Formations 12.10.2017: Improvising on a Common Theme

Micah 5:1-5a; Luke 3:3-6

Sonny Rollins, the composer of “Oleo”

The first standard I ever learned was the Sonny Rollins composition “Oleo.” As a drummer, this didn’t require much more than learning to sing the melody. But my friends, who played trombone and guitar, really had to know it.

To solo, they had to understand how every note fit, or didn’t fit, into each chord. To play accompaniment, they had to hit every chord in ways that sustained the soloist’s energy. And as they discussed these mechanics, they referred to something called rhythm changes.

After hearing it a few times, I asked what they meant. And I learned that “Oleo” followed the same chord changes as Gershwin’s standard “I Got Rhythm” and that this was common in bebop.

As the story goes, bebop was born at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House in New York. When swing musicians gathered to jam after their gigs on Broadway and in dance bands, they played the songs that were common among them. Instead of playing them straight, they complicated the chords, pushed the tempos, elevated the syncopation, and created high art from music too often dismissed as entertainment.

Along the way, a number of highly original tunes were written. But another type of song—like “Oleo,” “The Eternal Triangle,” and “Confirmation”—added new melodies to existing chord progressions. In these new standards, they passed down interpretations of the standards they received for later generations to study and expand.

During Advent, we see a similar process. This week we’ll hear Micah. A prophet who watched Israel and Judah lose power and face violence at the hands of expanding empires, he expresses hope for a king to come from Bethlehem, revive David’s line, and protect Israel from military invasion.

We also hear John the Baptist and the Christians who told his story. They refer to another prophet, Isaiah, in explaining their hope for salvation from Roman oppression. Though grounded in the tradition, Luke’s vision transforms Micah’s and Isaiah’s visions, particularly with regard to their political dimensions.

In Advent, we look back at our tradition, around at our world, and ahead to our hope. And we are invited to participate in the improvisational tradition that precedes us as we prepare for hope to come and as we seek to understand how best to get ready.


• What hopes and longings are common among people?
• Where in your life and in your community do you need salvation?
• How might common hopes be fulfilled differently according to context?
• How might you prepare for Jesus by seeking and sowing these common hopes in your particular community?

Reference Shelf

Developing the Messiah

The successive failures of the Davidic kings to deliver Israel led inevitably to disillusionment, and as optimism waned a different concept of messiah emerged. This redirected hope can be seen in Isa 9:1ff. Mic 5:1-6 is another example of expression of hope for a restoration of a dynasty the equal of David’s (these expressions are visions of an ideal king and are often used by successive generations as expressions of hope).

The messianic concept undergoes further change in postexilic Israel when there is no longer a Davidic line. The hope now moves to an indefinite future. This is evidenced in the writings of Zechariah (9:9ff.) and Haggai (2:20-23). Israel’s expectations can no longer be centered on a king in a continuing line of monarchs, but although the hope becomes more difficult to discern at this period in Israel’s history, it still remains. At some point in the indefinite future Yahweh will raise up an anointed one to save Israel.

It is difficult to trace clearly the transition from OT messianism to NT messianism. The development of the term messiah continues into NT times.

The Gk. word for māšîah is christos. The titular aspect of christos, a confession of the redactors, quickly becomes a cognomen for Jesus. NT literature, therefore, reveals an evolution from the concept “messiah” to “The Messiah.” Christos as a title is frequently attributed to Jesus, but it should be noted that the preference in self-designation is the title, Son of Man (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22).


This refashioning of the concept of messiah in light of the history of Jesus moves the reader from the Jewish idealizations of messiah. The Jewish idealizations of a Davidic messiah, whether in the present or some indefinite future, are political. Jesus does not correspond to the hoped-for political messiah; politically he has no power; his is a path of suffering. The temptation narratives (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) illustrate his nonconformity with typical messianic characteristics. Jesus presents a messiahship with qualifications (Mark 8:31; Matt 21:4, 5; 26:64; Luke 22:67).

It is difficult to equate Jesus with the messiah of Jewish expectation, for Jesus, The Messiah, transcends the expectations of Israel. He is not a conqueror of nations, but in stead he is a conqueror of death. He is “the anointed one” who is an amalgamation of the royal messiah, the priestly messiah and more. The kingdom that he ushers in is not the expected one; the salvation he offers is unique.

Judy Yates Ellis, “Messiah/Messianism,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 572.

Preparation and John

One way Luke views Christian existence is in prophetic terms. The OT prophets were those on whom the Spirit came, giving them a knowledge both of the secrets of human hearts and of the divine council’s decrees. Thus empowered they spoke for God to prepare his people for the Day of the Lord. These prophets provided one category for the evangelist to use in conceptualizing the Christian experience between Pentecost and parousia. Christians were people on whom the Spirit had come. Consequently they prophesied (Acts 2:16-18). Their prophetic word sought the repentance of the people before the Lord’s coming (Acts 2:38-39; 3:19-26). The Christian community, then, in Luke’s view, is a prophetic community. By its very existence it prepares the way of the Lord by going before him to call people to repentance. If Mary is portrayed as a true believer, John the Baptist is drawn in terms of the true Christian evangelist: in 3:18 John is said to preach the good news to the people.

If John is portrayed as the prototype of the Spirit-filled Christian evangelist, what does he preach and for what does he hope? This model for Christian witnesses preaches Jesus and an ethical lifestyle. Luke 3:15-17 says the Baptist preached Jesus as the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (cf. Acts 2:1ff.); 3:7-9 points to the necessity of bearing fruit (cf. 6:43-45; 13:6-9; 20:9-18). The meaning of this is clarified in 3:10-14: it means the refusal to hoard or to acquire more possessions than are necessary (cf. 12:13-21; 16:19-31). He witnesses so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6). The similarities between John’s good news (3:18) and the message both of Jesus and the later church are clear. In his message as well as in the goal and source of his strength, John the Baptist in Luke-Acts functions as the prototype of the Christian evangelist.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 31.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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