Second Sunday in Advent, Year C - December 9, 2018

Advent 2 Luke Malachi Canticle 4
Advent 2

Messengers and Messages

This week centers around John the Baptist, from his foretelling in Malachi, to his birth in Canticle 4 and his mission described in the Gospel. The message is couched in irony. How could a priest 400 years before John the Baptist (Malachi) foretell his coming ? How could a couple (Zechariah and Elizabeth) advanced in age give birth to John ? How could a man coming out of the wildnerness provide a message of the savior ?

While this week is about messenger and the message, we must accept the twists and turns in our own journey - the unexpected - and how God may be making a plan for us. We will be different for all of it. The key may be to expect the unexpected.

In the Gospel, John the Baptist calls for repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah (Luke 3:1-6). John doesn't come in traditional messenger garmants let alone priest clothes. However, his message will change the world

In Malachi, the text is an encouragement for people to examine their hearts in preparation for the Lord’s coming. The image of the refiner’s fire comes with an inherent hopefulness, that even when people experience pain and judgment, there may be a redemptive and purifying purpose at work. Words of refining, of judging are words of hope for they have the potential to take what is old, stale and corrupt and open it up to what is new, fresh and right. In a time of preparation for Christmas, this text is a reminder that our central preparation is to make our hearts ready, that our true worship is based on living a just life, in keeping with the Lord’s covenant.

Canticle 4 is Zechariah's song - his expression of gratitude to God both for the fulfillment of his people's messianic hopes —Zechariah now understands the Messiah is coming -— and also for giving him a child. Zechariah is reminding us that God is a God of history. Perhaps this is why Luke introduces his "life of Christ" with such extraordinary detail. He sings about a God who has come to "show mercy." Throughout Luke's infancy narrative mercy is the prominent theme. Mercy is the determinant of God's purposes in history.


"St John the Baptist" - Leonardo da Vinci (1513-1516)

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.'"

John is only the son of a small town priest. Further, he is nowhere, out in the wilderness. However, he is perhaps the last and culminating -- representative of the Old Testament prophets. He was of priestly lineage on both sides of his family (1:5), is named by the angel Gabriel as having the spirit and power of Elijah (1:17), and fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah (3:4-6). Similarly, John, moved by the word of God, plays two characteristically prophetic roles: (1) He calls for repentance and, indeed, proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and (2) he also precedes, prepares the way for, and foretells the coming of the Messiah, the one who is the salvation of Israel.

Luke does not name Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas merely to set the stage for John's appearance, but rather to throw in sharp relief the forces that will oppose him and the one who foretells. He is reinterpreting the history of the world in light of the story of John and Jesus. Jesus and John will both have violent death. Christ's resurrection- will shake the foundations of power these seven represent and stand upon.

John's preaching of repentance, because it will literally turn people away from the powers that be to the Lord, threatens those invested in the present order. Those drawn into this story, Luke proclaims, though perhaps beset by the powerful of the world, have nevertheless been joined to Jesus' death and resurrection and so will also and eventually triumph. After all, John's preaching will "give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace" (1:79).

In this way, John serves as the hinge of history, drawing to a close the age of the law and the prophets and inaugurating the age of redemption when, in the words of John's spirit-filled father, "by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us..."(1:78).

Malachi 3:1-4

Malachi 3:1-4

"See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-- indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years."

Cyrus, King of Persia, has permitted the people of Israel in Babylonia to return to Palestine. The Temple, gutted in 586 BC, has been restored, but Israel is still a Persian province. People expected that their fidelity to God would be rewarded by (material) prosperity, but life has continued to be hard, so after several decades, they have lapsed into waywardness. It is the ungodly who prosper. In the old days, the king was God’s agent, but now (there being no king), the priests have assumed this role. In previous chapters, the prophet has condemned the priests for despising God, corrupting worship and misleading the people. The poor suffered at the hands of the rich. Lost in the stress of political instability and religious corruption was faith. The people, who had intermarried with foreign women In the face of this turmoil, God was forgotten. There appears at times a general feeling that it is hopeless and God has deserted them.

