postmodern preaching

Second Sunday of Advent Year C

  • Baruch 5:1-9

This poem included in the collection given the title “Baruch” announces to Jerusalem that now is the time to take off the drab clothing of “sorrow and affliction” and put on “the beauty of the glory from God.”  Get up, he writes with encouragement, and look east, where you will see “your children” returning from diaspora.  They were marched out of Jerusalem as captives by their conquerors, (the Babylonians), but their journey home will be on level ground and in safety, the Lord assures.

  • OR Malachi 3:1-4

The unknown writer given the name “Malachi” imagines the Lord sending a “messenger of the covenant….”  This appearance will initiate a purification of “the descendants of Levi” and reform and renew the hearts of those who “worship God” as in “former years.”

  • “The Song of Zechariah” (Luke 1:68-79)

Luke has just told us (1:64) of the birth of a son, John, to Elizabeth and Zechariah, who miraculously regains the capacity to hear and to speak.  Now his words flow in a poem/song.  It begins with a blessing of God that is verbatim from King David’s blessing when his son, Solomon, was enthroned, (I kings 1:48), insuring the royal lineage.  The text dwells on the “oath God swore to our father Abraham” that would establish a people free to “worship God without fear… all the days of our life.”  “You my child, ” the joyous father sings, are designated “the prophet of the Most High/for your role will be to instruct and guide and lead in confession of sins” as preparation for the “tender compassion of our God.”  After deep darkness and “the shadow of death,” God’s dawn arrives.

  • Philippians 1:3-11

In a standard opening for his letters, Paul gives thanks to God for the recipients of his letter and the work they share.  He longs for their love, compassion and insight to grow.  It is clear in his mind that there will be a time when this work will come to its completion: “The day of Jesus Christ,” which will also be a “season of harvest.”

  • Luke 3:1-6

A priority for Luke is to place the story he tells firmly in contemporary events, which were such a crucial time in (Western) history– the reign of the Roman Emperor, Augustus, who established the empire and inaugurated a period of peace and prosperity.  So, he begins his narrative of the crucial role played by John the Baptizer by naming the secular and religious authorities when John began his public ministry.  But the focus of the narrative quickly shifts from the center of religious and political authority to the margins, the hinterlands.  Out there, on the sidelines, “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah [and Elizabeth] in the wilderness.”  In the wilderness around the Jordan river, John proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which Luke links directly to the same words of that other great prophet, Isaiah.

Several themes important to Jean-Louis Chretien emerge in his meditation, The Call and the Response, on the appearance of John the Baptizer. Chretien cites a sermon given by St. Augustine for the feast of the birth of John,

“…after so many voices preceding it, the same Word descended in its own chariot, in its very own voice, in its fleshCollect therefore into one voice as it were all the voices that preceded the Word and attribute them to the person of John….” (p.64)

In Luke’s narrative, John does not say anything new.  Quite the contrary, the message of John collects, gathers, summarizes, sometimes quotes verbatim all that God’s prophets have had the audacity to say before him.  What makes it ‘new’ is his personal choice to say these words where, when and to whom.  Chretien cleverly observes:

John the Baptizer “does not use words that are properly his and originate with him.  He says his alteration by repeating the words of another.”  “By becoming this voice, he transforms his being into a pure relation to what incommensurably precedes him and comes after him.  He thus loses and sacrifices his being, but rediscovers it transfigured….” (p.66)

In the words he choose to say and to whom and where he said them, John used the words from  past prophets for ‘new’ results.  John, thereby, discovers himself and his purpose.  This is the way words work, Chretien insists repeatedly.  The words we choose to speak shape who we become. 

‘Spirit’ is quite concrete for Chretien; it is what we hear and what we say.  He writes, “in the timbre of my voice, spirit manifests itself the only way it is possible for it, which is body and soul.” (p.44)  One discovers her identity in the words she speaks and the context in which she chooses to speak those exact word.  Therefore, John the Baptizer occurs to Chretien as one who embodies in minute detail this vital function of words as he announces the coming of the Word in the flesh.  Chretien continues his meditation with further quotes from St. Augustin”s sermon,

“John  represents the voice and is not only the voice.  Everyman (sic) who announces the Word is the voice of the Word.  What speech of my lips is to the word I carry inside, each devout soul is to the Word when announcing the same Word.”  To which Chretien adds. “Even having come, the Word needs still and needs always to be announced by new voices.  Even having been born, the Word still needs to be born in each person.” (p.65)

John’s father, Zechariah, had been struck dumb when he had been told that in their advanced years he and Elizabeth would have a son.  But, Luke’s text emphasizes, when the son was born, the words of the great King David and the great prophet Isaiah spontaneously flowed in giddy joy out of him.  The writer given the name Malachai longed so passionately to hear the words “as in days of old” that he imagines the Lord sending a new “messenger.”

To paraphrase Chretien, it is in having listened carefully to the words of God’s promises and choosing exactly what needs to be said and where and when that those words can become life-giving– again.  While this is the definition of preaching, the invitation extends to anyone who is willing to take in those words, own them as her own–“to be born in each person”–  and then choose exactly which words to repeat and to whom and in what context so that Life transforms life.

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