A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Reverend J. Michael Strachan
Malachi 3:1-4; the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79); Luke 3:1-6
I want to talk this morning about the way New Testament Christology functions because I think this is important for us to understand and because this topic directly relates to Advent. But, first, let me clarify what I mean by New Testament Christology. What I have in mind for this morning is the question of how the New Testament authors conceive of the divine identity of Jesus of Nazareth. To put it another way, I want us to consider why the New Testament authors thought that Jesus was divine and how they show that in their writing.
The way many people in the West have conceived of an answer to this question goes something like this. We know that God has specific attributes, let’s say attributes X, Y, and Z, and for Jesus to be divine, for Jesus to meet the definition that we have given to the word ‘God,’ then attributes X, Y, and Z must be true of Jesus as well. In this case, we start with God as the known, i.e., we know what God is like, and with Jesus as the unknown. So, for us to say that Jesus is God he must meet our definition of who God is. God is the known; Jesus is the unknown.
The problem with this way of thinking becomes pretty obvious once you stop and reflect on it. Christmas is approaching, and while it’s in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that we find the stories about Jesus’ birth, it’s the introduction to the Gospel of John that gives us the theology of what we celebrate at Christmas. And this is how John concludes his introduction. He says in vs. 18 that no one has ever seen God, but Jesus, the Word made flesh, has made him known. In that case, Jesus is the known, and God is the unknown.
And this is important. This is not just semantics, and this is not just an intellectual conversation. This is a paradigm shift in how we think about Jesus and how we think about his divinity. We don’t ask, “What is God like and does that apply to Jesus?” because frankly, that’s not going to get you anywhere. God is omniscient, omnipresent, and eternal, Jesus says there’s at least one thing he doesn’t know, he’s located in a physical place because of his body, and he dies, something God can’t do almost by definition. On the contrary, instead of looking to God and asking how what we know of God applies to Jesus, what we should be doing is looking to Jesus and let him reveal to us, make known to us, what God is truly like.
This is why you can never read the Gospels too much. This is why when we read the Gospels in church we treat those books differently than we do the other parts of Scripture, even though all of Scripture is the Word of God. We recognize in these four books God himself is revealed to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and the more we can reflect on who he was, what he did, what he said, and the life that he led, the more the heart and character of God himself are revealed to us.
So, what does this have to do with our readings, and how does this connect to Advent? The thought process of the New Testament authors was quite different from our own, which is based heavily in Greek ways of thinking. Instead of thinking about the attributes of God and how they applied to Jesus, they were confronted with a different question. They had a narrative in mind. They had a role that God was supposed to play in their history, and the starting claim of all four authors of the Gospels is simply this: Jesus of Nazareth has played the role that God was supposed to play in the history of Israel. Let me show you how this work.
Let’s look at our first reading. These verses in Malachi are the divine response to two complaints by the people: why is the world not ordered the way that God said it would be and where is the God of justice who will set it right? The divine answer comes in vs. 1 as a promise: the Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his Temple, but before he does, there’s going to be a messenger who prepares his way. What Malachi is doing is riffing of the opening words of Isaiah 40, but I don’t have time to show that here. But let me be crystal clear about this. Advent isn’t about waiting for the Messiah; it’s about waiting for God. Some people conceived of a role for a Messiah figure to play when God finally returned to his people, but there is, historically speaking, far less messianic expectation than you might expect. What the people of God were waiting for first and foremost was not a Messiah but the Lord himself, who would send a messenger before him, come to his Temple, and set the world to rights.
Now let’s look at the Benedictus. We’ve all heard countless times that John the Baptism was the forerunner of the Messiah. Except when John’s father spoke of his birth, he never once said that John would be the forerunner of the Messiah. Instead, he said this, “And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins.” You will go before the Lord. John isn’t the forerunner of the Messiah. He’s the forerunner of the Lord.
So now, turn to our Gospel reading, starting in v. 3: “[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Prepare the way of the Lord.
So, this is now New Testament Christology function, what we say about John the Baptist has direct implications for what we say about Jesus. This is the narrative. God was supposed to come back to his people, come to his Temple, and set the world to rights, but before he did, he would send a messenger. John is that messenger, and Jesus is the one for whom Jesus prepared the way. Jesus is the one who has come back to his people. Jesus is the one who will come to his Temple and find it wanting. Jesus is the one who through his death and resurrection will set the world to rights.
Jesus plays the role of God in Israel’s story, so as we wait during Advent, I want to remind you that what we’re waiting for isn’t just the Messiah. He is the Messiah, but he is so much more than the Messiah. You’ll notice if you keep reading in Luke’s Gospel that some people ask him if he’s the Messiah. It’s not odd to call a human the Messiah. It’s not a lead. It’s not a stretch.
But what we will do at Christmas is so much more than that. What we will do is look at that baby in the manger and say not just that he is the Christ, but more shockingly, more dramatically, more surprisingly, we will look at him and say, “Here is God in the flesh. He has returned. He has become one of us.” And if we will listen to him, if we will watch him, if we will follow him, then he will show us the heart of God himself. That is what we should be longing for this Advent, for God to reveal himself to us through his Son to show us how to be the people he has created us and called us to be.
Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.