THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
When asked by messengers from John the Baptist whether he was “the one to come” or whether John and his followers should look for another messiah, Jesus replied: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Matthew 11:4-5 In a recent speech given at Biola University, Christian activist Shane Claiborne reflected on this exchange between Jesus and John’s disciples and asked whether Christians today could say of their own lives that they demonstrate the same life giving message preached and lived by Jesus. He then went on to speak about a recent survey conducted by the Barna Group out of Ventura, California soliciting the views of young people outside the church on Christians. The results were published in a book entitled Unchristian authored by David Kinnman. They are depressing, to say the least. They tend to show that most young people have lost respect for the church. Here are the study results as summarized by Godquest, an evangelical online publication: Read it and weep.
Hypocritical—Outsiders think that Christians say one thing and do another. They believe we do not act consistently with our beliefs and claim that Christians pretend to be something on the outside that is not real.
Too focused on getting converts—Outsiders often feel more like targets. They feel as if we merely want to get them “saved” and then move on to another accomplishment. Few report feeling genuinely loved by Christians. According to most outsiders, we are not good listeners. The majority of young outsiders do not feel that Christians show genuine interest in them as people.
Anti-homosexual—Young outsiders largely view Christians as hateful, bigoted, and non-compassionate in their dealings with homosexuals. They tend to view Christians as focused on “curing” homosexuals and using political means to silence them. According to many young outsiders, hostility toward gays is synonymous with Christianity (91% agree with this). Christians are often viewed as self-righteous and arrogant in their dealings with homosexuals, the opposite of how Jesus was perceived.
Sheltered—Outsiders largely think that Christians have simplistic answers to the deep complexities of life. We are viewed as old-fashioned, boring, behind the times, and not in touch with reality. Many think that we live in our own world, isolated from the real problems and complexities of life. Christians are largely viewed as ignorant and uninformed.
Too political—Christians are often viewed as synonymous with right-wing Republican conservatives. The majority of young outsiders think we are largely motivated by political interests.
Judgmental—Nearly 90% of outsiders say that the term judgmental accurately describes Christians today. Only 20% of outsiders view the church as a place where people are accepted and loved unconditionally. We are known much more for our criticism than for our love.
For further elaboration, See, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, Godquest, a site maintained by Worldview Ministries.
You might argue that these perceptions are unfair; that they are the result of excessive media coverage for organizations like Christian Coalition, Women Concerned and Westborough Baptist Church that claim to speak for all Christians but propagate their hateful ideological agendas in Christ’s name. There is some truth to that, but we cannot place the entire blame for our image problem on the backs of these organizations or the news coverage they receive. At the end of the day, we are responsible for our public witness. If we are getting shouted down by the likes of Fred Phelps and his deranged disciples with their cries of “God hates fags,” then we just need to speak louder and more forcefully the good news that God loves all people-especially the hated-and be willing to stand with these children of God sharing the persecution they have known all their lives. If we don’t want to be known only for what people think we are against, then we need to start demonstrating what we are for-and show that we are ready to make real sacrifices to achieve it. Churches need to get away from the notion that they are supposed to be the guardians of decency, order and morality. Jesus didn’t care much for any of these things. What he cared about was inviting people into the life giving ways of his Father’s kingdom. That is worth getting excited about. Would to God the church would rise up and make it heard!
For a quick overview of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, see the Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. To summarize the summary: The first part of this long book (Chapters 1-39) contains messages of judgment and warning similar to those of the other 8th Century prophets against hypocritical worship, complacency, and the failure to act with justice for the poor. As illustrated by the readings for the last two weeks, the prophet also speaks poetically and with graphic imagery about God’s coming messianic kingdom. The second part of the book (Chapters 40-55) brings words of comfort and hope to the exiles in Babylonian captivity in the 6th Century B.C.E. This section contains the “suffering servant” passages we commonly read during Lent and Holy Week such as Isaiah 53. Part three (Chapters 56-65) is made up of warnings and promises for the Jewish community after its return to Jerusalem following the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C.E.
If only it were really that simple! In fact, all three sections underwent editing by other prophetic authors who composed their own material or wove oracles and sayings from other sources into the collection of sayings they had received. Further editing and inclusion of sources took place as these three sections were brought together into the Book of Isaiah we have today. Thus, for example, our reading from today, though included in the collection of sayings made up primarily of the 8th Century prophet Isaiah, is likely a product of the 6th Century or perhaps as late as the 5th Century B.C.E. The parallels between this passage and similar verses in Second Isaiah such as Isaiah 55:12-13 suggest to some scholars a connection with the prophet of Second Isaiah or his disciples. Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c. 1962, SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 128. Some Hebrew scripture scholars also suggest that the prophetic utterance is even more recent dating from after the return of the Jews from Exile. They maintain that the “Holy Way” of which the prophet speaks is not only a return route from Babylon, but a multifaceted highway leading from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem by which Diaspora Jews (“the redeemed of the Lord”) may safely travel to the Holy City on pilgrimages. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 362. A few authorities still maintain that this passage should be attributed to the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century. They interpret the miraculous highway described therein as one for the return of the tribes of the Northern Kingdom conquered and carried into exile by the Assyrian Empire around 721-23 B.C.E. Mauchline, supra, p. 228. For reasons far too boring to discuss, I lean toward the late 6th to early 5th Century dating, but all of these theories are plausible.
