Reading Ramblings – December 9, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday in Advent – December 9, 2018

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

Context: The focus in Advent already begins to turn from the Last Days and the return of our Lord, to our Lord’s first arrival, highlighting John the Baptist as the messenger sent in advance of the Lord’s return. We consider John the Baptist as both prophet and forerunner of the Messiah, bridging the gap between the Old and New Testaments (Malachi 3:1. John fulfills a critical role, yet his role is secondary to the role that Jesus plays in God’s plan of redemption and salvation. John calls people to repentance, and this is the heart of Christian life, the continual repentance and acceptance of the grace of God, by which the Holy Spirit begins the transformation process, maturing us in the faith towards the day of our Lord’s return, when we will finally be perfect (Philippians 1). The Word of God Incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth saves us from our sins and delivers us to new life, while the Word of God that is preached and read continues the work of sanctification each day of our lives by the Holy Spirit’s power.

Malachi 3:1-7b – Malachi mentions a messenger, but the main emphasis of the passage is on the one the messenger will announce and prepare the way for. This is the Lord, but the Hebrew is adonai, a more generic term that does not always indicate divinity, but here, based on the verses that follow, clearly does. In context with the previous two chapters of Malachi, this Lord is going to come to clean house, so to speak (v.2). He will purge the priesthood (sons of Levi, v.3) that have been the subject of God’s complaint. He comes to purify so that the offerings will once again be pleasing to God (v.4). This judgment will then extend beyond the priesthood to all those engaged in traditionally despicable acts of covenant unfaithfulness – practitioners of witchcraft and sexual immorality, those who lie about their neighbors in order to gain advantage over them in court, those who don’t pay their workers when they should, who are inhospitable to visitors and others dependent upon their protection and kindness – all of which are examples of people who have no fear or love of God. God has not changed his mind about what He expects from his people. The covenant requirements have not been done away with or replaced by anything else. God is not capricious and unfathomable, so that we might never trust his grace or mercy. We can put our hope and trust in him precisely because what He expects never changes. But God’s people have been consistent as well – consistently disobedient. Yet God still extends his offering of grace and mercy to those who will give up their rebellious ways to receive it.

Psalm 66:1-12 – A beautiful hymn of praise to the Creator of the Universe, unparalleled in power and majesty, and therefore the most worthy of our praise for all his wondrous actions from creation down through today. The psalmist recounts God’s care for his people in leading them out of slavery in Egypt and across the Red Sea in safety. Later, they crossed over the Jordan River again by God’s miraculous provision, to take possession of the Land promised to their ancestor, Abraham. God is the provider and protector of his people. In him they have confidence and hope for each day, knowing that nothing can separate them from his watchful eye. That watch both ensures their eternal well-being, and stands as a warning to any who would exalt themselves against either God or his people. This does not mean that God’s people will never suffer. God himself disciplines his people at times, but always with their end good in mind. And as God’s people have gone through times of trial, God has been with them and ultimately delivered them, all to his glory and praise.

Philippians 1:2-11 – Paul gives thanks for the church at Philippi, and their faithfulness in working to share the Gospel with and through Paul, likely through supporting his missionary journeys financially. But while Paul appreciates who they are now, he knows that who they will one day be is even more impressive and worthy of praise to God. By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, what has started as the life of faith in them will one day result in their perfection when Jesus returns. They have been steadfast in their support and encouragement of Paul, and he longs to be with them again. But more importantly they remain in his prayers. Who they are is commendable, but there is always room for growth, for learning, for maturation, for deeper responses of faith. He prays that their love will continue to grow in discernment and knowledge, so that they might know better and better how to love better and better. All of this in preparation for the day of the Lord’s return, when they will declared pure and righteous in Jesus Christ, all to the glory and praise of God the Father (rather than the Philippians, since who they are and what they will one day be is entirely the work of God, rather than their own).

Luke 3:1-17 – We skip over the birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel in order to deal with Malachi’s messenger, John the Baptist. Luke, who is not one of Jesus’ 12 disciples but rather has compiled the accounts of Jesus’ life (1:1-4) deals with the other major religious figure of Jesus’ day. It is possible that John the Baptist remains a person with a cultic following even after his death, and despite his repeated efforts to direct his disciples to Jesus. Given John’s explicit handling of the role and identity of John the Baptist in his Gospel, written many years after Luke’s, it is reasonable to think that Luke may be attempting to clarify the situation as well in his day. John the Baptist is the messenger, not the Lord’s coming servant. His purpose is preparatory. Note Luke’s detail – dates, names, and locations all accounted for. John the Baptist becomes a popular figure due to his prophetic message, but it’s hardly a message of comfort! He demands greater piety as well as repentance from his hearers, denying any the false comfort of thinking that somehow they are already adequately pleasing or obedient to God. This naturally leads to questions about John’s authority and he quickly deflects musings that he himself is the Messiah. He is the messenger, preparing the people of God for the arrival of their savior. John baptizes with water, but the one who follows him will baptize not only with water but with the very fire of the Holy Spirit of God, likely reference to Pentecost to come.

We also today should heed the Baptist’s message. Though our salvation is in Christ, our lives are a continual maturation in the faith by the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, which will lead to a growing purity and holiness of living. We are not to take sanctification lightly – it is a natural outgrowth of the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God, and if we do not see the fruits of his work there should be cause to question the nature of our faith. Yet we are always to ground our faith not in our works of charity or our increasing love of neighbor, but only and always in the singular work of the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep, and takes it up again (John 10). We have no reason to boast except in Christ! We must emulate the Baptist by not appropriating for ourselves a glory that does not belong to us, but to the God who created, redeemed and sanctifies us.

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