Second Sunday of Advent
December 9, 2012
Commentary on the Texts
The Gospel of Luke opens with an extended narrative of the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus. The narrative style, the structure of the first two chapters, the use of Old Testament quotations, as well as the flow of thought all serve to connect Luke's Gospel with God's work in the Old Testament. There are various explanations as to the audience or intent of the Third Gospel. But even apart from deciding those questions, it is obvious that Luke is relating the story of Jesus as a continuation, even as a climax, to the "salvation history" of the OT. He is "plugging in" his readers to the Old Testament story. Luke sees the Incarnation as another revelatory act of God in human history in which He reveals Himself as a God of grace and deliverance.
The passage for this Sunday continues this theme both in relating John the Baptist to Jesus, but also in linking both by various images and themes to the work of God in the Old Testament and to several major theological themes that track though this passage into the larger Gospel narrative.
The introduction to this section (vv. 1-2) recounts in unusual detail the historical setting of the Gospel story within the framework of world history. We could get bogged down in trying to prove or disprove the exact historical accuracy of these details. They do seem to reflect what we know of the political structure of the 1st century Roman world. But historical proof is not really the significance here.
In firmly anchoring the Gospel story in history, Luke prevents this event from being mythicized into some cosmic drama or of degenerating into sentimentality. The impact of the events that are unfolding in the story are very this-worldly, in the real life flow of human history. That does not mean that there is no grandeur, no cosmic implications. But it does mean that this event will work out in the nitty-gritty of human life. It is that "this-worldly" dimension of the Incarnation to which Luke will return as He tells the Gospel story in terms of the difference the coming of Jesus makes in how we see our world, and how we respond to it.
There is also the overtone in this introduction of the political forces of the world that seem to overshadow the story. There is great contrast between the power of the Roman leaders portrayed here and the vulnerability of the eccentric wilderness prophet, the teenager from Galilee, and the child born in a stable and paid homage by shepherds. That contrast will continue to play out not only throughout the rest of the Gospel, but also as it becomes the framework for understanding the people of God in the world as Luke continues his story through the book of Acts.
Yet, there is a clear affirmation early in the book, drawing on traditional themes of the Lordship of God, that earthly powers and rulers do not have the last word (1:51-55). There is also likely intended here some connection with the book of Acts as the early church leaders repeatedly are called to judgment before the political and religious leaders of the world, without knowing that they are being judged rather than sitting in judgment.
As is typical for the early chapters of Luke, the Old Testament provides the background for the development of the story. There are several theological themes drawn from the OT that carry the weight of communication here. This passage revolves around the quotation of Isaiah 40:3-5. It is obvious that the Gospel tradition is re-interpreting the Isaiah passage to apply to John the Baptist, most notably in the use of the term "desert."
Isaiah 40:3 gives the desert as the location for the paths that are to be made straight. In that section of Isaiah, the desert is a reference to the return of Israelite exiles from captivity in Babylon. The prophet declares the grandeur of the return in the imagery of God building a road directly across the desert so that the returnees would not have to make the long journey north around the Arabian desert, but could come "straight" home immediately.
The Gospel traditions shifted the desert to being the place where the voice cries, the geographical location of John's ministry. This emphasis is more clearly seen in Mark (1:3-4), and is made easier by the second century BC Greek translation (the Septuagint) which can be read either way. So, rather than reading with Isaiah: "A voice cries, . . . 'In the desert prepare. . .'", the Gospels read: "A voice cries in the desert, . . . 'Prepare. . .'".
The Gospel tradition and Luke make another interpretative move. In the second line of the quote, Luke changes the Isaiah reading, "make straight in the desert a path for our God," to "make his paths straight." In the context of Luke's Gospel, this serves to further emphasize the connection of the Coming of Jesus with the ministry of John. The "his" in Luke would then refer specifically to Jesus, not to the Coming of God as the Isaiah passage implies (cf. 40:9-10). The idea of the coming of God carried with it quite different connotations in OT and Jewish thought (see Day of the Lord). Luke clearly wants us to see John's preaching and the coming of Jesus as closely related, as he has already done effectively in the earlier infancy narratives.
By adapting this quotation in this way, the Gospel traditions bring attention to the desert as the arena of John's ministry. Luke emphasizes this even further here, and even makes the connection between John and the prophetic figures of the past by using the prophetic formula, "the word of the Lord came to John" (v. 2).
But there is more here than just geography or nostalgia. The "desert" is much more than just the location of John's public ministry. It takes on larger significance as a theological metaphor, which is probably one reason the Gospel traditions emphasize the connections between John's ministry and Jesus at this point. While the "desert" could be a negative symbol for devastation and destruction, prophetic traditions often recalled the desert as the place where Israel first encountered God and faithfully responded to Him (Hos 2:14; Jer 2:2-3).
This new voice, crying out in the desert, is a call to Israel to return to the desert, to return to faithfulness, to respond to God's grace as they had long ago in another desert. This juxtaposition of grace and response, which is a foundational Old Testament theological strand established in the linking of Exodus with Sinai (and return from Exile with being a light to the nations in Isaiah), becomes a primary theme of the Gospel traditions. Especially in Luke, the call to concrete historical response to the Gospel is given firm root here in the theological symbol of desert (note the following verses 10-14).
The use of "desert" here then, combined with the setting of the Isaiah passage in the return from Exile across the desert by an act of God's grace, combine to make an important theological link with the future expectations that had been associated with the return from Exile. At that time they envisioned a new Kingdom where God would elevate Israel to its proper place among the nations, where she could fulfill her calling as the people of God and be a source of light to the world. These high expectations unfold in the rest of exilic Isaiah (40-55, for example, 45:14-25, 49:8-13).
