Scripture: Luke 1: 57-66 Nigel Bunce
“His name is John”. The name means, “God has looked with favour.’ Today, I compare the lectionary Gospel readings for Advent with Luke’s account of the origins of Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist.
The story so far …
Two weeks ago, we read about the angel Gabriel’s prediction of Jesus’ miraculous birth. Then, last week, we learned that Mary, now pregnant, went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth, who lived in ‘the hill country’. That reminded me of what used to happen to young girls who, in the euphemism of most of our youth, ‘got into trouble’. They were sent away to distant relatives to avoid scandal at home.
As we continue to unroll Luke’s account of Jesus’ origin and young life, we read today about the birth of Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. We recall that John was just five months older than Jesus. John’s relatives and neighbours expected that his name would be Zechariah, after his father.
His name is John
But Elizabeth knew, even though Zechariah couldn’t speak, that they were to name the baby John. Elizabeth’s busybody neighbours and relatives challenged her. When she held her ground, they gave Zechariah a writing tablet to write down the baby’s name. He wrote, “His name is John.” That settled the matter.
It also fulfilled the ‘time’ that the angel Gabriel had predicted, and so Zechariah regained the ability to speak.
Right after today’s Gospel, Zechariah proclaims what we call the “Benedictus’ [Blessed be the God of Israel … Luke 1: 68-79].
The Benedictus connects John (and therefore his cousin Jesus) with both the patriarch Abraham and the great King David. The phrase, “he has looked favourably on his people” underlines the reason for the name John. It means ‘God has looked favourably’.
The Benedictus also foretells John’s ministry in the wilderness (you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by forgiveness of their sins). These details show that Luke wrote a very sophisticated account of the births of John and Jesus – as well as a great piece of storytelling.
Luke’s story versus the lectionary Gospel passages for Advent
That prompted me to compare our sequential reading of Luke’s story with this year’s lectionary Gospel readings for Advent. To me, it’s rather a dog’s breakfast.
The lectionary’s Advent 1 tells everyone to keep awake for the coming of the Son of Man, who will come on clouds of great glory. Advent 2 and 3 are about John preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. Finally, today’s lectionary Gospel for Advent 4 is Mary’s song, the Magnificat. However, without reading the Annunciation, we don’t know why Mary was so excited.
The word Advent means ‘coming’. Therefore, I ask myself, “Who is coming? Who or what are we waiting for?” At the risk of trying to force my theology down your throats, I am very clear about this in my own mind. Each Advent, I am waiting for the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas.
What’s wrong with the lectionary
But clearly, other people interpret Advent differently. To read the coming of the Son of Man speaks to the final judgement of the nations at end of time. In Christian theology that means the Second Coming of Jesus. Why would we look forward to the Second Coming before we have celebrated the first one? But Advent hymns repeatedly give that impression.
Likewise, to read about John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness in Advent implies that John was predicting Jesus’ birth. That does not make sense, because John was only five months old when Jesus was born. Recall that Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy when the newly pregnant Mary visited her.
John the Baptist may have been ‘great’ – as Gabriel predicted to Zechariah – but he couldn’t have been in utero and preaching in the wilderness at the same time. John didn’t predict Jesus’ coming ministry till thirty years later.
Let me return to my own Advent theology
The Christmas story makes the most sense to me as Incarnation (meaning ‘fleshiness’). We use the idea that God became flesh in the form of the Christ-child. That’s a metaphor for saying that there is a divine spark within each of us.
The humanity of the Christ-child is how that metaphor plays out for we ordinary, earthly beings. God brought Jesus into this world in the usual messy way, just like us. Like Jesus, we are part of God’s good Creation.
We are not sinful from birth
This is a completely different view of the world from the idea that we are sinful from birth. That view would separate us completely from the Christ-child, who was perfect. Inescapable sinfulness tells me (at least) that however hard I try to lead a good life, God has set me up to fail.
I believe in a compassionate and loving God, even if I can’t measure up to the standards of the Christ-child. Pelagius, who also did not believe that we are all tainted by original sin, said that when we look into the eyes of a newborn baby, we see the face of Christ looking back. But that theology is in many ways harder, because now we must use our free will to try to live up to the ideal of that newly-minted state.
Metaphorically, we have all eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We know the difference between right and wrong, so we cannot claim innocence. Let us hope that Pelagius was right. And that this Christmas, when we look into the face of the Christ-child, we know that he will recognize the faces looking back at him as parts of God’s good Creation. Amen.