A “messenger” (v. 1) or angel, God’s agent, will come to prepare a way for him. The Lord will come swiftly not some distant time in the future God, long expected, will come to “his temple”, to the priests. God’s “covenant” with Israel was summed up in the priests. His arrival will be sudden, unannounced.

V. 2 implies that when God comes, he will judge the people. (The accused stands to hear judgment.). The people had expected God’s blessing, but it is to come first through purification and pain. ‘ The Lord would consume the evil like a flash fire of intense heat. A refiner used the heat of a fire to separate ore into pure metal and slag; a fuller cared for newly shorn wool or woven garments by cleaning them, purifying them, with lye. The messenger will “purify ... and refine” ( v. 3) the priests (“the descendants of Levi”) until they hold him in proper respect. Their offerings, on behalf of the people, will then again be “pleasing to the Lord” (v. 4). God will judge adversely those who deviate from proper moral behaviour and from his ways (v. 5). He will bless all who return to his ways, for he still cares for his people.

If "my messenger" in Malachi 3:1 is consistently identified with John the Baptist in early Christian interpretation, "the Lord whom you seek" and "the messenger of the covenant" are most often identified with Jesus himself. It is the Lord who is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. It is he who will purify the people of the covenant. And, despite our feelings or fears about the matter, this is actually good news! Sin separates us from God. Sin clouds and distorts the good creation God made us to be. And we are helpless to clean ourselves. Enter the refiner of gold and the washer of clothes, to do the cleaning for us

Canticle 4 - Song of Zechariah

"His Name is John" - Daniel Bonnell

Canticle 4 - Song of Zechariah - Luke 1:68-79

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
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 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 Benedictus in the Gospel of Luke 1:68-79, is one of the three canticles] in the opening chapters of this Gospel.. This song is his expression of gratitude to God both for the fulfillment of his people's messianic hopes —Zechariah now understands the Messiah is coming -— and also for giving him a child. It was a time when his voice was restored to him. He was noted for his faith

The whole canticle naturally falls into two parts. Luke begins his story with these words: "In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abrjah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. He gives the reader a time, a place, a set of characters; he lets us know the implied promise that something is coming, creating an atmosphere of great expectation. Luke beautifully and powerfully captures in words one of those unique moments in time. Certainly, Zechariah and Elizabeth experienced a great deal of humiliation and most probably were shunned by some in the community. Many people at the time saw childlessness as a curse, and believed that someone in the family had probably committed some secret wrong. Yet through all of these challenges Zechariah and Elizabeth's hearts remained sensitive

Zechariah lived at a time that has been referred to as the "silent years," a period between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament when in effect God seemed silent to the Jewish people, for what they called "prophecy" had ended. Ever since returning from their Babylonian exile, for almost four hundred years, the Jewish people had experienced a faraway and distant God.

At that time there were approximately twenty thousand priests, far too many to serve all at the same time in the temple. Therefore, since the time of King David, the priests were divided up into twenty-four divisions of approximately one thousand each. Zechariah was of the division of Abijah, Each priest was responsible for a week's service at the temple every six months, which entailed teaching the Scriptures, directing worship, and maintaining the upkeep of the temple. The division of Abijah was eighth on the roster.

At the beginning of each week they drew lots (cast dice) as to who would do what: the ultimate responsibility and honor was to be selected to go into the most holy place, and to refresh the supply of incense on the altar, in order to keep it burning, before the morning and evening sacrifice. As the smoke of the incense rose from the altar, the people outside in the courtyard joined in silent prayer. The smoke drifting upward symbolized their prayers ascending to God's throne for the coming of the Messiah, And a priest could be assigned this duty only once in a lifetime.

