A few days ago, I wrote a blog about Karen Armstrong as she was interviewed by Bill Moyers. She was talking about St. Augustine’s teaching when she said: “If you come to a passage (in scripture) that seems to preach hatred, you’ve got to give it an allegorical or metaphorical interpretation…and make it speak of charity.” (See The Golden Rule – 12/6). Looking over the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent I think today would be a good day to heed Augustine’s advice. The readings happen to be those that seem to be causing an awful lot of hatred in the Middle East today. Maybe as I write, this deeper meaning will come…we’ll see. If I cannot do it, maybe some of you can help.
The lectionary offers two choices for the first reading:
The passage starts out hopeful, Malachi saying that the Lord’s messenger will come to the temple to proclaim God’s covenant. Not sure if this is a new covenant or the old one renewed. (I can already see that I am getting in too deep). The next couple of verses warn the people that this coming won’t be all that great. It will be like having their ears scrubbed with strong soap or like fire refining metal. It hurts just to think of it! But wait…it goes on to say that the messenger will purify the priests! The priests! Then it says that the offerings of the people, not the priests, will be pleasing to God, as they used to be in the past. What the heck! What is this saying? What were the offerings that the people once made, the pleasing ones that got usurped by the priests? It doesn’t actually say, but it seems to me like Malachi is saying that the task of the awaited messenger is to call the priests on the carpet.
This is the other option that priests can choose for the first reading. I don’t really like it. I think it is one often used to justify the existence of a Jewish state, Israel. I am a supporter of the state of Israel, but this passage is not one that will help them get along with their neighbors. It talks about Jerusalem wearing the cloak of righteousness and the crown of God’s glory, that they will show their splendor among nations. The mountains will be flattened and the valleys filled in so that the people can come home again. If I were to look for a metaphor here, I’d say that this experience of coming home is not a political one at all. It is about each of us coming back to God after wandering away like the lost sheep or the prodigal son. In verse 4, it talks about the enemy that led the children away…I think that enemy is within all of us.
Philippians 1: 3-11
This is the opening of a letter Paul wrote to the people of Philippi while he was in prison. The words are very uplifting. He encourages them to keep growing in their love, knowledge and judgment until they are free from all impurity and blame. Paul is famous for his images of running a race and fighting the good fight. This race seems to be one of self-examination and personal growth, not one in which we don sneakers or boxing gloves. He is suggesting persistence: stay the course, keep getting stronger. He refers to the Day of Christ, which seems to be a judgment day and lots of people think that this is a literal event. I don’t think that, myself. I think the day of Christ is any day that we do as Jesus did, turn to the path God has set for us. And I can do that any day…any moment in fact.
Psalm: Luke 1:68-79
Clearly, Luke is not a writer of the psalms, but this is what the lectionary shows. These verses are the words that Zechariah spoke when his son John was born. If you remember, when Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth got pregnant, the poor man was so shocked that he couldn’t talk for months. I suppose when he saw the baby and how much it looked like him, he was finally able to find words. Somehow Zechariah knew that this baby was a prophet that would go ahead of the anticipated savior. He referenced God’s promise to Abraham to rescue the people from their enemies so that they could serve him without fear, and be made holy and righteous. We are told in the gospels that some of the people believed that the savior would be a political leader. But here, Zechariah says that the work of the savior will be done in the hearts of the people. God is merciful and tender, he says. Their sins will be forgiven and they will be guided into a path of peace. One of my favorite heroes is Peace Pilgrim, after whom I named this blog. She went about the country teaching about peace on three levels: peace within, peace among relationships, and peace in the world. She emphasized that if you want peace in the world, you must first find peace within. I think Peace Pilgrim and Zechariah would have been great friends.
Gospel Reading: Luke 3:1-6
This story in Luke is about John the Baptist grown up. I really like John but I don’t much like his preaching style. I liked the fact that he lived like a hermit, dressed simply and ate bugs. He quoted the prophet Baruch as he told the people to make straight the way of the Lord. The mountains will be flattened, the valleys filled up (see above) so getting to where they needed to be would be easy. For anyone who thinks these words were about politics, the later verses make clear what John thinks Baruch meant. He used Baruch’s words to attack the character of the people who came to see him. This is what I am talking about when I say I don’t like his preaching style. I wonder, what made them want to come and listen to his ranting? First, he attacked the crowds coming to be baptized, calling them snakes. He said they’d better start putting their faith into practice or God would cut them off. He said that if they have two shirts, they should give one away. They should share their food. The tax collectors should stop cheating. Soldiers should stop taking money by force and just stick to their duties. To top it all off, he sent a message to Herod to stop messing with his brother’s wife. He should have stopped before that last statement because it landed him in jail and later to his losing his head.
How did I do, Augustine? This is my attempt at taking some potentially hateful bible passages and giving them metaphorical or allegorical meaning. That was a lot of work, though. Couldn’t the writers have been a little more straightforward?