Finding salvation in Advent
by Thomas Lehman
December 9, 2012
Last Sunday, as the season of Advent began, Isaac spoke about life in prison, omens of an unbearable future, people fainting from terror, Jesus as a mashup artist (whatever that is), looming chaos, and catastrophe; all this when you might have come on the first Sunday of Advent expecting a warm, fuzzy sermon suitable for a fireside chat, followed by a communion of Christmas cookies and hot mulled cider.
Isaac had it right; the sequence of Advent lessons is not a four-step dance to the Christmas tree. Instead, we are to deal with intentional paradox: the coming of the Lord the first time, which we know about, and the promised return of the Lord to mark the end of normal human history, studied under the clumsy term eschatology. We have rather little certain knowledge of it.
Very much on the brighter side of Advent, today’s Baruch passage tells us that God is about to do something wonderful, and God’s people are gathering for the event. Isaiah 9:6 refers to the promised Messiah as the Prince of Peace. Both Baruch and Luke Ch. 1 speak of peace: for Baruch, it is “Righteous Peace,” as the name of the people of God. For Luke 1, the tender mercy of God will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” Over the entire Gospel, Luke has 14 references to peace.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, and thus the second Sunday of the new church year. For the next twelve months most of our Gospel readings will come from Luke, and so I begin with some general observations about the author and his Gospel. To give you an idea of what to expect, Willard Swartley, a retired Mennonite professor of New Testament, calls Luke the “Gospel of Joy, Salvation, Peace, and Praise.”
Luke’s Gospel nowhere names him as author, and we know very little about him. Colossians 4:14 refers to him as “the beloved physician.” Whether he was Jew or Gentile is not known. However, Luke tells the story of Jesus’ life with emphasis on his rejection by Jews, so that the Gospel had to reach the Gentiles in order to spread. Luke continues his account by writing the book of Acts, which reports in detail the spreading of the Gospel to the Gentiles. If Luke was not Jewish, he made quite a study of the Jewish scriptures. In the opening verses of the Gospel he claims to have done very thorough research, a claim no one disputes.
All of us are familiar with a few scripture passages that have been given names: the Ten Commandments, from Exodus Ch. 20; the Beatitudes, from Matthew Ch. 5 and Luke Ch. 6; and the Lord’s Prayer, from Matthew Ch. 6 and Luke Ch. 11. That Luke is a great writer is shown by the presence of three more named passages in the first two chapters of his Gospel. Unfortunately for easy conversation, the names are in each case the first word of the Latin translation. Thus we have
(1) In Ch 1 the Magnificat, my soul magnifies the Lord, the great song that Luke attributes to Mary when she heard that the child growing within her is to be the son of the most high God. Isaac gets to preach on the Magnificat two weeks from now. This text is sometimes called Mary’s Song, but Luke has adapted it from Hannah’s OT prayer after she has given birth to Samuel, who grew up to become the last of the judges to rule Israel.
(2) In Ch 2, we meet Simeon, the devout old man who met Jesus’ parents when they first brought Jesus into the temple. Simeon takes the infant Jesus into his arms and declares: Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation. In Latin, Nunc Dimittus. A free translation of the opening words can be “Now I have seen the Messiah; I am ready to die.”
These two, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittus, are so regularly paired in the Anglican evensong service that they are known as “Mag and Nunc.”
(3) Another named passage is attributed to Zechariah, a priest in the temple. Also from the first chapter of Luke, it is the first of our two lectionary Gospel passages. The story of this passage is more involved. One day Zechariah was chosen to enter the inner sanctuary of the great temple in Jerusalem to offer incense while the throng of worshipers prayed outside. While inside he was confronted by an angel who told him that his wife Elizabeth would bear him a son. This was tremendous news, because Elizabeth had had no children, and will say that the Lord is taking away the disgrace she endured among her people. The son was to be named John, which means “The Lord is gracious.” The angel declared that the son is to be great in the sight of the Lord, and to exert a strong influence on the people of Israel. Zechariah is pleased by the news, but reminds the angel that Elizabeth “is getting on in years.”
