Prepare the Way in the Badlands: Advent 2C

Some Thoughts for the Second Sunday of Advent

Texts:

  • Old Testament: Baruch 5:1-9 -or-
  • Malachi 3:1-4
  • Canticle: The Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79)
  • Epistle: Philippians 1:3-11
  • Holy Gospel: St. Luke 3:1-6

Texts in Summary:

Sunday marks the beginning of Advent’s two-week interlude of John the Baptist. I appreciate the way the lectionary cycle uses John as a pivot from the eschatological focus towards preparation for the Nativity story. After beginning the year with the end of history, we jump backward to John’s ministry preparing the way of the Lord (which, chronologically, takes place after the Nativity) before moving even further back to various events leading up to Christ’s birth:

  • In Year A, we read St. Matthew’s account of the angels appearing to St. Joseph
  • In Year B, we take a break from Sts. Mark and John to read St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation
  • In Year C, we attend to the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Elizabeth (and get an extra peek at John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb)

This week, the lectionary does a few odd things. First, it gives us an optional reading from Baruch, a book of the Apocrypha. (We’ll come back for the second thing in a bit.) The Apocrypha is comprised of those texts which were in the Septuagint but not in the Tanakh.

A brief primer on Jewish scripture: The Tanakh is an acronym for the section of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah (the five books of Moses which contain the Law), the Nevi’im (the prophets), and the Ketuvim (the writings). The Septuagint is the name used for the Greek translation of the books that make up the Tanakh as well as a few other texts, including Baruch.

Attributed to the prophet Jeremiah’s assistant, Baruch touches on history and prophecy before, during, and after the Babylonian Exile. Just as sections of Isaiah touch on the the end of the Exile, the Baruch reading strikes an optimistic tone that the way through the wilderness to the Land of Promise will be made smooth. For Baruch, that means a leveling so that there are no steep hills to climb over or valleys to climb out of, and trees will provide shade. For avid hikers, there is ample metaphor – and it ties in quite nicely to St. Luke’s use of Isaiah to describe John.

(Post-Script: There’s a striking comparison to be made between the post-Exilic prophets promising a direct path through the wilderness and the Exodus. The Hebrews spent forty years meandering through the desert; this time, says the Lord, will be different. The road will be prepared and the journey shorter and trees will provide shade through the deserted places. In generations past, the people were kept out of the Land of Promise, but now they will return without delay.)

Malachi, by comparison, is addressed to a people already back from Exile who are preparing to resume worship in the Temple (which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 but later rebuilt). The prophetic writings from the First Temple period (pre-Exile) interpreted the coming calamity as God’s response to both economic oppression and idolatry. That is, God unleashed the Babylonians because Judah and the Davidic kings oppressed the poor and worshipped foreign gods. For Malachi, then, it’s important to get the liturgical practice of the temple right. Thus, God

will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

The priests need to be steadfast in their devotion lest calamity return. It’s not that the worship in the temple is bad or wrong but that it has become corrupted. Writing for Working Preacher in 2015, Anne Stewart puts it this way:

Yet the prophet does not disparage the Levitical priesthood completely, even as he offers strident criticism of their corruption and lack of obedience. Rather, the messenger of the covenant envisions the renewal of the priesthood that will restore the office to its historic holiness, providing for proper and faithful worship.

Next week, Zephaniah will return to the same theme from the other side of the coin as God promises to “deal with all your oppressors” on the Day of the Lord when the Exile ends.

There’s a connection to be made between Malachi’s “refining fire” and what we’ll read from John the Baptist next week about one who

will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

The fiery image is not about hellfire and damnation but about purification – not that individuals will be burned forever but that which is not pure or fruitful will be purged. Given the Church in America’s distinctive individualism which sees salvation as an individual/personal/private event and interprets all fiery metaphors as individual persons being cast in to hell, these two weeks of back-to-back fiery image might prove a useful time to reinterpret the fiery imagery.

The second odd thing the lectionary does this week is replace the typical psalm with a canticle from St. Luke – the Benedictus, Zechariah’s song of praise upon the birth of his son, John the Baptist. The song tells of God’s redemptive work saving Israel and sending prophets to lead her, placing John squarely in that prophetic lineage. What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord? To give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins. Zechariah’s song paints John the Baptist as the heir to the prophetic tradition and reminds us that salvation means liberation from sin that we might live holy lives but also means liberating the oppressed from their oppressors. Being “saved from our enemies and the hand of all who hate us” and “rescued from the hand of our enemies” cannot be separated from the forgiveness of their sins, nor can forgiveness be separated from liberation. The God who calls John the Baptist is the same God who liberates slaves – from servitude under Pharaoh and from bondage to sin. (This will become all the more apparent on Advent 4C when we read Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat. The Lord is merciful to those who fear him – but will cast down the powerful and send the rich away empty.)

The Gospel reading connects at various points to the Malachi and Baruch readings. John is the messenger who has come to prepare the way of the Lord. He is the one who cries out for the mountains to be made low and the valleys to be filled up so that Israel make walk safely in the glory of God.

Lest we miss the geographical significance of his ministry, John is ministering in “all the region around the Jordan” for a reason. The Jordan a physical threshold into membership in Israel. It’s how the Israelites crossed into the Land of Promise out of the wilderness in Joshua – the waters giving way as at the Red Sea. It was at the Jordan where Naaman was washed clean of leprosy – as though he were crossing the boundary to join the people of Israel. When Elijah was carried off from the earth, he and Elisha crossed the Jordan into the wilderness, and Elisha returned the same way. Read through this lens, John’s ministry is a call for all people to make the same journey as their ancestors, to enter the Land of Promise through repentance.


Preaching Possibilities:

As an avid hiker, Baruch and Luke’s twin use of wilderness imagery sticks out. Anyone who has hiked a barren trail on a hot day knows ho important woods and shady trees are. Those who have felt the betrayal of looking up only to realize the trail keeps climbing have undoubtedly wished for level ground. I’m thinking especially of badlands – areas where soft layers of ash and clay rise sharply and fall steeply along the plains of the Dakotas and Nebraska. A ten mile hike through the Badlands National Park in August requires preparation as the terrain rises and falls with little notice and no trees provide shade. At mile seven, with water running low and fingers swelling in the heat, I certainly wish there had been shade and someone had been there to guide my feet.

Castle Trail, Badlands National Park – August 2016

The image of garments of sorrow and robes of righteousness in Baruch call to mind the alb as the baptismal garment – a floor-length, white robe would have been an extravagant thing for the first century worker. In the ancient baptismal liturgy, Christians would have entered the font in the nude and been clad anew in an alb as they emerged from the waters. It represents being clothed in Christ. Here is a wonderful opportunity to explain the connection of this 2,000 year tradition and our baptism.

If the preacher want to consider fire as purification, I would recommend some background reading on wildfire management in the US. Long story short, the US has focused almost exclusively on putting out all forest fires as soon as possible. Decades of this practice have led to a build-up of burnable material on the forest floor that would, in centuries past, have been burned by smaller fires or through indigenous practices of burning as a method of cultivation. So-called controlled or cultural burns are an effective way at cleansing the forests and preventing more destructive fires. For more on these practices, see two NPR podcasts – Short Wave’s episode on cultural burns and Throughline’s episode on a similar topic among a different tribes. This is an especially apt image when put in dialog with last week’s reading from Jeremiah – the “branch of righteousness” comes forth like new growth from the ashes. If done well, these inter-related visions of fire and growth can unite the first three weeks of Advent Year C.

And finally, there’s this little number from Godspell:


Who I’m Reading to Think Through this Week:

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