Today marks the beginning of the second week of Advent. Today and this week, we celebrate love in our journey, looking towards the arrival of our Saviour. Let us take a look at how God’s love is shown in the passages before us.
Turning our attention first to the gospel portion, we read of St. Luke’s introduction of the ministry of John the Baptist. As you can see, St. Luke is very precise in telling us the time and who the rulers were when John started his ministry. Using this, we can know from secular history exactly when it took place.
The, Father’s also see figurative meaning in the description of these rulers and priests. First, we have the gentiles’ ruler and the rulers of the Jews. St. Gregory the Great tells us this was to indicate that John was coming to preach one who would redeem both Jew and Gentiles. He continues, “But because the Gentiles were to be gathered together and Judea dispersed on account of the error of its faithlessness, this description of earthly rule also shows that in Roman Republic one person presided.”1
We see here the greatness of our Father’s love. He desired that not only the Jews be saved but all the world. In fact, this has been his plan since the beginning of the world. We see this indicated in his promise to Abraham, all the way back in Genesis 12.“in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” He has always desired to bless the whole world.
In this description, we notice that St. Luke doesn’t restrict himself to merely political leaders. He also lets us know about the religious leaders i.e.the high priests. This is because John the Baptist is proclaiming one who is both King and Priest. For the first time, King and Priest would be the same man.
“And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;”.
The Fathers are stopped by a phrase here and we should consider it as well. It is the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins is only granted in the baptism of Christ. We remember the testimony of Acts where Apollos is preaching only the baptism of John and needed further instruction in the baptism of Christ, since this baptism is incomplete. Let us turn again to St. Gregory the Great to explain what is happening in our passage.
“We must note the words ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ He preached a baptism that would take away sins, but he was unable to give it himself. By his word of preaching he was the forerunner of the Father’s Word incarnate. By his baptism which could not of itself take away sin, he was to be the forerunner of that baptism of repentance by which sins are taken away.2”
John the Baptist preached in the desert as a burning lamp and then the true light came in Christ. In the same way, God in his love, sends into our lives a lamp i.e. a witness, the Holy Spirit, comes and preaches to our souls the baptism of repentance and then we are ready to receive the true light which is Christ, in whom we have the forgiveness of sins.
In this prophecy of Isaiah,we read, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” A couple verses down from our passage John the Baptist will say, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance”. These are one and the same. Isaiah says it rather poetically, but John gives it straight to us. John called the Jews to repentance to prepare the coming of Christ. Today, we are called to prepare the way within ourselves that there may be a space in the human heart for Christ. Is the way ready in our heart?
Once the hills have been made low and the valleys filled up, it is then the time for grace and the forgiveness of sins, bringing about salvation. This salvation is for all as verse six says, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” St. Chrysostom explains it this way,
“No longer Jews and proselytes only, but also all earth and sea and the whole race of people may be saved. By ‘the crooked things’ he signified our whole corrupt life, publicans harlots, robbers and magicians, as many as having been perverted before, afterward walk in the right way. As Jesus himself likewise said, ‘Tax collectors and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you,” because they believed.3”
As St. Gregory the Great saw it figuratively in the first verses, here it is plainly in the final verse. Salvation no longer belongs to only one people,but now it belongs to all peoples of all times. Salvation will no longer be given by nationality, but by belief. The question for us is, “Do we believe?”
While the prophet Isaiah spoke of John the Baptist, he was not the only one. In our reading from Malachi, we see that he also spoke of him. He will speak more of him in the fourth chapter of Malachi. Here he says the same thing as Isaiah although more concisely, “he shall prepare the way before me”.
