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Introduction To The Scripture For Advent 2 - Year C
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Advent 2 - Year C


MALACHI 3:1-4         This short selection from the last book in our Old
Testament answered a question immediately preceding it in 2:17, "Where is
the God of justice?"  Speaking for God, the prophet's response, was "I am
sending a messenger..." 

The messenger's task of cleansing the temple came at a time of spiritual
decline in the 5th century BC when slovenly priests and careless
worshippers made unworthy offerings.  Five hundred years later, the authors
of the New Testament gospels interpreted this as a reference to John the
Baptist and his role as the forerunner of Jesus.


LUKE 1:68-79     Also known by its Latin name, Benedictus, the Song of
Zechariah was an early Christian hymn.  It wove together a series of
phrases from several Psalms.  Specific Christian content comes only at the
end in vv. 76-79 where Zechariah celebrates the birth of his son, John the
Baptist. 


PHILIPPIANS 1:3-11   This is possibly the last letter Paul wrote. Tried and
imprisoned for his work as an apostle, Paul thanked God for the support of
the Philippians.  He wrote of them "sharing" the gospel and God's grace,
and prayed that this would bring forth an overflowing of love and righteous
living as they waited for the anticipated return of Christ.


LUKE 3:1-6            The introductory stories of the birth of both John the
Baptist and Jesus completed, Luke skipped over nearly three decades to
place John the Baptist's ministry in a specific historical context.  He
also recognized John as another of Israel's great prophets by quoting from
Isaiah 40.  In so doing, Luke defined John's role in the life and ministry
of Jesus as that of the one of whom that earlier prophet spoke: "Prepare
the way of the Lord."  More significantly, this also placed Jesus expressly
within the sacred tradition of Israel.

************

MALACHI 3:1-4   We do not know whether "Malachi," translated from Hebrew as
"my messenger," was the prophet's name or the description of his office. 
In the history of Israel the approximate date of the book stands between
the return from exile as recorded in Haggai and Zechariah (539 BCE and the
coming of Ezra and Nehemiah (ca. 450 BCE).  The exact date is thought to
lie closer to the latter than to the former.  Some scholars place it in
close association with Zechariah 9-14 which appear to have been added to
that 6th century prophet's work about the middle of the 5th century BCE. 
The separation of the two sets of oracles may have been an editorial device
to create the sacred number of twelve minor prophets.

All the oracles of Malachi deal with the religious and social conditions of
the period.  The Persian dominance of the ancient Middle East had exacted a
heavy price on the people through taxation and levies of conscripts for the
overlord's military exploits.  Nature had added to their miserable poverty
with drought and plagues (3:10-11).  A century after the return from exile
in Babylon, the glowing visions of Second Isaiah had faded.  Not only had
the whole populace lost heart, they had also lost faith.  Many had nothing
but contempt for their religious traditions (1:14; 3:7-12)

Such times gave rise to great disillusionment and despair among pious
Israelites.  The covenant of God with Israel and the corruption of the
temple priesthood preventing the true liturgical expression of that
covenant became Malachi's predominant concerns. He employed an unusual
question and answer style which may be a literary device reflecting the
teaching of the cultic prophets in the temple at that time.  The whole book
consists of six relatively brief oracles: 1:2-5; 1:6-2:9; 2:10-16; 2:17-
3:5; 3:6-12; 3:13 - 4:3; and an editorial conclusion.

This short selection from the last book in our Old Testament is part of the
fourth oracle (2:17-3:5).  It responded to a complaint that no signs of
divine activity could be discerned in Israel and a fear that Yahweh had
grown weary of this favored nation.  Specifically, it answered a question
immediately preceding it in 2:17, "Where is the God of justice?" 

Speaking for Yahweh, the prophet responded, "I am sending a messenger to
prepare the way before me..."  This recalled Deutero-Isaiah's message in
Isaiah 40:3.  But it was the Levitical priesthood who must be purified
before the offerings of the people could be pleasing to God.  This task of
purifying the priesthood came at a time of significant spiritual decline
when slovenly priests and careless worshippers made unworthy offerings.  In
contrast to pre-exilic prophesies like that found in Micah 6:6-8, Malachi
expressed a concern for the temple and its worship as well as for ethical
living.  By placing emphasis on both divine mercy and ritual sacrifices he
held up for renewal these equally significant aspects of Israel's religious
life. 

