Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Word of God came to John

In Luke 3:1-6, the gospel text appointed for the Second Sunday of Advent in the Year of Luke, we hear these words:  "The word of God came to John son of Zechariah n the wilderness."  This portrait of the young John by the Renaissance painter, Giuseppe Vermiglio, captures for me what that must have been like.  The light of Christ shines on the young prophet and he looks upward dumbfounded. Is he astonished that the word of God has come to him, or that the word of God has come to him?

(The following questions try to get at some key issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this mode of preaching you may purchase my recent book, pictured on this page, available through

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a tricky question with this text because of verse 6:  "and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."  That all flesh shall see the salvation of God is certainly good news to many, but undoubtedly to some, this is not good news.  As the verses following these clearly show, these words caused alarm in many, as they said, "Teacher what should we do?"  So this word can definitely function as Law. Yet, ultimately, because all are promised that they shall see salvation, this is a Gospel word.  If we look back at John's father's glorious song of praise in Luke 1 we see that indeed this is good news, as John's words are meant to "give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  As I said above, I do not think this word functions primarily as Law, i.e.  "You need Jesus!"  It does exhort all to "prepare the way of the Lord" but I do not hear this as Law as much as invitation to be open to the Word of God coming amongst us.  Certainly there is a dying to our own ego and a letting go of control when we are open to the coming of the Word amongst us, but again, this seems somewhat different than how a word of Law functions in its hearers.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   It might be an interesting perspective to identify with John as the word of God comes to him in the wilderness.  This might be a very fruitful way for a preacher to proceed.  Having said that, it will not go well if the preacher continues to identify with John as the preacher.  We need always to identify with those to whom the Word is spoken, and so our other choice is necessarily to identify with those who hear the words, "Prepare the way of the Lord."  If we succumb to the temptation to identify with the bearer of the word in the text, we are prone as preachers to forget that we too are addressed by this word.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the word that says, "Follow Jesus."  I do not hear that word in this text. If we wish to preach that word, we will need to look elsewhere for that.  The second lesson appointed for this Sunday, Philippians 1:3-11, speaks of the "harvest of righteousness." This might be an excellent place to start.

5. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets can be found in the text itself: crooked/straight, rough places/smooth.  Another way to go might be to think in terms of couplets like silence of God/word of God comes, or unprepared/prepared.

6.  Exegetical work:  There are any number of excellent commentaries on the book of Luke which offer insights.  Fred Craddock, in his excellent commentary (Interpretation series) notes that this introduction of the word coming to John is patterned after introductions of other prophets, notably Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea.  This would seem to lift up John's fulfillment of his father's announcement that he would be called "the prophet of the Most High." (Lk.1:76).  Gregory the Great, in his ancient commentary notes that "since John the Baptist preached one who was at once both king and priest, the evangelist Luke indicated the time of his preaching by referring to both the kingship and the high priesthood."  (ACCS, III, 56)  Ambrose, another of the early church fathers, notes that Luke "says that the Word of the Lord came to John... so that the church would not begin from a man but from the word."  (ACCS, III, 56)  Finally, Luther defined John's message with these words:  "To prepare the way of the Lord means to prepare ourselves for the Lord's activity in us, so that God may help us and our life may be the life of Christ." (LW, vol 17, 9)  I like that.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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