Reading Ramblings – December 6, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday in Advent – December 6, 2015

Texts: Malachi 3:1-7b; Psalm 66:1-12; Philippians 1:2-11; Luke 3:1-17

Context: The second Sunday in Advent moves us closer to the material related to Jesus’ birth, and away from explicitly eschatalogical/Second Coming sorts of considerations. Our anticipation is built up by recognizing that God’s Old Testament people were waiting as well – waiting for the Messiah that would deliver them, a fuller explication of God’s original first promise to Eve in Genesis 3:15. Our anticipation should also be fueled by the recognition that God provides his people with clues so that they will better recognize these fulfillments. The recognition of Jesus as the Messiah is anchored first and foremost in his resurrection from the dead. But for those who would argue that Jesus is hardly the first person – Biblically speaking – to rise from the dead, the weight of prophetic utterances regarding the Messiah that Jesus fulfills should provide further, inescapable evidence of his identity.

Malachi 3:1-7b – The fulfillment of God’s promise to send his servant is preceded by the fulfillment of another promise, the promise that there will be one who goes before this servant to prepare God’s people. So if our expectation of our Lord’s return is to be bolstered by how God the Father has already been fulfilling his promises, we must not forget this promise either – the promised messenger. John the Baptist’s story is bitter sweet because he is the fulfillment of this promise in Malachi 3, yet he himself suffers for it to the point of death. We are tempted to mourn John’s fate because he missed out on seeing the validity of Jesus’ identity in his resurrection. We would better understand that John is ahead of us, ahead of the women that first Easter morning, ahead of the men on the road to Emmaus. John does not miss out, and neither do we.

Psalm 66:1-12 – Once again our praise is elicited based specifically on the works of God. The psalm moves from the praises of creation in general (vs.1-4), into praise specific to the Old Testament people of God, the ones saved from slavery and death in Egypt through the Exodus (vs.5-7), and then to praise more specific to the ones currently speaking/singing the psalm, the ones whome the Lord has given life to and preserved it to the point that they are alive to sing to him (vs.8-9). The language of verse 10 draws on a verb translated often as test, but the verb truly is more common to the description of how metals and ores are processed, the extraction of the good and the discarding of the worthless. God refines his people, He leads them towards perfection in Christ in that our sins will be wiped away from us and we will one day stand truly clean and perfect in the presence of our Creator. While we might get caught up and troubled by verses 10-12b, our emphasis should rightly remain on the end of verse 12 and the Lord’s strength and delivery of his people.

Philippians 1:2-11 – The beginning of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Paul follows standard Roman practice in writing letters. After the salutation in verse 1, Paul spends a few moments in giving thanks. Paul generally gives thanks for the person or people to whom he is writing, noting specific, thanks-worthy attributes. Paul here gives thanks that this congregation has helped him in the spread of the Gospel, perhaps as financial supporters of his mission journeys. Then Paul changes the focus from what they have done but rather what God the Holy Spirit is doing in them – completing the work begun in them with their conversion. This is sanctification talk – giving thanks that God is continuing to make them day-by-day more Christlike.

Note that Paul does not question their faith; Paul is not saying that with just a bit more time or effort they will become true Christians. No! They are already Christians, full partakers with Paul in the grace of God, even when that grace leads to tribulation such as Paul suffers. Paul’s continued prayers are for God’s continued work in the Philippian Christians, clarifying their judgment so that they might discern rightly what is pleasing to God and what is not, thereby filled increasingly with the righteousness of God. He prays that their lives might more and more conform to the image of their hope, Jesus.

Luke 3:1-17 – Here we have the completion of the Malachi prophecy regarding a messenger. We can begin by once again admiring Luke’s specificity and attention to detail. No less than seven Roman leaders are specified here starting with the Roman Emperor. This is not arbitrary information. It grounds and specifies the timing of John’s calling to prophetic work. Luke continues this specificity in regards to John the Baptist’s lineage as well, so there can be no mistaking who Luke is referring to (John the Baptist as opposed to the Apostle John). Luke describes John’s work in prophetic terms – he receives the word of the Lord.

Luke records John’s reference to Isaiah 40:3-5 in verses 4-6. In other words, John has an awareness of his purpose. His prophetic calling – the first among God’s people in hundreds of years – is specific to preparing the way for the Messiah. This is a spiritual preparation. He lambasts people with the Law, calling them to examine their hearts and their motivations for coming to hear him. John’s efforts are to call God’s people to honest repentance, not simply to raise their moral or ethical standards.

So it is that when people want to know what a repentant life looks like, John can give them concrete examples. But it is the repentance that comes first. It is forgiveness that precedes the alteration of mind and practice. Because of the forgiveness of God, and having discerned that they have taken this for granted (vs.7-9), God’s people respond in tangible ways. They do so not to earn or merit the forgiveness but as demonstration that they already have. The Christian life is marked by change, whether it be large or small. We don’t get to dictate what those changes will look like, but John gives some practical examples.

Genuine, sacrificial love and concern for others is a hallmark of God’s forgiveness (v.11). We give not because we have too much but because someone else is in need. We give not out of our excess, when it’s convenient, but we give as we see the need. Likewise, we are to respect the property of others and not seek to deprive them of it for our own gain (v.13). Those with authority are not to use that authority to deprive others (vs.13-14).

Such practices and changes of doing business may result in people looking at us like we are something special. Look how good he/she is? She’s just the nicest, best person I’ve ever met! She’s always thinking about other people! Such a response is misguided. It deflects attention from who we are all called to be as God’s creations, caring for one another, and instead makes it an issue of exception. I can’t be like that, but I really admire him for being like that. So we shouldn’t be surprised that people attempt to make a big deal out of John (v.15), but John quickly deflects that praise and speculation back to glorifying God rather than himself (vs.16-17).

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