Yet there is an eschatological ring to the prophecy.  The Day of the Lord
is at hand when Yahweh will come in judgment (vs.2).  There is an implied
threat in this expectation.  If the required reform did not happen,
Israel's covenantal relationship with Yahweh would not survive. 

Five hundred years after Malachi's oracles, the authors of the New
Testament gospels used this passage as a reference to John the Baptist and
his role as the forerunner of Jesus.  Indeed, the narratives of John's
ministry were midrashes on this prophecy.  Vss.2-3 formed a profoundly
moving passage in Handel's famous oratorio where they provide the setting
for the promise of the Messiah's birth.


Luke 1:68-79     Psalmody formed an important part of Israel's religious
heritage.  The Judaeo-Christian canon did not limit psalms to the 150 in
the Book of Psalms.  One finds them scattered throughout the Old and New
Testaments.  Extensive imitations can be found in extra-biblical literature
such as *The Odes of Solomon* and the *Dead Sea Scrolls*,  The pre-nativity
passages of Luke's Gospel contain three separate psalms.  All three have
antecedents, however, in the poetry and hymns of the OT.  

Also known by the Latin translation in Jerome's Vulgate of its first word, 
*Benedictus,* the Song of Zechariah was an early Christian hymn.  It wove
together a series of phrases from several Psalms: v.68 = Ps.41:13, 111:9;
v.69 = Ps.132:17; v.71 = Ps.106:10; vv.71-72 = Ps.105:8-9.  Specific
Christian content comes only at the end in vv.76-79 where Zechariah
celebrates the birth of his son, John the Baptist. 

In all probability created for the its place at the beginning of Luke's
gospel, this collation psalm is primarily a celebration of Jewish messianic
hopes fulfilled by John.  His role was be the Messiah's forerunner.  This
prediction combined Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.  Through from the hand of
Luke, it probably reflected the teaching of the Apostolic Church, many of
whose early believers, and possibly some of the named disciples of Jesus,
are believed to have been followers of John.

Searching the Jewish scriptures for references applicable to the oral
tradition of the gospel was an intentional practice evident throughout the
New Testament from the earliest letters of Paul to the Pastoral Epistles
and Revelation.  Indeed, there could have been no New Testament without the
only scriptures available to the apostolic community, much of which were
later canonized as our "Old Testament."


Philippians 1:3-11   We do not need to go into the exegetical problems of
whether this single letter or a composite of several; or its provenance -
Rome, Ephesus or Caesarea.  Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in the early 2nd
century, was aware of several letters Paul wrote to the Philippians, but
quoted only this one.  Scholarly consensus places it (or them) among the
last of Paul's letters written ca. 58 or 60 CE.     

Tried and imprisoned for his work as an apostle, Paul thanked God for the
support of the Philippians.  It would appear that they have been in touch
with him during his trial and imprisonment (v.7)  He wrote of them
"sharing" the gospel and God's grace reflecting his close association with
them and their response to his ministry during at least three visits.  (See
Acts 16:12; 2 Cor. 2:3; Acts 20:6).  As William Barclay  points out in his
*Daily Bible Readings* on this passage, partnership in the gospel involves
not only a gift, but a task, the task of sharing the good news of divine
grace forgiving and reshaping the lives of all who believed.

Paul prayed that this would bring forth an overflowing of love and
righteous living as they wait for the anticipated return of Christ.  This,
Paul believes, will produce "knowledge and full insight to help you
determine what is best." (v.9)  In other words, love, the supreme gift of
the Spirit, will lead to spiritual growth and moral discernment, all to the
glory and praise of God. 

Does "the one who began a good work" in vs.6 suggest that Paul did not
begin the work in Philippi as reported in Acts 16:13-15?  Or was Lydia the
one who first carried the gospel to that city, but had not yet been
baptized?  Perhaps this is this better understood as an indirect reference
to the Holy Spirit as the agent of Christ among them.  Whichever this may
be, Paul used a different way of expressing the eschatological emphasis
common to many Jewish messianic writings. 

