Last revised: January 12, 2019
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SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT — YEAR C
RCL: Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
RoCa: Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
Luke begins this passage with a third recitation of Judean and/or Roman rulers (1:5; 2:1). The story of Jesus’s birth has the stage set with a recitation of rulers during Caesar Augustus’s reign (2:1). Thirty years later, at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, the stage is reset:
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.
I think that Luke is doing more here than being a good historian for Theophilus (1:1-4, “God lover”). It is part of the contrast between imperial gods, such as Tiberius himself (called “son of God” in Roman culture), and the true God that Jesus came to reveal. In the New Reformation, we must be clear about what happened to this stunning revelation of God when the church formed a partnership with Empire and its gods. Luke is clear in so many ways about how believing in the God of Jesus means values and practices that are turned upside-down and inside-out from those of Empire.
In 2018 the parish I was serving had begun the theme of healing tribalism when I arrived July 22 with the reading of Ephesians 2, God creating one new humanity out of two. Human community, epitomized by Empire, is structured into two, Us-vs-Them. God in Jesus the Messiah is recreating human community into one family. The church largely failed to sacramentally represent this new oneness of humanity through the many compromises it made in its partnership with Empire (“Christendom”). In the sermon I outline some practices, especially creedal and sacramental practices, that need reforming for the church to get back on track to represent oneness (e.g., communing the unbaptized); here are the sermon notes in 2018.
1. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Refiner’s Fire. Handel’s use of Malachi 3:2 in “The Messiah” becomes the primary metaphor in this book which “analyzes the effects of religion as catalysts that help humanity to foment and/or transcend violence” (p. xiv). Later in the Preface, she says, “A Refining Fire is an impulse, a creative energy given to us by God, in a context of choice: we can choose to do justice out of love, or we can choose to be violent out of pain” (p. xvii).
2. Verse 2: “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.” The referent to “he” is the “messenger of the covenant” in verse 1. This sounds like the “day of wrath” common to the Hebrew Scriptures. But the Cross of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe to be the “messenger of the covenant,” works a most gracious interpretation on the “day of wrath.” Robert Hamerton-Kelly, in Sacred Violence, is commenting on Paul’s interpretation of wrath in Romans 1:18-3:20, when he states:
This wrath of God is revealed in the gospel; not just in the preaching but in the events on which the preaching is based. This is clearly the sense of Romans 1:18, which must be taken as carrying on the thought of Romans 1:17 where the Gospel is the locus of revelation. Barth puts it succinctly; “The death of Jesus Christ on the Cross is the revelation of God’s Wrath from heaven” (A Shorter Commentary on Romans, 26), and this must be taken seriously as the defining principle of the concept of the wrath. Accordingly, the wrath revealed in the gospel is not the divine vengeance that should have fallen on us falling instead on Jesus, but rather the divine nonresistance to human evil (cf. Matt 5:39), God’s willingness to suffer violence rather than defend himself or retaliate. It is the permission granted us by God to afflict ourselves unknowingly; it is the divine nonresistance to human evil. It is God’s unwillingness to intervene in the process of action and consequence in the human world by which we set up and operate the system of sacred violence, and so paradoxically a sign of love as the refusal to abridge our freedom and a respect for our choices even when they are catastrophic. One need not posit an absolutely reciprocal moral order to acknowledge that self-destructive activity takes place and that in a general sense we punish ourselves and each other. The Cross reveals this paradoxical wrath as God’s acceptance of our free choice to destroy ourselves and each other, inasmuch as it is the supreme instance of this human rage against the good.(1) Wrath, therefore, is primarily sacred violence in its aspect of human vengeance.
Based on these insights, I extend the arguments around “wrath” in Romans in my essay “My Core Convictions: Nonviolence and the Christian Faith.”
Reflections and Questions
1. See reflections for Advent 3C on the image of fire for next Sunday’s gospel , Luke 3:7-18.
2. Is “refiner’s fire” a good baptismal metaphor, if we connect it with the Pauline idea of dying and rising with Christ?