Clothed in white robes, his head covered, shoes off, incense in hand, facing east, he enters alone, the most holy place in the temple. And there, while filling the incense and praying his greatest prayer, with reverence and even trepidation, an angel named Gabriel appears to him between the altar of incense and the golden candle-." In fact, the angel's announcement has a double meaning: You will have a son, he tells Zechariah, and that son will "make ready a people prepared for the Lord." These two announcements are jointly pronounced. They cannot be separated, for the angel's announcement interweaves the Messiah's coming and the coming of a son for them as couple. In this double entendre a "divine synthesis" is revealed. Old and childless, Zechariah and Elizabeth are to receive a son who fits into the larger purposes of God in their nation: the coming of their Messiah.

The rite of offering incense usually took a very short time, so Zechariah's delay in the most holy place caused alarm; perhaps he had died, the people worried. However, when he eventually came out, he was mute and therefore unable to communicate what had happened. Everyone is confused, though Zechariah is able to make signs clearly enough that they knew he had seen a vision

Zechariah and Elizabeth then go to the hills for five months, perhaps not only to get away from the rumors flying around, but also to ponder what all this meant for them. In the sixth month, Zechariah would have returned to Jerusalem to serve again at the temple.

The first part of the Benedictis (verse 68-75) is about God working out the divine plan for the Messiah's coming, redeeming his people by fulfilling the promise of mercy made through the prophets and remembering "his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham." As a priest of the Jewish people, Zechariah praises God for rescuing them from their enemies so that they might "serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness" for the rest of their days.

The horn is a sign of power, and the "horn of salvation" signified the power of delivering or "a mighty deliverance". While the Jews had impatiently borne the yoke of the Romans, they had continually sighed for the time when the House of David was to be their deliverer. The deliverance was now at hand, and was pointed to by Zechariah as the fulfilment of God's oath to Abraham; but the fulfilment is described as a deliverance not for the sake of worldly power, but that "we may serve him without fear, in holiness and justice all our days".

We next hear about Zechariah at his new son's circumcision ceremony, eight days after his birth. Tradition required the child to remain nameless until this ceremony of giving the child to God. . However, due to his inability to speak, his wife Elizabeth says the child's name is to be John, not Zechariah, after his father as would traditionally be the case. Surprised, the people looked to the father, and Zechariah writes his response on a tablet: "His name is John." This grammatical tense indicates something extremely important had happened in Zechariah s life. He doesn't write, "His name will be John," but he acknowledges than in a sense the child is already John

The second part of the canticle is an address by Zechariah to his own son, who was to take so important a part in the scheme of the Redemption; for he was to be a prophet, and to preach the remission of sins before the coming or the Dawn from on high. " Zechariah moves from singing about God's ultimate purposes in the world to affirming the truth of God's very personal activity in his own life. The angel Gabriel in effect said to him, "Your prayer for the Messiah is answered and you are to have a son who will prepare his way."

The prophecy that he was to "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways" (v. 76) was of course an allusion to the well-known words of Isaiah 40:3 which John himself afterwards applied to his own mission (John 1:23), and which all three Synoptic Gospels adopt (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:2; Luke 3:4).

Zechariah is reminding us that God is a God of history. Perhaps this is why Luke introduces his "life of Christ" with such extraordinary detail, including the names of rulers and their respective territories. He is emphasizing that God is involved in history; that God is actively accomplishing his ultimate purposes in this world—past, present, and future. Throughout the Advent season, the church's Iectionary readings focus the last things, the second coming of Christ, the future. And this theme relates to the concept of the providence of God that can be seen throughout the Scriptures. Often referred to as "general providence," it connotes an element of "divine prearrangement" in the sometimes seemingly random events of human history

Zechariah sings not only about God at work and in control of all things at all times, but he also praises an overwhelmingly comforting dimension of God. He sings about a God who has come to "show mercy." Throughout Luke's infancy narrative mercy is the prominent theme. Mercy is the determinant of God's purposes in history. All of God's actions are governed by this overriding dimension of mercy. All of this corresponds beautifully with Zechariah's agreement to name his son John, which is derived from Jobanan, meaning "God is gracious."