In Jewish writings, "the day of the Lord" referred to an expected day
chosen by Yahweh, the God of Israel, to bring all history to a providential
conclusion.  In the prophetic tradition this could be either a day of
judgment or of salvation depending on how faithfully Israel had maintained
its covenant with  Yahweh.  The eschatological emphasis stands out in vss.6
and 10, but in keeping with the faith of the apostolic church that Jesus is
Lord, Paul gave this long anticipated event a new name, "the day of Jesus
Christ."

By no means was Paul a pious optimist waiting for the moment of vindication
for his convictions.  Indeed, his assurance of salvation for himself and
for his Philippian audience rested on the way their mutual love might
"overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight" (vs.9) in such a
way that it "produced a harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus
Christ for the glory and praise of God."  Those effusive words of Paul's
prayer meant simply that responding to the gospel changed the lives of
those who believed.  Paul's whole life after his conversion on the Damascus
Road perhaps twenty years earlier had shown how different that life might
be.

William Barclay pointed out that Paul's choice of words in vs.6 when
speaking of the work begun in them being brought to a completion refer to a
life of sacrifice.  The words for "to begin" (*enarchesthai*) and "to
complete" (*epitelein*) were technical terms for the beginning and end of a
sacrifice as conducted in the Jewish temple liturgy.  As a Pharisee in
Jerusalem, Paul would have known the sacrificial system intimately from
daily participation in it.  In Romans 12:1, Paul saw the Christian life as
a sacrifice which those who now knew Jesus as the Christ not only shared
with him, but with entered into with Christ himself.  That was possible
only because the grace of God had been at work in them (vs.7).


Luke 3:1-6   Historical references formed an important part of Luke's
Gospel.  Scholars have pointed out the many inconsistencies of this
literary device in what was created as a document of faith ca. 80 CE, not a
biographical record of the man Jesus whom the Apostolic Church knew as the
Messiah/Christ.  In this passage, the introductory stories of the birth of
both John the Baptist and Jesus completed, Luke's narrative skips over
nearly two decades and attempts to place John the Baptist's ministry, and
hence Jesus, in a specific historical context.

The 15th year of the reign of Tiberius corresponds to 28-29.  The Roman
imperial government during this period included Pontius Pilate as "governor
of Judea" and the named tetrarchs of other nearby Roman territories.  In
fact, Pilate's commission was that of "procurator" responsible for the
oversight Roman imperial property, the maintenance of public order and the
collection of taxes.  He was subordinate to the imperial legate of Syria.
The term "tetrarch," used inconsistently in the NT, usually referred to a
ruler whom Rome appointed over a limited territory who might or might not
be a petty monarch.  Such were two sons of Herod the Great, Antipas,
tetrarch of Galilee; Philip, his brother, tetrarch of Iturea and
Trachonitis; and an enigmatic Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene.  These were
mainly Gentile regions in what is now northern Israel and Jordan, and
southern Lebanon. 

By also naming the high-priesthoods of Annas and Caiaphas, Luke put a
religious slant to this historical note.  The gospel tradition he was about
the relate was no minor event.  This was Luke's way of saying that his
narrative had both political and religious significance. 

Luke recognized John as another of Israel's great prophets by quoting from
Isaiah 40.  In so doing, he defined John's role in the life and ministry of
Jesus as that of the one of whom that earlier prophet spoke: "Prepare the
way of the Lord."  More significantly, he placed Jesus expressly within the
sacred tradition of Israel.  

Hans Conzelmann regarded these historical and geographical elements of the
narrative as having considerable significance.  For Conzelmann, John
represented the division between two epochs in the continuing history of
divine salvation as opposed to the pre-Lukan tradition of John as the dawn
of a new eschatological age.  His ministry rather than his person served as
the preparation for Jesus.  In other words, his work is subordinate to the
work of Jesus as the Law is subordinate to the Gospel. (*The Theology of
St. Luke,* Fortress Press, 1961.)

While repeating the same excerpt from Isaiah 40:3 quoted by Mark, Luke
expanded it to include vv.4-5, thus adopting Deutero-Isaiah's universalism
as his own.  That attitude informed the whole of the Luke-Acts corpus.
Although scriptural inferences have led many to identify Luke as the
companion of Paul, we know very little about him except that he was a
citizen of the Roman world.  As we shall see in our study of this gospel
throughout the coming year, he had a wider Gentile audience in mind than
the predominantly Jewish community which had first heard and responded to
the gospel.  His is indeed a Gospel for our time.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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