Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent Two: Being the Least Likely Character (Luke 3:1-6; Malachi 3:1-4)

Over the years, the nativity set has been a challenge to put together.  You would think it wasn’t.  After all, you place the manger stable on the mantle or hall table, perhaps under the Christmas tree, then you put the little baby in the crèche in the middle.  Mary’s easy to spot, kneeling and smiling upon the newborn. Poor Joseph, though, sometimes gets short shrift.  Some nativity sets are so generically designed, I have spent a good deal of time trying to sort out whether this figurine is Joseph or if he is a shepherd!  After you’ve arranged everyone around the manger, you attach the angel of the Lord to the roof.  Then, sprinkle with sheep, and you’re done.

Often, the nativity set features the Magi, traditionally three kings wearing turbans and bathrobes and carrying gift boxes.  (Of course, most kids don’t get gold. They would settle for Wii gaming consoles.  And if you think they dislike socks and sweaters, just look at their faces when they open the myrrh.)    Oddly enough, while we add the shepherds and the Magi, nativity sets forget to add some important folks:  the prophets.

Read the gospels, and the texts cite the prophetic writings regularly.  In fact, the book of Isaiah is sometimes called the “fifth” gospel as Jesus and the gospel writers alike connect Jesus’ ministry with the prophetic word.  Christian interpretation has claimed Jesus’ birth, his messianic identity, his humble servanthood, and his suffering for our redemption, referencing the prophetic texts.  So, if there are any “extra” guests at the Nativity, why not the prophets?  They are the ones who proclaim the One who is to come.  Christians confess the messiah to be Jesus of Nazareth, and especially recall prophetic texts at times like Christmas and Easter as we celebrate Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.

In seminary, our studies of the “Old Testament”, or Hebrew Scriptures, were given over the course of two semesters.  Half of the “502” course explored the prophets, and students sometimes grumbled at the requirement to spend half a semester just on the prophets.  Why spend so much time on these texts?

For starters, if you wish to understand the Bible, you have to spend time with the prophets, whose writings comprise a significant portion of the Bible.  The God of the Old Testament is not the angry caricature sometimes perpetuated in some popular Christian thought (i.e. the God of the Old Testament was angry and the New Testament speaks of a God of love).  Including the messianic hope, the prophetic books interweave that hope with commentary on the relationship between God and God’s people, the challenge of a broken world and the hope the prophets see God providing even in the most difficult of circumstances.  The prophets are passionate, declaring God’s decisive word and radical vision for a people gone astray but forever beloved. 

For example, take the prophet Malachi.  Look the book of the Bible up on a biblical history timeline, and you’ll find the prophetic book is thought to be written seventy years after a very traumatic period in ancient Israel’s history.  Seventy years prior, the people returned to Jerusalem after a long exile, captive by the Babylonian empire.  The city was in ruins, the religious and political power built up during the years of monarchies gone.  The book of Isaiah begins the story of a people trying to get back on their feet.  The book of Malachi is further down this timeline, when the people have gotten a chance to rebuild, to find a fresh start.  And where do we find the people of ancient Israel two generations later after the veritable miracle and grace of being allowed to return home after years away in the Exile?

Still in need of being saved from themselves!

By the era of Malachi, the nation is under the control of the Persian Empire, considered at best a backwater imperial holding, of little consequence.  The city has been rebuilt, yet the people themselves are in bad shape.  The prophet Malachi moves among a people who have lost their way yet again, falling back into the same self-destructive ways, going down pathways seemingly attractive.  The economic and the religious life of the people crumbled away.  Despite being given a second chance, the people have lost their way yet again.

The prophet Malachi rails against the people’s failings, yet do you hear the great hope offered by the prophet?   The prophets are often remembered for their sharp words of criticism and indictment against the sin of the people, yet such texts as the Malachi reading need to be recalled as the counter-balance.  In the beginning and the end, God never gives up.  The prophets speak of the anger of God, the disappointment God has in our failings, and the accountability to which God holds us. The imagery of Malachi 3 is one of incredible splendor.  God shall work and rework this sinful, broken people until they shine like refined gold or silver.

The prophetic tradition sees each and every person as worth God’s tenaciously hanging onto, the God who shall working tirelessly to redeem, restore, and reconcile.  The incredible word of this recurs throughout the prophetic texts, envisioning with the prophetic imagination, the future that only God can bring.  Human history is cluttered with many failed attempts by nations, ideologies, and worldviews that claimed to be that next great vision that would bring about a world deemed “better”.  In the prophetic tradition of the Bible, God alone has the last word, not the kings, the empires, or the leading conventional wisdom of the day.  In the end, God shall redeem, restore, and reconcile.

In the gospels, John the Baptist is traditionally hailed as “the last of the prophets”, connecting John with these prophetic writers and claiming that his short ministry and death bring to an end, or a culmination, the long standing prophetic line.  Just as Malachi and the others, John the Baptist stands in the midst of a society and culture that has lost its way.  He preaches a baptism rooted in repentance, calling the people away from the world’s vanities and temptations.  His gruff demeanor and dress underscore how at odds with the world this prophet intends to be. Luke’s gospel begins the third chapter with a description of the rulers of the day, noting who could be counted among the powerful and influential.  Then, we hear John’s voice, perhaps a bit hoarse from his shouting to the crowds, cutting through the narration with his prophetic word.  Luke cites this odd figure as fulfillment of the hope found in the prophetic words of Isaiah:  a man who looks like he has left his fashion sense and probably most other senses behind when he went out into the desert to begin his contrary ministry, preaching of the excesses of the Temple and the people, claiming authority that few would believe he had.

A 20th century hymn recalls John’s prophetic ministry.  The hymn text, written by 20th century hymnist Carl Daw, encourages us to hear John the Baptist:
“Wild and lone the prophet’s voice echoes through the desert still,
calling us to make a choice, bidding us to do God’s will.
So we dare to journey on, led by faith through ways untrod,
Till we come at last like John – to behold the Lamb of God.”

So, back to the fireplace mantle, where the shepherds, the angel of the Lord, the kings, the animals, and even Mary and Joseph gather around this little wailing child, a newborn in a corn crib, born so lowly yet as Christians confess, is very God of very God.  I wonder if we should start adding a figure to the nativity set, one of a prophet.  Perhaps John the Baptist would suffice.  He probably would be the one character a bit sheepish to be getting so much attention.  (The sheep would be sheepish, no matter what they thought of being there with the shepherds.)  I imagine old John perhaps peering around the corner of the stable, that glint in his eyes perhaps softened a bit in the way old “hard as nails” men tend to be when seeing a newborn child.  He stands there, trying not to draw much attention to himself, yet he points one long, bony finger to the Christ child.

Indeed, the prophet would be just as welcome in the midst of this manger scene. Kings seek him, humble shepherds proclaim him, and the prophet adds to the joyful proclamation,
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.

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