Malachi 3:1-4 † Luke 1:68-79 † Philippians 1:3-11 † Luke 3:1-6
Righteousness. It’s right there in that first reading, this big word in our faith, but it is there all over the place in the readings, this word that, I suspect for some of us, has lost a bit of its luster. It may be due for a shining, a brightening up, so we can see it again for what it says and for what we hope, and for who we are.
God will refine them, purify them until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness, Malachi imagines. The writer to the Philippian church echoes this sense of the power of God through the practicing of this good news to sharpen and purify those who follow this way through generosity and largeness of heart. This is, in effect, Isaiah’s making straight the way for God’s return that John the Baptist cries out for in the wilderness, for the things that make for peace and goodness, for much of what we may notice to be missing these days.
The ritual around the funeral of our 41st president, George H. W. Bush this past week highlighted for me some of these things for which we long. Perhaps for you too—the remembering of a time and a way of being connected to others that seems in short supply these days.
Bush was praised for many things that we could connote to this big idea of righteousness—a life of integrity lived consistently over the long haul, resoluteness in times of testing. Kindness and loyalty, an expansive capacity to give and to connect deeply, the courage to be vulnerable, the empathy and compassion to live beyond oneself for the well-being and liberation of others.
Of course, this was a time for praising a man and a leader who had his share of shortcomings and made his share of mistakes, whose baptism was only complete in death. There is always time for debate about particularities, but there did seem to be present in these long moments of national remembering this past week the awareness and even the nostalgia for a goodness, a righteousness that is noted more these days for its absence in our politics, at least.
This is a sentiment that all these texts seem to echo—a longing for something better to come, or to come again. This is a theme at the heart of Advent.
That’s certainly the context of Malachi, but with a twist. We do not find Israel here in exile, but once again at home, upon their return. The long period of Babylonian deportation is over. Jerusalem is once again whole, the remnant of its people home. The temple which was rebuilt in 515bce has been dedicated, and the priests are back at their jobs—predecessors of priests like Zechariah who, in Luke, sings “in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”
Take careful note of this. In Malachi’s context, the people are not in the wilderness; they are home. All the trappings are in place, and yet, they are displaced. Corruption has corroded life for the people. The memory of a better time, when things were as they should be—in a word, righteous—are strong. There is a deep and tragic irony here. The experience of dislocation and disappointment is being felt at a time when they shouldn’t have to be. Sound familiar?
This is important to note, because it cautions us against one of the primary ways we can misread this story of Advent and the good news of this gospel and the One who comes to us in righteousness.
If only we could get back to Israel. If only we could get the foundation right. Well, in Malachi they have, and yet, they discover that everything is not magically better. Life with all its faults and imperfections and glitches has to be lived, it seems, in the present. In fact, it’s the only place where life exists.
Sometimes we think the same thing: if we can just get things back to the way they were, if we could just get the political situation right, then everything will be better—that these are the things that save us.
We might understand instead that this gospel of ours is built just for times like this. It is what we need, no matter the situation or the moment. Those of you who were at our Aftertalk discussion last week will remember that this was precisely the power that Paul understood when he took gospels, this word used by politically through the ancient world and co-opted it to the particular in this Jesus of Nazareth: that this story, this word, this righteousness alone had the power to turn any gathering of imperfect, searching people, into a church, into a place where God’s will is done, where hope is shared, where possibility is realized here and now. It is never far away. It is never dependent on the particularities of a given time, it is never overpowered. The potential is there in any given moment for the fullness of time to be present in our life together. Whenever we gather, Jesus is there among us, the kingdom of God is here. Salvation comes.
In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. In any given moment, the power of this story of the Spirit living within it can wake us up, lash us to the world that longs for wholeness, and give us courage to live in ways that change the story.
I suppose that’s why the texts this morning circle around John and his message of repentance and salvation. Not only do we get John in Luke’s gospel, but we get his father, Zechariah the priest, breaking his 9-month silence with the affirmation that, despite the tradition, despite expectations of conformity, this child who will be found in the wilderness of all places, preaching the way of righteousness, will be named John. And then, having glimpsed a truth fully that we may only grasp in part, he bursts into song: In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.
Zechariah is a priest, serving in the temple in the first chapter of Luke when his duties take him into the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies. There he encounters an angel of the Lord who tells him that his elderly wife Elizabeth, up to now barren, will have a child. Zechariah is doubtful. We would be too. And for that, he is rewarded with silence. His mouth is shut; he is unable to speak, until he sings what we sang this morning.
Elizabeth has gone her whole life unable to bear a child, but Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that the real barrenness lies with Zechariah who is “unable to imagine a different future.”[i] He has a failure of imagination, a habit of hopelessness in which he is unable to entertain something new, that this may be precisely what God is up to, that God is nothing if not light, life and love. Whenever we gather, we are not alone. Jesus is here among us.
Likewise, Advent is an invitation to those of us who have given up on a world different from the one that we confront every morning in the newspaper to imagine Advent as “God’s response—God’s quiet, re-creating, reconciling intrusion into the world and into our own lives.”[ii]
Beloved of God, this is the truth of Advent. That even and perhaps especially in those seasons that seem darkest, God is never farther away than our ability to imagine a different future where righteousness—well-being and integrity and salvation exist. The difference of this season may simply be in the way we look for it.
For those of us like Zechariah, who for so long have been on the inside, our work may be to close our mouths and open our ears to look and listen for how this story is unfolding so that we too can work out our salvation in fear and trembling over the long-haul for the salvation of the world into which God comes in startling particularity and even more unnerving vulnerability, not to crush the world with an iron fist, but to attend to wounds and to bind up broken hearts.
Can you imagine such a world? Can you believe in this God and this good news? Can you give yourself once more to it?
[i] Noted in John Buchanon’s December 3, 2015 Christian Century article “Zechariah’s problem.” Retrieved on December 6, 2018 from https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-11/zechariah-s-problem?reload=1543946184186.
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