With John and Jesus "related" as kinsmen, and both tied to the "voice" of Isaiah and the Coming of God in salvation and deliverance to His people, the expectation of a significant impending work of God in history is clearly established in Luke's Gospel. This linking of theological metaphors and themes serves to recall the expectations that unfold in the rest of exilic Isaiah (40-55). It also both recalls and anticipates the transformative nature of the actions of God in the world, both historically and spiritually in the life of the community of Faith. The fact that those expectations are somewhat muted in Israel's later history, reflected in the somber and negative tone of the latter parts of Isaiah (56-66) and lying behind this Sunday's Old Testament reading from Malachi, only serves to heighten the impact of resurrecting them here at the beginning the Gospel story.
The metaphor of a highway, a pathway built for the new work of God, takes on even larger implications as Luke uses it here in the context of the Coming of Jesus. We know how the story tracks! It is no longer just expectation, a longing for something better. We know that the expectations have come to fulfillment in Jesus. We know that the Coming is already in process even as John speaks! As we hear John's call, "Prepare!" there is an urgency that can only come from this side of the Incarnation.
But John's message is not all positive. There is a clear note of threat in his preaching that unfolds from the call to repentance (note vv. 7-9). The background of John's call to repentance is also from the Old Testament. The primary Old Testament term for "sin" means "to walk on the wrong path" or "to walk in the wrong direction." The term usually translated "repent" (Heb: shub), means "to turn around" or "to change direction." The implication is that the people are going the wrong way, that they are not following the correct paths. Perhaps that is why they need a new path built by God in Jesus.
Other writers in the New Testament use the metaphor of "walking" to refer to the manner in which a person lives life (for example, Phil 1:27). "Repent," in this context in the mouth of John, then, does not mean to go through any legal or ritual process, even of baptism, but is a call to a certain kind of lifestyle that puts into practice in day to day living the grace of God. That not only is the fundamental idea of Torah in the Old Testament (understood non-legally; see Torah as Holiness), but also reflects both the teachings of Jesus and Paul (again, note Phil 1:27 ff).
In this context, the repentance for which John calls is not just a ritual action or a legal transaction that could be carried out at the temple in Jerusalem or even in the Jordan River. He is calling for a return to covenant faithfulness that will be lived out in the reality of the world, as he goes on to specify in following verses. He is calling for a different way of being religious, a way of living out covenant relationship that goes beyond dreams of glory and expectations of privilege. That new way is expressed in the concrete realities of sharing coats and food, of dealing fairly and honestly, of respecting others (10-14).
It also gives a clear context for the overarching resonance of threat and judgment with its corresponding call to faithful response that echoes through John's preaching. That helps to establish the twin Advent themes of hope and judgment that had long been a part of prophetic expectation (for example, Amos 5-6), and will sound again in the teachings of Jesus.
The newness of this action is underscored by the radical dimensions of the unfolding of this work of God. Mountains will be moved! Valleys will be filled in! The scope of this may be diminished in our day of multilane superhighways cutting across the mountains. But the physical possibility of this happening is not really the point. The images here are intended to portray an action of God on a grand, unprecedented scale. God will remove every obstacle that will hinder the coming of the Lord! It is not that the people have to undertake the task of leveling the mountains. That is God's work. Repentance is the preparatory work of the people, so they will be in a position to recognize the work of God in the world (note Luke's comment in 19:41-44).
The conclusion of the Isaiah quotation places the coming of Jesus in a global context (v. 6). Just as Simeon had proclaimed as he held the infant Jesus, this new action of God in the world, this new path that God is building for the reconciliation of humanity to Himself, is for all people. That is significant here when we consider that the Book of Luke is structured as a journey, as Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem. But it will not end there. Others will continue that journey in the book of Acts from Jerusalem to Rome, and to the whole world. And we are still on the journey as we still prepare for a Second Advent.
Two major features of this passage stand out. First is the emphasis on repentance and forgiveness of sins that relates to the preparation needed for the Coming One. There are examples given later in the passage of what that repentance should entail in concrete ways, and the proper response will be fleshed out later in the book. But here, repentance, turning around, walking toward God becomes part of the preparation for His coming. This implies a change of attitude, an openness to the new work of God in the world. Perhaps that is as much an issue of developing a proper sense of expectation, and the trust that goes with it, as it is abandoning sinful actions. Here "repent" and "prepare" are really two parts of the same thing.
For people today this can become a call to live life in expectation, with a view to the reality of God's Coming to the world. This probably should not take the form of scare tactics about the end of the world or hell. But it should be a call to commitment to live with an attitude of humility, expectation, and repentance, knowing that all of life is shaped by the One who came and is coming.
A second feature is the radical newness that is unfolding here. The metaphor of the "Highway" in Isaiah picks up the idea of a new act of God. That is a major theme of the section of Isaiah from which the quotation here comes (42:8-10,43:18-19, etc; cf. 35:8) as the prophet speaks of the return from Exile. In that sense, the First Advent was one of those acts of God that, metaphorically, could be described quite well as a new "highway" of God's grace, a new historical self-revelation of God.
This becomes an opportunity to simply celebrate the magnitude of this new initiative of God in calling humanity to Himself. When we reflect on how all of this worked out, on the "mountains" Jesus had to remove in the minds and hearts of people, of the "valleys" he had to fill in to reach those who had eyes but could not see, who had ears but could not hear, and when we realize the terrible cost that unfolded from this marvelous act of newness, we are compelled to thankfulness and rejoicing at the wonder of God and His commitment to humanity!
Being careful not to move to allegory, the implication for people's lives should be clear: There is a newness with God in which He will remove the obstacles to proper relationship. He will not allow barriers to block His revelation to "all flesh." No matter how sinful, the call still comes, "Turn around!" But the most wonderful part is that the highway back home has already been built.
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