1. Willard M. Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus / Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 218-245. I consider the main message of this letter to be one of positive mimesis, the heart of it being Phil. 2:5-11, the call to kenotic living by having the same mind as Christ. Here is the portion of Swartley’s essay dealing with Philippians:
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. (Phil. 3:17-18)
The context of this admonition is Paul’s counting as loss his Jewish credentials and achievements — which he labels as “confidence in the flesh” — and then he owns a righteousness based on the faith of Jesus Christ, a righteousness which is from God based on faith (3:9). What Paul then desires, as mark of this righteousness, is to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection and to share in Jesus’ sufferings, thus “becoming like him in death” (3:10). These twin points of analogous experience are pursued further in vv. 11-16. Then follows this language of imitation and example in w.17-18.Clearly, given the preceding context of sharing in the sufferings of Christ and the immediately following reference to the cross of Christ, this use of imitation and example is oriented to the cross and suffering. It is also striking that Paul completes this thought by pointing to a heavenly reward for this kind of earthly life (vv. 20-21). He then addresses a conflict between two sisters in the community, Euodia and Syntyche, a manifestation of mimetic rivalry in the sisterhood. He speaks highly of their contribution to the missionary enterprise and is confident that this conflict can and will be resolved.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him …. (Phil. 2:5-11)
Even though this text does not use either of the key terms, imitation or type, it clearly portrays the believers patterning their conduct after the suffering and obedience of Christ Jesus. Hence this important text takes its place in this list. Further, this text is joined to imitation in Philippians 3:17 (see p. 225) by the similar exhortation, “be of the same mind” (touto phroneite in 2:5 and touto phronomen in 3:15).The context of this foundational confession on Jesus’ self-emptying and humbling to the cross is Paul’s admonition in vv. 3-4 to put away conduct that proceeds from mimetic rivalry: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Then follows: “let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.”
And Swartley’s “Summary and Conclusion” is also of note:
A mimesis pattern lies at the heart of NT thought. Any theology or ethics of the NT should make this point foundational, but few do. Just as world culture generally manifests energy via mimetic desire, so life in the kingdom of God, the new creation, is animated and empowered also by a mimetic model. The key difference is that the lead Model is the new Adam precisely because he was tempted with the acquisitive mimeses in all ways such as we are but did not yield to that mimetic pattern that generates rivalry and violence. Jesus as faithful Servant of the Lord has opened up for us a new world of hope and potential; we are saved by his transforming of our desire. We seek then to follow in his steps and be conformed to his image.Precisely in this context we can grasp anew the full significance of the gospel’s declaration that “Christ is our peace” (Eph. 2:14) and that Christ is our reconciliation and entrusts to his followers the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Further, the pervasive NT teaching on “love of enemy” and “nonretaliation against evil” is the outworking of this new mimesis in an ethic for conflictual relations. To pursue these themes adequately requires another paper. Some of this work has already been done. (2)
Finally, I suggest that the evidence of this paper witnesses analogically to the correctness of Girard’s analysis of the human condition and culture. If indeed the life of Jesus’ followers is so profusely and consistently described as a relation between Jesus as Model and his followers as imitators-disciples in self-giving love, service, and suffering, then from the standpoint of this gospel revelation we can deduce also the nature and dynamic of the shadow-model that rules the world: acquisitive mimetic desire, rivalry, and violence (indeed, the Gen. 3-4 depiction).
The element of sacrificial scapegoating that enshrouds the violence in a halo-lie cannot be adduced analogically from the evidence of this paper (though with more work on “atonement” in Mark 10:45; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 12:2; and Rev. 5:9, this may be possible also). However, the ubiquity and reign of the persecutors’ myths might be inferred logically from the predominant suffering-martyr experience of the Paracletic community. But as Luke-Acts testifies, the gospel witness of the believers exposes the persecutor’s myth and manifests, in life and martyr-death, the proclaimed incarnation of the “gospel of peace” (Luke 10:5-9; Acts 10:36, quoting Isa. 52:7).
2. René Girard himself closes Violence Renounced with responses to the papers and takes a substantial, positive look at Swartley’s essay on imitation. He takes up the very important theme of Imitatio Christi as positive mimesis. Link here to Girard’s comments on this Swartley paper.
Reflections and Questions
1. “that your love may overflow more and more” recalls last week’s “abounding in love” from 1 Thess. 3. But what does it mean to combine this prayer for an increase in love “with knowledge and full insight”? Paul seems to give his answer as “to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” This could easily become for most of us the kind of ethical knowledge that turns into a judgmentalism which slowly squeezes the love out. This is why I think the full context of Philippians, with its heart in Phil 2:5-11, is important to leave intact.
2. RSV, verse 7: “you are all partakers with me of grace” (Gr: sygkoinonous mou tes charitos pantas hymas ontas). sygkoinonous: “partakers,” “sharers,” “participants.” Partakers of grace. I don’t think I can repeat this enough, for it is the source of everything. If we don’t live life as free gift, then the alternative is to live it as debts of which to keep tabs. I think that we might even define sin as our inability to live life as grace. When we live lives of keeping debts, then the ultimate winner is death. Perhaps that’s why reincarnation can seem so attractive. It is an eternal debt-keeping system. We keep getting new chances to run up the score, to play our games of keeping debts over and over again. Otherwise, death beats us every time.
