Advent is much more than the religious equivalent to the Christmas shopping season (roughly, Black Friday mob scenes to desperate Christmas Eve searches in Walgreens).
This week offers two prophetic voices, both probably considered crazies by their contemporaries several centuries apart but who at the very least grasped the power of metaphor. Their words speak not only to their specific situations but, as well, to the bigger and longer picture of God in history.
First, Malachi, who spoke to returned exiles in Jerusalem about much more than just returning to their homeland:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. –Malachi 3:1-4 NRSV
The Gospel writer Luke brings us a narrative about John, the wilderness preacher known as “the baptizer”:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ” –Luke 3:1-6
Luke makes sure we see John within a specific context: the hierarchical power of Rome, expressed as Tiberius Caesar, the prefect (governor) Pontius Pilate, and Herod, the Hebrews’ puppet king. But he doesn’t stop with that, for we also get a mention of the existing religious hierarchy (the high priests Annas and Caiaphas), who directed the Temple cult and served at the discretion of the occupying Romans. All of that impressive hierarchical power was as nothing, according to John’s proclamation, compared to the coming “way of the Lord.”
In the ancient Roman world the word “salvation” was reserved for use totally within the context of Caesar. Yet here we find preaching of the coming and promised “salvation of God.” So is John’s preaching a political act or confined to religious matters? Are there hints of apocalyptic themes, as well? Get ready, John warns: Repent and be washed clean! Caesar and Pilate and Herod and Annas and Caiphas can’t do that, but there is one coming who can and will.
Yet who is crazy enough to listen to voices crying in the wilderness? Who can be much concerned for big, ultimate matters when the world around us–defined and affirmed by powers and institutions and societal norms–presses in on us in ever greater and more commanding ways? After all, we have stuff ranging all the way from Donald Trump’s latest pronouncement of utter, ridiculous fiction to yet another mass shooting to whatever Justin Bieber’s done within the past 24 hours to, well, you get the idea.
Advent is the time to stop and get off that metaphorical merry-go-round to first listen and then respond to the wild notion that the peaceable kingdom we belong to is not like the kingdoms and empires of this world, which are built on and maintained by violence of multiple kinds, and is more-or-less incomprehensible to anyone whose focus remains the nitty-gritty of the here-and-now.
I close with this prayer by the late Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, himself a martyr to the cause of Christ’s coming kingdom:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraaction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete; which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that should be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds that are already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future that is not our own. Amen.
For a great video and related article on Oscar Romero, produced as part of The Martyrs Project, check them out here.
*Adapted from a post in the 2012 ForeWords archive
- The temptation of Pontius Pilate… (ncregister.com)
- Is He your King? Really? A Meditation on the Gospel of Christ the King (adw.org)
- The Word of God Came To John (pastortoddnelsen.wordpress.com)