Most of this passage is speaking of the one for whom he prepares the way i.e. Christ. It speaks of both his first and second coming. We are currently in the season of Advent which focuses both on the first coming and the second coming of Christ. The first coming we see in the words, “And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple”. We see this in the ministry of Christ. He dwelt among the people of Israel and was in the temple. The second coming we see in the words,
“But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:”
The Christ who came and dwelt among us, will stand before us. St.Chrysostom tells us,
“Certainly the prophets did not pass over but foretold it. Some saw him in that very form which he would stand before us; others predicted only in words. Daniel was in the midst of the barbarians and Babylonians when he saw Christ coming in clouds…And Daniel hinted at God’s court and Judgement when he said, ‘The thrones were set, and the books were opened. A river of fire rolled before him. Thousands upon thousands ministered to him, and myriads waited on him.” …And that judgement will come through fire. Malachi said, “He is coming [like the fire of a refiners furnace and] like the soap of the fullers.’ And the just will enjoy great honour. And Daniel was speaking of the resurrection when he said, ‘Those lying in dust shall arise.’”4
First, he came to dwell with us. Second, he will come to judge. The just the righteous need not fear the judgement because they will enjoy great honour, but the wicked will be tested by fire and soap. Origen asks about this fire,which is a consuming fire, what does God consume in it. He answers, “And we assert that it is wickedness, and the words which result from it, which are figuratively called, ‘wood, hay, stubble,’ God consumes as a fire.”5
God will destroy all wickedness, it will not be permitted to remain when he comes again. What we have done in righteousness will remain.
In the song of Zechariah, we will now focus more on the first coming of Christ of whom John was the forerunner. Christ is mercy and justice and he comes to us. “We have obtained mercy through him and been justified, having washed away the stains of wickedness through faith that is in him.”6
God in his love, has given us salvation from our enemies through Christ. These are not physical enemies. If you remember, two weeks ago we celebrated Christ the King Sunday together. As we looked at Christ’s kingship, we saw that he was king of a realm that was not of earth. The enemies that he delivers us from are spiritual. He does not take part in our national wars. However, he does deliver us from the power of the evil one and his forces.
Here we see that Israel was sitting in darkness and death’s shadow. We also without Christ are in the same place. John the Baptist came as a lamp to begin to dispel that darkness. The world was wandering in error and John came calling them to repentance. They were now ready for the dayspring from on high to visit them and usher them into the paths of peace.
Christ has come bringing salvation. He will come again to judge the world. What are we to do in the meantime?
Let us turn our attention to the epistle reading and see how we are to live. Our lectionary gives the subheading for the epistle reading of Be Blameless Until the Day of the Lord. First, we see that St. Paul prays for the Philippians and thanks them for their participation in the gospel. Are we offering thanks to God for those who are participating in the gospel? Are we ourselves participating in it?
Second, St. Paul holds them in his heart because they are partners of grace with him. Theodoret tells us,
“But by grace he is referring to his sufferings, as is made clear in what he goes on to teach, that ‘it has been granted to you for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.’”7
Are we ourselves suffering for Christ? If we are, are we holding those who are sharing in our sufferings in our hearts? If we aren’t, are we sharing in the suffering of others.
Third, do we long for other believers with the affection of Jesus Christ? Are we praying that others can love in this way? Are we praying that we ourselves can love in this way? St. Chrysostom tells us that once we experience this type of love we will always want it to increase.
Fourth, St. Paul desires that their love will increase in knowledge and every kind of perception. St. Ambrosiaster tells us, “He wishes, with God’s assistance, to pour into them pure Christian doctrine, that their faith will be firm and that they will see clearly all the vast implications of their faith.”8 Is it our desire to teach others as well? Do we desire this type of knowledge for ourselves?
Finally, St. Paul’s desire for the Philippians is that they would be blameless for the day of Christ filled with fruit of righteousness. Is this our desire for others? Are we seeking how we can help one another to be blameless? Are we nurturing the fruit of righteousness that we see in one another?
~ Dn. Fr. Matthew
1 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 58
2 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 59
3 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 60
4 Thomas C. Oden and Alberto Ferreiro, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament XIV (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 302
5 Thomas C. Oden and Alberto Ferreiro, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament XIV (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 303
6 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 32
7 Thomas C. Oden and Mark J. Edwards, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament VIII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 210
8 Thomas C. Oden and Mark J. Edwards, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament VIII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 210
Stothard, Thomas, 1755-1834 ; Skelton, William, 1763-1848. The Macklin Bible — John Preaching in the Wilderness, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54080 [retrieved December 10, 2018]. Original source: A gift to Vanderbilt University from John J. and Anne Czura..
Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319. Prophet Malachi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46446 [retrieved December 10, 2018]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.