By Dr. Rick Lowery
This session introduces the dual emphases of Advent: preparation for Christmas, the birth of Jesus, and preparation for the “end of the world as we know it” and the eruption of the “reign of God” in our midst. We look at the idea of the “kingdom/reign of God/heaven” in Jesus’s teaching and place it in its ancient cultural context. Roman imperial ideology, which really was a “theology,” was the air that everyone breathed in the ancient Mediterranean world. Caesar was “son of God,” “lord,” “savior of the world.” By military force, Augustus Caesar ended the “worldwide” civil war that erupted after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. Julius was elected “god” by the Roman Senate in 42 BCE and Octavian (later, “Augustus”) became “son of god” by virtue of his control of the Roman military and his victory over the other factions vying for power after the death of Julius. He “seized by force” his divine status. In the Roman imperial theology, victory led to security that led to justice which led to peace. Jesus preached a counter-cultural message that began with justice and equality that he said led to community and peace. He offered free healing and preached free food, open tables, and hospitality for people who were marginalized by the rigid hierarchy of social status that characterize the Roman imperial social order. Jesus taught that a new world was being born, a new order was emerging in the midst of the unjust, hierarchy of the Roman empire. He contrasted it with the “basileia” (kingdom/empire) of Rome, calling it the basileia tou theou (the kingdom/reign of God or of “heaven”). This message threatened Roman imperial interests, so the imperial authorities killed Jesus. He suffered the brutal execution Rome reserved for leaders of slave revolts. The earliest surviving Christian hymn (Philippians 2) sings of Christ Jesus “who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be seized by force (a military term for siege warfare), but emptied himself, and being found in human likeness took the form of a slave and became obedient even to the point of death, death on a cross.” The topsy-turvy “kingdom/reign of God” that is erupting in our very midst, even today is an order of human relationships rooted in equality, justice, and abundant life for all. In the season of Advent, we are called to bear witness to the reign of God springing forth in our midst and to nurture God’s dream of a world where everyone has enough to survive and thrive.
Through most of the book, Jeremiah offers a relentlessly negative assessment of Jerusalem’s behavior and its chances of survival. Its leaders have sinned, rebelling against YHWH by actively oppressing and failing to support the vulnerable and poor. Judgment came in the form of an invasion by Babylonian imperial forces in 597 BCE and the deportation of the Judean royal house.
In chapter 30, the gloomy mood of the book shifts dramatically. Chapters 30 and 31 -- scholars call this section, “the book of consolation” -- introduce a series of salvation oracles. What’s changed, apparently, is the second invasion of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and their destruction of the city and its YHWH temple. The indigenous Judean monarchy, the House of David, is demolished, and a Babylonian-appointed governor has taken the reins of government. Jeremiah’s word at last shifts to hope for a future restoration of Jerusalem, culminating in the announcement of a “new covenant” YHWH will establish with the people of Judah and the long-lost kingdom of Israel.
Our verses (14-16) introduce a longer section that extends through the end of chapter 33. This oracle of salvation envisions a day when the house of David will once again occupy the throne in Jerusalem, served by a levitical priesthood in a rebuilt temple. The devastations of 586 will be reversed and Jerusalem will once again live in peace.
Today’s passage reaffirms that the restoration promised in chapters 30-32 will include a restored Davidic monarchy, though the final phrase of the lection may well take a swipe at the last Davidic monarch to sit on the throne in Jerusalem. The king whose rebellion prompted the destruction of Jerusalem was Zedekiah (pronounced tsidqiyahu in Hebrew), whose name literally means, “YHWH is my righteousness.” In the new era foreseen by Jeremiah in our passage today, “a righteous (tsedaqah) branch will spring up for David” who will “do justice and righteousness (tsedaqah),” causing Judah and Jerusalem to live in safety and be called by the name “YHWH is our righteousness (tsidqenu).”
The discussion between Rick and Pastor Linda McRae emphasizes the importance of truth telling as a prerequisite to the word of hope in today’s passage.
Malachi is a temple priest, upset about people short-changing YHWH at the temple. The prophet apparently is associated with levitical priests and perhaps is himself a levitical priest (2:4-9). But he believes that the “covenant with Levi” has been corrupted.
Chapter 3 introduces “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight” (v 1). “YHWH of hosts” declares that this messenger is coming to “prepare the way” when YHWH comes back to his temple. This title YHWH “of hosts” -- “YHWH tsevaot” in Hebrew -- is a military title. The “hosts” are the armies of heaven. YHWH “of hosts” is the commander of all the armies of heaven. The threat is none-too-subtle. God is saying here, “let me put my commander-in-chief hat on, and then we’ll talk.” The question that immediately follows is no surprise: “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (v 2).
The messenger of the covenant is sent to purify the temple and the priests who serve there, to purify them “like a refiner’s fire,” like a launderer’s soap. It is the descendants of Levi, that is, the levitical priests who serve in the temple, who need to be refined and purified of their corruption so they can mediate between God and the people “in righteousness” (v 3). Only then will the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem be acceptable to YHWH (v 4).