Unless life is a free gift from the God who is the eternal source of life. Then life can be lived by giving it away. Link to a sermon on these themes titled “Partakers of Grace.”
2. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 28-31, the conclusion to chapter 2, “The Cycle of Mimetic Violence.” Girard takes a unique reading of the Isaiah 40 passage quoted by John the Baptist. Girard sees it as describing the undifferentiation, the leveling, of a mimetic crisis which will be resolved only with the murder of a scapegoat. In Second Isaiah, that resolution is described in the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53. Girard suggests that the gospel writers all use Isaiah 40 in the mouth of John the Baptist to similarly set up the situation of a mimetic crisis, the resolution of which will come in the Passion Story.
3. René Girard, Things Hidden; he mentions John the Baptist on pp. 199, 205, in the context of piecing together Jesus’ early preaching of the Kingdom of God with his later apocalyptic preaching. Girard cites an important Lukan verse about John the Baptist:
With the spirit and power of Elijah he [John] will go before him [the Messiah], to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:17)
“A people prepared for the Lord” — there is a positive element to this preparation, but there is perhaps even more of a downside: as the only ones prepared by the Old Testament, the Jewish Community will also be the first to reject Jesus’ offer of the Kingdom. It is refusing the offer that can tend to lead to apocalyptic violence since the effort to maintain sacred violence in the face of its revelation generally yields increasingly persistent efforts at sacred violence — in short, increased violence. The Jewish Community itself then becomes one of the first casualties of such apocalyptic violence as the Romans crush their rebellion. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is one of the first NT signs of such apocalyptic violence. But they are only the first. As Girard concludes this section:
Luke, in particular, tries hard to distinguish between a near and specifically Judaic apocalypse and a world apocalypse that will take place ‘after the times of the Gentiles’ — after the Gospels have been announced to the whole world and very probably rejected by it. (Things Hidden, p. 205)
4. René Girard, The Scapegoat, ch. 11, on the general role of John the Baptist in the gospels. In more recent essays, he has also stressed the importance of the parallel in the gospels between John’s death and Jesus’ death. See the essays “Satan” and “The Question of Anti-Semitism in the Gospels,” on pp. 194-221 of The Girard Reader. Here, for example, is a portion of that discussion:
It has been suggested that Pilate’s handling of Jesus reflects a pro-Roman bias or rather, once again, an anti-Jewish bias. The parallel handling of the Herod/John the Baptist relationship makes this interpretation most unlikely. There must be an intention common to both scenes, and it is readily intelligible. The sovereign, each time, must make his subservience to the crowd manifest. It will be manifest only if his personal desire differs from that of the crowd and yet in the end, the crowd has its way. Herod and Pilate would like to save John and Jesus, but it cannot be done without antagonizing the crowd, and the two sovereigns yield to mimetic pressure; they become part of the crowd. The purpose is to show that a crowd in a lynching mood is the supreme power. For the Gospels, political power has been rooted in the crowd since the foundation of the world.” (p. 214)
5. Gil Bailie has extended the comparison of John to Jesus around the theme of skandalon. There are structural similarities between their deaths, but there are also differences. John the Baptist was still in a mode of being scandalized by Herod’s behavior. See his discussion of this in his section on “Scandal,” Violence Unveiled, pp. 207-210. For more on skandalon, see also the webpage “Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.”
He extends the comparison and contrast even further by bringing in yet a third murder account in the gospel tradition: Luke’s account of Stephen’s martyrdom. In his more recent tape series, “At Cross Purposes,” he deals with John and Jesus briefly on tape 3, and then in an extended reflection of Stephen’s martyrdom on tape 4.
6. James Alison‘s book Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination cites John the Baptist as an example as he sketches out the transformation from sacralized apocalyptic imagination, which “is still stuck within a notion of a violent God” (p. 125), to that of Jesus’ eschatological imagination:
It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different There are various ways of glimpsing this in the Gospel, for example in the contrast which is made between the preaching of John the Baptist, which does indeed fit within the apocalyptic imagination, and that of Jesus. (p. 125).
That something different is what Alison sketches out in the book as a whole, including pruning God of violence, the revelation of God as love, and creation in Christ.
