Peace & Freedom: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Two
1) This year we’ll be walking together through the Gospel of Luke. The journey began last week with a kind of “flash-forward” from Luke 21: on the verge of his descent to the cross, Jesus warns of difficult days ahead, assuring his disciples that God will make everything right in the end. This week, we turn to Luke’s story of John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness, and from here on out we’ll more forward more or less chronologically. It’s a little bit like when a film starts with an arresting scene from late in the story, a glimpse of the breathtaking drama to come – and then rewinds to begin at the beginning.
2) As we enter Luke’s masterpiece, it’s worth remembering what sort of thing a “gospel” is. Originally intended to be read aloud, Luke is a kind of story-sermon meant to declare good news – euangelion or “gospel” – in ways that provoke listeners to reflect, repent, believe, and serve the wider world. It’s a decidedly practical, poetic work of art, layered with multiple levels of meaning and grounded both in Luke’s immediate situation and in the broad, astonishing sweep of salvation history. In short, a “gospel” is a form of strategic storytelling that aims to change your life.
3) The second week of Advent traditionally centers on lighting a candle of peace, a light to shine against the growing shadows of conflict and war. Accordingly, this is an excellent week to think, preach, and reflect on war and peacemaking, conflict and reconciliation, hearts full of violence and the lion laying down with the lamb.
4) In this week’s reading from Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament, the prophet speaks of a “messenger” who will prepare the way for God’s arrival. Christian interpreters have often identified this messenger as John the Baptizer.
1) Like other classical Greek authors, Luke begins by situating his story in time, listing imperial, regional, and religious authorities of the day – an intro that, at first glance, seems entirely skippable. But look again: Luke is using this literary convention to make a profound and audacious point: the last figure he names in the list, John the Baptizer, is both a) a relative nobody compared to the eminent officials, and b) the one person on the list given divine authority. The phrase Luke uses here – “the word of God came to John” – is identical to the phrase used in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture, in the Book of Jeremiah (“Jeremiah...to whom the word of God came;” see Jeremiah 1:1-4). Luke’s point is clear: despite appearances, the real power and authority resides neither in the imperial palace nor the sacred temple, but rather in a scraggly figure, alone in the wilderness, preaching repentance. Beyond the coordinates and control of the empire - God is on the move!
2) The Greek word for “repentance” here is metanoia (from meta, “change, and noia, “mind”); today we would say, “change of heart” or “change of life,” a thoroughgoing and ongoing shift and reorientation. Accordingly, the visible sign for this change John uses is baptism, an immersive rite typically reserved for Gentile converts to Judaism, to signify their comprehensive conversion. But John is calling on the children of Abraham to undergo this baptism; it’s as if he’s saying, We all require conversion, not just the Gentiles. For a new day, a new era is at hand! Change your minds and hearts and lives! Come and be baptized for the sake of forgiveness of sins - for God is coming near!
3) The word Luke uses for “forgiveness” is aphesis, “release.” The idea here is to be released from sin, as if from a form of captivity or slavery. Like a new Exodus, the people of God will emerge again from the wilderness, for Israel a hallowed place of freedom and intimacy with God; be immersed again in the Jordan River, for Israel a hallowed place of transition; and enter again the promised land. Thus the great poetic form of Exodus returns, the divine signature of salvation. And sure enough, Jesus goes on to announce his public ministry in terms of liberation: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me...to proclaim release [aphesis] to the captives” (Luke 4:18). Finally, for Luke, this freedom isn’t reserved for a select few - it’s for every creature under heaven! In this Great Exodus, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God!” (Luke 3:6; Isa 40:5).
4) Likewise, Malachi’s vision of the final redemption is animated by an inclusive dynamic. God’s messenger doesn’t separate righteous levitical priests (“the descendents of Levi”) from unrighteous ones, or cast the latter into outer darkness. Rather, the messenger purifies them all, cleansing and freeing them from sin, thereby making their offerings - and by extension, the entire community on whose behalf their offerings are made - “pleasing to the LORD” (Mal 3:4). The prophetic metaphors in this passage are all cleansing or sanctifying images, not excluding or ostracizing ones. A refiner separates impurities from metal; a fuller cleans textiles. Just as baptism transforms but also preserves the person baptized, refiners and fullers transform and preserve what they purify.
1) Both because this week’s traditional Advent theme is “Peace” and because Luke is a subversive Gospel of peace written during a time of military occupation, this may be the perfect week to name and explore the realities of conflict in our lives today. God is calling us toward greater peacemaking between peoples and between individuals, and Advent is a season both to long for God’s shalom and to become lights of shalom in the darkness.
2) In the Book of Exodus, the Hebrew word for “Egypt” is mitzrayim, literally, “the narrow places.” Luke presents Jesus’ ministry as a New Exodus, a liberation or “release” (Greek aphesis) from the narrow places of sin, oppression, violence, conflict, and despair. A new era of God’s shalom is dawning, John insists, his voice ringing out like a new Jeremiah - but shalom isn’t simply the absence of discord. Rather, it’s the presence of genuine freedom, liberation from whatever is holding us back from becoming living testimonies to God’s good news for all creation, bar none. Our lives are full of narrow places (think: hostilities, resentments, addictions, stress, oppression, ecological ruin) - and Jesus is coming to “proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18).
3) As we prepare for this New Exodus, John challenges us to change our hearts, minds, and lives - for the days of peace and freedom are truly coming! Make way! Remove the obstacles! The Prince of Peace is coming - not on a warhorse like other authorities of the day (Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, and so on), but rather as a humble prophet, teacher, and healer, God’s beloved child born homeless in a barn.