luke pericope for this day introduces John and gives a basic account the purpose of his ministry. Luke goes to characteristic pains to locate John’s appearance at a particular moment in history, calibrated according to the reigns of imperial and Temple authorities; though modern historians point out that the overlapping reigns don’t quite add up the way Luke has them, the point is that this is not some sort of “once upon a time” story, nor even the urgent, “immediately!” kind of story Mark tells, but is set in a particular moment in history, to contribute to and alter the flow of that history. John is in “the wilderness,” then in “the region around the Jordan,” hardly the centers of power that would be inhabited by the likes of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Caiaphas, and Annas; yet John in his wilderness represents a tipping point for the flow of history they presume to define. His “baptism of repentance” is what “prepares the way of the Lord”: repentance is the great leveler that lowers the raised and raises the lowly so that all may have equal access to the salvation of God; and this alters the landscape of history so as to allow new things of God to happen in the world. We will see just some of those new things in John’s teaching in next week’s gospel reading. For today, this passage clarifies John’s position in the lineage of prophets, and his special role as the forerunner of the messiah. In connection with Baruch and Philippians, it invites us to be mindful of the ways repentance, turning again to prepare the way for our own lives to embody divine ideals, alters the landscape of our history toward the realization of occasions of justice and peace.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.