The lectioners end today’s reading at v 4, without really allowing the text to explain what, exactly, is corrupt about the priests. V 5 begins to give the answer. God will bear witness against sorcerers and adulterers. This language may be metaphorical, a way of describing imperial cultic practices being carried out in the Jerusalem temple (see Hosea, Ezekiel, and the New Testament book of Revelation for examples of this use of the metaphor). Malachi condemns those who pervert the judicial system for their own gain, who oppress their employees by holding their wages low, who abuse the widow and the fatherless (a stock phrase describing any household experiencing economic hardship), who marginalize immigrants. By neglecting or even actively abusing society’s most vulnerable people, the leaders of Jerusalem and the religious leaders who supported them show that they “do not fear” God. By collaborating with the unjust economic and political policies of the empire, these respectable leaders of society reveal themselves to be corrupt. They -- not the people they oppress, neglect, and despise -- are in need of purification. The messenger of the covenant is sent by God to “clean house,” to expose the hidden filth of injustice and scrub it clean.
The conversation between Rick and Linda again focuses on the importance of telling the truth about the economic injustices that continue to plague our life. This text calls us to be honest about our own complicity and to reflect on the ways we almost unconsciously accept the ideologies that convince us that we alone are responsible for our own success or failure. Linda tells the story of the Guatemalan village she lived in for a few years. The government carried out a brutal “scorched earth” campaign to purge the village of “communist” revolutionaries. One group of villagers fled to Mexico. The other group hid in the forest. Years later the exiles returned, like the exiles returned to Jerusalem after Babylonian exile. She says that the two groups had very different understandings of the very same events, just like the warring factions represented in the book of Malachi did. The difference of perspective is rooted in a difference of experience. This suggests that we need to be very humble about our disagreements. Our experiences shape our perspectives. Linda also notes that the gospel lection from Luke begins with a thorough description of the political context of the ministry of John the Baptist. It is important that we too have an analysis of the political dynamics at work as we seek to tell the truth about injustice, while training our eyes to spot signs of God’s in-breaking reign of justice and peace.
The introduction of the book of Zephaniah dates the work of this prophet to the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE). Josiah carried out a massive religious-political-cultural-economic reform along the lines of Deuteronomy. Before Josiah’s reform, Jerusalem temple worship included rituals for a number of deities other than YHWH (see 2 Kings 23). Josiah purged the temple of idols representing the gods of nations Judah had earlier pursued alliances with, including a subservient alliance with the Assyrian empire. Josiah pursued a YHWH-alone policy in the Jerusalem temple and consolidated YHWH worship there.
It’s not clear whether Zephaniah is prophesying before or during the time that Josiah began his reforms, but the opening judgment oracle is certainly consistent with Josiah’s YHWH-alone policy. YHWH, speaking through Zephaniah, promises to “cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of idolatrous priests among the priests, those who bow down on the roofs to the host of heaven, while also bowing down to YHWH, those who swear by Milcom, but refuse to make prophetic inquiries of YHWH (1:4-6; cf. 2 Kgs 23:4-14). In 1:8, Zephaniah condemns royal officials and princes “who dress themselves in foreign attire,” that is, who adopt the culture and political-religious practices of other (probably imperial) nations. The rest of the first chapter is a warning of impending disaster because of the violent and fraudulent practices of Jerusalem’s leaders, especially the wealthy elites, the captains of international trade (1:9-13). The prophet envisions a coming “day of YHWH,” a day of reckoning, where the rich and powerful will be brought down because of their unbridled greed and corruption.
Chapter 3 returns to the prophetic critique of Jerusalem whose leaders are devouring “lions” and ravenous “wolves” who use their positions of power to line their own pockets. They abuse the law (3:4) and take advantage of the very people they have been chosen to protect. These greedy, self-righteous elites have no shame (3:5). For these reasons, YHWH announces judgment against the rich and powerful. The boastful, self-satisfied elites will be removed from power (3:11). In their place, God “will leave... a people humble and lowly” (3:12).
Today’s lectionary passage (3:14-20) takes a dramatic turn in form and content. The judgment oracles that have characterized the bulk of the book to this point now give way to a call to sing just an old-fashioned joy song: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion! Shout out, Israel! Rejoice and party with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (v 14). King YHWH is in the house! So there’s no need to fear the worst (v 15). It’s going to be alright now! God will renew Jerusalem with the power of love (v 17). It will be like party time (v 18).
The celebration will come because YHWH will finally deal with those who oppress the weak. God will save the “lame,” embrace the outcast (v 19). God will take those who live in shame and shout to whoever will listen that they are human beings, worthy of respect and love (v 19)! God will bring them home! Give them worth, make them whole and secure.
In the end, the judgments against the corruption and greed of the political and economic elites -- judgments that fill the opening pages of Zephaniah -- are shown for their true significance: the healing of a broken world, the rescue of those in greatest need, the dignity of those who have known only shame and humiliation. To the weak and vulnerable, the rejected and despised, God announces a new day of justice, of dignity and respect for all.
