Old Testament: Malachi (3:1-4)
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
The Response: Canticle 16
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
The Epistle: Philippians (1:3-11)
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 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 right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to 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.
The Gospel: Luke (3:1-6)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
That was quite a solemn opening for a gospel, wasn’t it? With its listing of the years in office for a Roman emperor, a procurator of Judea, a king in Galilee, two other local rulers, and two Jewish high priests, St. Luke introduces what was probably an early version of his gospel, before the infancy or Christmas stories prefaced it. He firmly situates what is to come – the ministries first of John the Baptizer and then of Jesus – within a clear historical time and place.
It wasn’t that Luke was giving us “a history” in the modern sense of the word. That’s not what historians or biographers, or evangelists for that matter, intended to do two millennia ago. They were not nearly so concerned with “what actually happened” as they were with the character and importance of the people about whom they wrote and with the meaning of the events that they described. They exercised the literary freedom to modify or even create stories and to envision what their characters would have said in the given circumstances of their lives – all in the service of presenting their message in the most compelling way that they could.
There are at least two important aspects of this opening for Luke’s story that can impact in a significant way how we live our lives in response to his version of the gospel. First of all, the gospels according to Mark and Matthew begin with John the Baptizer doing something: in Mark’s words (1:4), “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But in Luke’s version, the story that is about to take place is, from the very beginning, not about John actions or about any human action, but about God’s action. Luke begins with the assertion that in the time of these named rulers, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Luke’s story, recounted first in the gospel that bears his name and then continued in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, is above all a proclamation about what God has done and what God is still doing.
Secondly, Luke initiates his account about the in-breaking of the kingdom of God by placing it squarely in a particular time and place in this world in which we live. For the kingdom of God which John and Jesus proclaim is a kingdom that is first of all about this world, one in which we are called to make a positive difference, not about some other world, one that is usually referred to as “heaven.” After 2000 years, many Christians still haven’t gotten the message. Many church-goers and many critics of church-goers alike portray the message of Jesus and of his first followers as being about how to go to heaven when you die. But in the gospels Jesus rarely speaks about heaven or about the afterlife in general. Instead, Jesus’ core message is overwhelmingly about this world and about God’s call to transform this world to be what God intends it to be.
Over the coming year, when most of our Sunday gospel readings will be taken from Luke’s version of the good news, we will hear about Jesus’ concern for the issues that were directly impacting people’s and the world’s life in his time. At a basic level, they are the same issues that impact the lives of people and the world today. Jesus will encounter hungry people, and he will feed them; far too many people in the world and even here in the greater-Dayton community still lack a dependable source of healthful food. Many times, Jesus is shown healing the sick: those suffering from a multiplicity of physical and mental illnesses; surveys following last month’s elections show that access to affordable healthcare is still an important concern for many in our nation. Jesus reaches out to and welcomes strangers and foreigners; our relationship to and obligations toward those who are foreign to us remain pressing issues. Jesus shows special concern for and touches the lives of those who have been separated from others; and he uses stories, like that of the Prodigal Son, to explore the ever important issues caused by divisions within families and within communities. Jesus’ call to those who listen to him and who choose to follow him is a call to address these issues in their own time and to change this world so that God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
There are many people in every age who don’t want to hear what Jesus is saying. They would rather pretend that Jesus’ main interest was about another life and another world. But that simply is not the case. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was concerned with transforming this world to be what God wants it to be. And like some of those prophets, including John the Baptizer, it was that insistence on changing the world and the way that the world operates that led those in power to put him to death. If Jesus had been focusing simply or even primarily on life after death, on heaven, the Romans would never have bothered with him. They would never have felt threatened by what he was teaching, and they would never have crucified him.
We, by ourselves, are not going to change the whole world; but then, as Luke reminds us when he begins his version of the gospel, we don’t have to. God is changing the world. But God does call us to join in that divine initiative as God co-workers, as God’s co-makers of the new creation. Just as it was in the time of John the Baptizer, the word of God is still coming to us and to others in the wilderness: in the wilderness of a world that does not know God or the abundance of life that God intends for all people.
Our task, like that of John, is one of preparing God’s way into the lives of people and into the life of the world in our time and place. God continues to call us to address those needs and issues that hinder people from recognizing the coming of God into their lives and into the life of the world today. In the familiar words of this Advent season, our role, like that of John, is one of preparing in the wilderness a highway for our God.