7. Tony Bartlett, Bible Study Notes on Isaiah 40:1-11, on the preachingpeace.org website. Also, Virtually Christian, ch . 7, “What Signs Did He Give?”, pp. 220ff. Bartlett’s climaxing chapter attempts to sketch a Historical Jesus in grounding his thesis that Jesus’ change of meaning is anthropological — grounded in a real human life. Jesus must have intentionally “orchestrated meaning and did so in reference to his own person and activity” (p. 221). And Bartlett begins this sketch by presuming Jesus as a former disciple of John the Baptist who breaks from his mentor for specific reasons.
9. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offered reflections on this passage in 2018, “John the Baptist: A Transitional Figure.”
10. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “We Have a Chance at Real Knowledge“; in 2015, “Dawn Breaks Upon Us“; and in 2018, “Escaping the Bondage to Ourselves.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2012 the sermon rang out the theme of “Believing in Jesus as World Changing.” The main point was: If faith is seen only as a personal choice, it diminishes the significance of Christ to the world. In much of modern Protestantism, we have come to see faith as primarily a personal choice of what to believe about Jesus to seal one’s fate in the afterlife, which often means that there is little or no belief about what Jesus has and is doing to change the world.
2. In 2006 our midweek advent worship took the theme of a cantata that the choir was preparing for Christmas. The anthem the first week was “Deliver Us, Lord.” My meditation on that theme of “Deliver Us, Lord” began with proposal that, in the age-old human cries for deliverance, the from what is death, and the from whom is our enemies. And the gods have sent us two categories of deliverers: priests to perform the sacrifices that deliver us from death, and kings to raise armies that deliver us from our enemies. In the Hebrew tradition, the Messiah combines both these roles of deliverer.
Yet Jesus the Messiah transformed both these roles in ways that subvert them from within: he submitted to our sacrifice as the sacrifice to end all sacrifice, replacing the Temple with his body; and he died at the hands of the ruling political leaders in order to reveal to us our true enemies. It is the comic strip character Pogo who is purported to be the first to proclaim, “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.” The cross of Christ the King reveals that our human solution of violence against each other to stop violence makes us our own worst enemies.
The Sunday following this first midweek worship brought these texts of Advent 2C in which we see that third most important role in the Hebrew tradition, the one that plants the seed of transforming the roles of king and priest — namely, the role of prophet. Malachi and John the Baptist are the last two prophets before Jesus transforms and fulfills that role as Messiah, as true High Priest and true King. He fulfills it in a way that also fulfills the prophecy of Joel as Peter preached at Pentecost: God’s Spirit is poured out on all God’s people to prophesy. You and I are called as prophets to proclaim the Good News of deliverance from our enemies by living out the power of God’s love in the world. The sermon on these themes draws in the psalm for this day, Zechariah’s song, in a sermon entitled “Prophesying Our Feet into the Way of Peace.”
3. Verse 3: “repentance” is a significant theme in Luke/Acts, much more so than for any other author of the New Testament. What exactly does it mean? We often think in terms of a breast-beating sort of sorrowfulness for one’s sins. The Greek, however, is metanoia, literally, to have a change of mind. Our reflections on the Philippians passage look to the heart of that letter in 2:5-11, i.e., to have the same mind of Christ. Perhaps we need to look to that passage here, as well, in trying to understand what “repentance” means. In Girardian terms, we need to turn from having the same minds as everyone else around us, in order to have the same mind of Christ. In the context of the above sermon on “Partakers of Grace,” we have to learn to give up thinking about our lives in terms of indebtedness to thinking in terms of gifts that can be shared and given away. Repentance is the change of mind that happens when we experience the forgiveness of sins, the release from our worlds of indebtedness. Thus, Jesus’ proclamation truly became one of “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47).
Note from Hamerton-Kelly Excerpt
1. The predominantly impersonal reference to “the wrath” confirms this interpretation. Only once is it referred to as “the wrath of God” (Rom 1:18), and soon thereafter described explicitly as God’s giving us up to our own desires (1:23). All other references are simply to “the wrath.” In the one case where wrath is God’s direct response to human transgression, the text identifies it as a “human” mode of speaking (Rom 3:5).
Note from Swartley Excerpt
2. See the three volumes in the Studies in Peace and Scripture series with Westminster/John Knox Press published in 1992. These include The Gospel of Peace by Ulrich Mauser; The Meaning of Peace: Biblical Essays, ed. by Perry B. Yoder and Willard M. Swartley (esp. the essay by Erich Dinkler); and The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament, ed. by Willard M. Swartley (see esp. the article by Luise Schottroff).