In the dialogue between Rick and Linda, Linda focuses our attention on those good and beneficial things in life that we turn into “idols.” Ironically, this is a particular issue for Christians living in America in the run-up to Christmas. The Christmas shopping season is filled with advertising that seeks to convince us that we are inadequate, incomplete unless we buy this or that product. If only someone would buy us this thing, we could find love or status or a sense of self-satisfaction or worth. The critical prophetic word of Zephaniah and the other prophets like John the Baptist in the gospel lection is especially important at this time of year for Christians whose focus must remain on the new world being born, the world of God’s desire. In the end, our idols fail us. Consumer goods do not complete us. In the reign of God, erupting in our very midst, we are whole because God created us in God’s own image.
Micah is from a village, Moresheth, just outside Jerusalem. His career probably spanned the last decades of the 700s BCE, during the reigns of the Judean Kings Ahaz and Hezekiah. In 735, the Israelite and Syrian kings to the North of Judah decided to take advantage of a change in imperial leadership in Assyria and rebel. They had been subservient to the Assyrian kingdom for several years. It was time, they thought, to shake off the yoke of imperial obligation and seek independence. Judah was further south than those two kingdoms and not yet under the control of Assyria. When Israel and Syria decided to rebel, they approached the Judean king Ahaz and asked him to join their rebel alliance. Ahaz saw no reason to get involved in their dispute and refused the offer to join. Israel and Syria decided to depose Ahaz and put someone more favorable to their interests on the throne in Jerusalem. They put Jerusalem under siege. But Ahaz managed to send messengers to the Assyrian emperor, Tiglath-pilesar III, to alert him about the rebel alliance.
The Assyrians came to the rescue, and Ahaz brought Judah into Assyria’s imperial orbit. As the junior partner in the new imperial alliance, Judah was responsible for paying hefty taxes to the empire. They had to contribute able-bodied men for military service to benefit the military interests of the empire. They had to provide able-bodied men and women to provide forced labor for imperial government projects of various sorts. And they had to quarter imperial troops conducting military maneuvers in those parts. The economic consequences of the alliance, while generally beneficial to the economic and political elites, were devastating to people further down the social-economic ladder.
Micah gives voice to those people, the ones who bore the brunt of the imperial alliance, who suffered the economic consequences. The opening chapters of the book condemn the political, economic, and religious elites of Judah who collaborate in the growing economic devastation that threatens ordinary families in this period. Oracles of judgment fill the first three chapters of the book, but the tone begins to shift in chapter 4. There, the book repeats an oracle of salvation that is also found almost verbatim in the second chapter of Isaiah. The oracle envisions a day when many nations will stream to “capital hill” in Jerusalem to learn the ways of YHWH, the God of Israel and Judah. In this new time of peace, the nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation. And they won’t learn war any more” (Micah 4:3).
Then the book shifts timeframe. The compilers of the book introduce oracles that promise the restoration of Jerusalem after a period of exile, an apparent reference to the time after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Although today’s text could easily have been written before Babylonian exile, its current use in the book is directed to a time after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the end of the Davidic monarchy. It envisions a time when the house of David will be restored to its throne and the people of Judah will again live in peace and security, free from the economic devastations of foreign imperial rule.
Bethlehem, a small town just outside of Jerusalem, is the legendary home of David’s family. In our passage, the prophet acknowledges that times are bleak, but says that they are like the period of labor, just before a child is born. The extreme pain of the present is “pain with a purpose.” God is doing a new thing. A new world of justice is being born in the midst of the unjust old. The people who have experienced the devastations of international geopolitical machinations are in the process of being restored to their homeland. Economic and political justice are in the process of being established. Peace and security will surely follow.
The book’s time-shift underlines the timeless message of the passage that serves as our advent text today. In one sense, the promised restoration of the Davidic throne did not occur. As an actual historical fact, the Babylonians ended the rule of the house of David when they destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But the text in its current form contains a timeless promise of hope that God is at work in every time and place to establish justice, thwart the forces of oppression, build a world of safety and security for all. This is the hope of advent, the promise of Christmas. Through the pain and despair of a broken world, God is giving birth to a new world of hope and possibility, a new world of justice and peace.
Rick and Linda return to the theme of truth telling as a prerequisite for the hope we find in the advent message. The truth is that peace, the theme of this fourth Sunday of advent, always comes by way of justice. The gospel lection focuses on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth the pregnant mother of John the Baptist. Both women experience miraculous, biologically impossible pregnancies, according to the gospel. Elizabeth is post-menopausal. She is not able to become pregnant. Mary is a virgin. Yet both women find themselves in an impossible situation, pregnant when their pregnancies are impossible. The meeting of these two marginal people -- by all biological logic, infertile women -- signals the advent of a new reality, a new world being born against impossible odds, a topsy-turvy world celebrated in Mary’s “magnificat” -- the centerpiece of today’s gospel lection -- where the normal rules of the Roman imperial world are turned upside down. The poor become rich, the powerless gain power, and peace and justice reign.