Ramblings for 6/24/12

Reading
Ramblings

Date: June 24, 2012,
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:
Isaiah 40:1-5; Psalm 851-6)7-13; Acts 13:13-26; Luke 1:57-80

Contextual
Notes:
We remain in the longest season of the Church
Year, the non-festival season of Ordinary Time. Except for a few
other festival Sundays, Ordinary Time will continue until the
beginning of Advent. This time of the liturgical year focuses us on
the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in light of the
resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The readings will not
always neatly line up together to form a common theme, but the Gospel
and the Old Testament readings will normally support one another.

This Sunday is traditionally observed
as the Nativity of John the Baptist. As such, the Gospel reading
shifts to the book of Luke for having the most information about the
birth of John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said in Matthew 11:11
“…among those born of women there has arisen no one greater”.
The observance of this feast day is one of the oldest celebrations in
both the Eastern and Western Church, and used to be prepared for with
a fast. Note that this observance falls six months previous to
Christmas and the Nativity of Jesus. Tradition holds that John was
roughly six months older than Jesus.

Isaiah 40:1-5: As
typical of many prophetic passages, these verses can have many
meanings. In the shorter term, they may have called the people of
God in exile in Babylon to the hope that they would one day return
home to Jerusalem and Judah. Much of the language would be
understood as hyperbole and metaphor for the celebration on the day
(that did come, under the Persian rule of Cyrus) when the exile was
ended. The words also point forward prophetically to the return of
our Lord, when He will return to speak these words authoritatively
and finally to his creation, and the language will not be hyperbole
or metaphor any longer but full and complete reality. Nothing will
stand between the Lord and his people.

In between, these words can apply both
to John the Baptist as the precursor of the Messiah, as well as the
Messiah himself. Both came preaching repentance in advance of the
arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. In this sense the words remain
prophetic as well as realized. Just as the exiles received these
words and saw them fulfilled, the hearers of both John and Jesus
received their respective words and in the receiving, were witnesses
to their fulfillment. It isn’t that just one day the glory of
the Lord will be revealed – that glory has been revealed in
the person and work of Jesus Christ, to which John pointed.

Psalm 85: A beautiful
Psalm of hope and trust as it asks for the Lord to turn with his
favor once again on his people. The first seven verses recount
God’s graciousness and turning from anger in the past with his
people. The first three verses likely look back to the Exodus event
and God’s salvation of his people from slavery in Egypt. Verses 4-7
indicate that God’s displeasure with his people has returned – not
without reason, though that reason is not explicitly stated. This
Psalm is not arguing with the injustice of God’s indignation, but
rather asking him to relent from it according to his primary nature,
that of mercy and forgiveness, not of wrath. The end of the Psalm
looks forward to what things will be like when the Lord’s indignation
is removed and He returns his love and favor to his people. This is
what the Messiah brings in his death and resurrection. We do not
enjoy it in full just yet, but we are called to faith and trust that
the day of that enjoyment will come, and is drawing closer.

Acts 13:13-26:
Paul’s discourse here is one that recounts how God has always
worked in history to provide gradually better and greater answers to
the needs of his people. He begins with the patriarchs and Moses,
but doesn’t name any of them. Then he names Samuel as the one who
pointed the way to Saul, the first King of Israel. This first king
gave way to David, the ideal king of Israel. David in turn has given
way to Jesus, but just as David had precursors in Samuel and Saul, so
Jesus has a precursor in John. The role of the precursor is to
direct those who know them or have heard of them away from themselves
and towards the greater one who is following. This is John’s role,
to deflect the attention and glory that people would have given to
him, and to assure them that he is not the proper object of their
glory. But the one who comes after him is worthy! This was the role
John the Baptist played in a long line of prophets and those pointing
towards the anointed of God.

Luke 1:57-80:
Luke’s parallel birth narrative (Elizabeth & Mary; John &
Jesus; Zechariah and Joseph) reaches its first conclusion in the
birth of John the Baptist. These verses emphasize the impact that
John’s birth – along with the attendant muteness and sudden
restoration of voice to his father Zechariah – had on the people of
Judea. Before his birth, John was causing people to marvel and
wonder at what God would do through this person!

This culminates in Zechariah’s beautiful prophecy. While any father
might be justifiably proud of his child and see that child –
particularly one that has come so unlikely and at the advanced age of
his parents – as the zenith of God’s grace and mercy, Zechariah
understands the role that his son will play as the forerunner of the
true zenith of God’s grace and mercy, the Messiah.

Zechariah’s prophecy links the coming Messiah to the Old Testament
prophecies and the workings of God throughout the long history of his
people. God is not doing something new in Jesus, but rather is
continuing the work He has been doing all along. He is fulfilling
the promises that He made to the patriarchs and the people of God for
thousands of years. This fulfillment is as dramatic as the sunrise
that casts out darkness and fear and enables people to walk
confidently.

John’s
role is confirmed throughout Scripture as the forerunner of the
Messiah. All of the references to him in the New Testament make very
clear that this was his role and no more, testimony to the
inclination or confusion of people early on to think that John the
Baptist might actually be
the Messiah. But from his day of birth on, it was understood that
this was not his role or identity. But rather he would point the way
to the one who would come after him.

As
Americans, we might be inclined to feel sorry for John. We’re taught
from an early age that while there is honor possible
in every role and duty, the greatest honor is reserved for those who
are in the spotlight. Nobody pays much attention to the second
string quarterback. Second chair violinist is generally ignored
compared to first chair. The star of the show is the most important
one, not the understudy. But in all depictions of John and in John’s
account of his own work, we see clearly that what brings glory to God
is when each of us functions in our proper role, rather than seeking
to usurp the role of another for ourselves.

John’s father and John himself both understand the important role
that John plays in the fulfillment of prophecy and the unveiling of
God’s Messiah, even though John is not the Messiah himself. Each of
us could undoubtedly benefit from approaching our own lives
similarly, giving glory to God for the unique role that we play
whether as the star of the show or a supporting cast member!

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