The angel tells Zechariah that because he doubted what God was about to do, he would lose his speech until the birth of the son. Zechariah, suddenly speechless, leaves the inner sanctuary and faces the people, who figure out that he has encountered an angel.
One astute preacher has said: “I love Zechariah’s story because the angel Gabriel made him mute for nine months for doubting that his wife would conceive a child. [Note] the latent feminism in this text: a man who presumes to speak about a woman’s pregnancy is silenced by God.” [end of quote] (Christian Century, 29 DEC 2009) Today when male candidates for the United States Senate foolishly talk about a woman’s unwanted pregnancy, American people silence them by voting for the other candidate.
Immediately after the son, John the Baptist, is born, Zechariah recovers his speech, and Luke attributes to him a wonderful hymn, verses 1:68-79. It is called the Song of Zechariah, or in Latin, Benedictus, a song of blessing. It begins
(68) ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
(69) He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
A few verses later he says, speaking of his son John:
(76) (Y)ou will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In Luke Ch. 3, our second Gospel reading, the familiar words of the prophet Isaiah are quoted as a description of the preaching of John the Baptist:
(T)he crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
This passage is familiar as the first tenor aria in Handel’s Messiah. It strongly suggests that the salvation of God makes things better for God’s people here on earth. Salvation can be considered a major theme in today’s scripture passages.
Everything said thus far has taken place about thirty years before Jesus began his ministry. Thus, although these events are recorded in Luke’s gospel, the meaning still comes from the OT. In the OT the idea of salvation is closely connected to the idea of victory, i.e., salvation refers to deliverance from captivity, or from the difficulties and dangers of our life on earth. (Oxford Essential Guide to Ideas & Issues of the Bible) Zechariah’s hymn illustrates this perfectly in its description of the salvation now unfolding:
“(God) has raised up a mighty saviour for us…
…that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Luke 1:69 and 71)
At that time the promised Messiah was supposed to free God’s chosen people from Roman rule. The need for Jews to abandon this fervent expectation of military deliverance may have been the chief stumbling-block that kept them from turning to Christianity as it grew up around them. They did not get the Messiah they expected.
In the NT this same view of salvation is found, though the familiar idea of salvation as the ticket to a pleasing afterlife is also there. However, the NT view of salvation always includes a change in the way we live our lives on earth. Because I have never heard in a sermon that the OT concept of salvation is also prominent in the NT, I want to finish by talking about it here.
Before that I look briefly at another aspect of salvation that departs from our usual understanding. Salvation in the NT sense is not exclusively an internal, one-person experience, though some of us were told that throughout childhood. Salvation sometimes comes to an entire group, or perhaps even to an entire population. Consider the following passages to see salvation extended more and more widely:
In Luke 19 Jesus says this of Zacchaeus:
‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.’ So we see that one man’s transformation becomes salvation for his household.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,*
Finally, today’s passage from Luke 3 says this: “…all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
I am not claiming universal salvation as the outcome for all of humanity, but whatever you make of these passages, it’s clear that God is not stingy with salvation.
Now to another aspect of salvation that is arguably more closely tied to Advent. To consider salvation as we can experience it on earth is to look at ourselves not as lonely individuals seeking personal salvation, but as a group of people–all of us–whose commitment to each other leads us to make life better for each other, thus to create for each other the elements of salvation that can be experienced on earth. Acts of kindness and encouragement, and help to each other and to others are times when we stand together in the light of daily salvation–daily deliverance from the problems that can darken our lives.
Two weeks ago we had communion, and it led me to imagine our lives together as an extension of communion. Can we take communion as an act of bonding to each other as we from day to day try to bring to reality the salvation of our own members? I quote Dr. Jamie Pitts, AMBS: “Anabaptists have long been suspicious of theology that is divorced from the living community of the church.” We are part of that living community of the church. The day-to-day aspect of salvation is ours to give to each other. Advent refers to the arrival of a notable event. Meeting this challenge in our daily lives is a sure way for Advent to take us to a notable new church year of salvation for the living community of our own church, and thus to save each other from the woes of the world to the extent possible; this kind of salvation is within our grasp, and the calling of Christians everywhere.
The prayer at the end of today’s passage from Philippians says this beautifully:
9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
May we through our care for each other live for the glory and praise of God.