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Readings: 2nd Sunday of Advent

27 November 2015


Baruch 5 or Malachi 3.1-4; Benedictus; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6


O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


LUKE’s description of the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, unlike those of Matthew and Mark, achieves a striking convergence of historical precision and more indefinite fulfilment of the promise made to a whole nation hundreds of years earlier, in the time of its exile (Luke 3.1-6, Matthew 3.3, Mark 1.3).

If Luke reports accurately, John began to prepare for Jesus’s appearance in AD 28 or 29. But what he does is carefully matched to the action of the forerunner of the second part of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 40.3-5). Contemporary politics will remain in the background of John’s briefly summarised career, except for the mention of his arrest by Herod (Luke 3.18-20).

Isaiah strikingly presents the Messiah’s forerunner only as a “voice” (Isaiah 40.3). Whether or not this was consciously in Luke’s mind, it becomes a motif; for John’s task is to unlock significant speech. Born to a father whose scepticism about late parenthood rendered him speechless for nine months, his birth galvanises Zechariah into what we know as the Benedictus, praising the faithful God who has “come to his people and set them free” and “raised up a mighty Saviour”, according to an oath that goes back to Abraham (Luke 1.68-79).

Now he receives the word of God so that he can proclaim it to people who will make their own confession of sin. The word comes to him not in the Temple (Isaiah 6.1-8) or in the course of daily life (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Hosea 1.1), but in the wilderness, a place ambiguously capable of being the scene for hostility or for good.

The explorer Gertrude Bell wrote of the first stage of a journey beginning in Jerusalem in 1905 that “the valley of the Jordan has an aspect of inhumanity that is almost evil” (The Desert and the Sown, Virago, 1985). On the other hand, Isaiah prophesies that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35.1).

The lyrical description of the transformation of the wilderness into a landscape smoothed out —made fitting as a route for a regal people to walk home to Jerusalem (Isaiah 40.3-5, Baruch 5.7, Luke 3.4-6) — is both metaphor and practical vision. Good infrastructure, thanks to efficient Roman civil engineering across the Empire, would play its part in the Messiah’s coming; and Luke makes full use of it in his narrative (Luke 2.4, 22, 4.14-16, 10.1-17, 19.1, 28-41, 24.13-15, 50).

Main roads between provinces and principal cities were paved, and communications were extended by a network of sea routes. It was this network that enabled Paul to travel widely around the (mostly Mediterranean) cities of the Empire, following routes now attempted at enormous risk by refugees desperate to escape the battlegrounds which hosted the earliest centres of Christianity.

The prayer that opens the Letter to the Philippians, written by Paul from prison, remarkably transcends his confinement. Paul had not only overcome distance in staying connected by letters carried by others over land and sea. He had also overcome the frustration of his own situation in his deep longing to see his Philippian friends.

This is a physical sensation, and starts in the guts (Philippians 1.8), the feeling ascribed to Jesus when he was most deeply moved (e.g. Luke 7.13). Eighteenth-century hymn-writers spoke of the “bowels” of divine compassion without fear of misunderstanding. Nor should we mistake “compassion” for sentimentality.

Paul prays for a discerning faith (Philippians 1.9-10), because those he has nurtured must take some responsibility for their readiness to meet their Saviour. He wants them to be model Christians, able to bear examination in full sunlight — the root meaning of the word translated as “pure” in the NRSV (eilikrineis).

The seasonal blessing for Advent draws on the sun that illuminates the northern winter: “Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you, scatter the darkness from before your path, and make you ready to meet him when he comes in glory” (Common Worship).

The Benedictus gives thanks for the Saviour who comes “to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace”. These are images both to sustain us, and to protect us from compassion-fatigue as the predicaments of so many thousands of suffering people continue to surround us in the media.

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