As far as the canonical context goes, these jubilant verses of salvation, growth and renewal follow a withering oracle of judgment decreed against the nations in general and Edom in particular. Geographically, Edom was located south of Judea and the Dead Sea. See map. From the time of King Saul, Edom was subject to varying degrees of Israelite rule and suffered severe military reprisals for its efforts to win independence. Not surprisingly, then, Edom sided with the Babylonians in their final war with Judah and joined the Babylonian army in plundering Jerusalem. This perceived act of treachery was long remembered and the Judean thirst for revenge, chillingly expressed in the final verses of Psalm 137, was deeply impressed upon Israel’s psyche.
Though some scholars characterize Isaiah 34 as “apocalyptic,” I believe the label is misplaced. While the judgment in this chapter refers to cataclysmic cosmic events such as the stars of the heavens falling and the sky rolling up like a scroll, such hyperbolic language was common to prophets of the 8th Century when pronouncing God’s judgment within the confines of history. Furthermore, while the transformation of the desert into a garden-like highway free of intemperate weather and wild beasts is surely a miraculous event, it is no more historically improbable than Israel’s rescue at the Red Sea. I therefore believe that both chapters 34 and 35 have more in common with the earlier prophets’ preaching from the Exodus, Wilderness Wandering and Conquest of Canaan narratives than with the later apocalyptic writing such as that found in Daniel.
As with the lessons from the previous two weeks, these promises of salvation, reconciliation among the nations and world peace are spoken against the backdrop of an unstable and violent geopolitical landscape. The good news for such people “who lived in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2) is that it does not have to be this way, nor will it always be so. In the very midst of all this chaos, injustice, meaningless bloodshed and cruelty, God is at work bringing to birth a new creation. Isaiah was no ivory tower theologian. He was deeply involved in the social, political and military issues faced by his country as Chapter 7 of Isaiah demonstrates. But the prophet and his later literary descendents recognized that the realities of violence, injustice and oppression were not the only and certainly not the final realities. They were convinced that the future belonged to the gentle reign of Israel’s God who alone is worthy of worship and ultimate loyalty.
This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss. 7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.
The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of the Land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here.
But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established. This hope is sometimes expressed in military terms, though even when Israel prevailed over her enemies in war, she always understood these victories as engineered by God. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 8:17; Psalm 44:1-3. Yet from the time of the Judges to the time of the Maccabean rulers, Israel’s experience with political and military rulers had been a disappointment. Even the best of these leaders had failed to inaugurate anything like the new creation to which her prophets testified. Clearly, another kind of messiah was needed.
Once again, the lectionary people have committed exegetical malpractice, cutting the reading off before the most important verse, that being James 5:11: “Indeed, we call those blessed who were steadfast…” Not in this country. We call those blessed who are “over comers,” “high achievers,” “result getters.” Too often, the church falls into step with these false values. Mission strategies too often aim at institutional growth and stability instead of faithful witness. Congregations judge their pastors on membership growth, giving levels and building projects instead of faithfulness to the work of sacramental ministry, preaching, teaching, evangelism and public witness. Congregations are judged by their ability to support the denomination’s programs and initiatives. Results, not steadfastness are the measure of a disciple’s worth in this twisted understanding of mission and church.
James points out that patience is a principal virtue for disciples of Jesus. There is nothing a disciple can or must do to make God’s kingdom come. God has that covered. Our task is to recognize the reign of Christ as the only genuine future there is and live accordingly. We don’t ask silly questions like: “How do I know that my contributions to hunger relief will bring any measurable improvement to people’s lives? How can I be sure that my efforts to achieve reconciliation will succeed? How can I know whether forgiveness of my enemy will only be seen as weakness and so invite more aggression?” The simple answer is that you don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Disciples feed the hungry, seek reconciliation and forgive their enemies because Jesus tells us too. That is enough reason. Let God worry about the results and how they fit into the future God is preparing for creation. That is not a bad message for those of us who have been waiting for two millennia for the consummation of God’s reign.
Last week we met John the Baptist at the peak of his career baptizing the crowds coming to him from all over Judea. Now we meet him near the end of his career, languishing in Herod’s prison. We know so little about John’s religious outlook that it is difficult to know what expectations he may have had for Jesus. Like Jesus, John proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and called for repentance. Matthew 3:2. He proclaimed the coming of one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Matthew 3:11. The “you” here refers to the people as a whole rather than to individuals. Such fiery baptism would purge the people, separating the chaff from the wheat. It is in anticipation of this baptism of fire that John’s baptism of repentance is offered. So from Matthew’s perspective, John’s question seems to be whether Jesus is the one to bring about this baptism of fire that will cleanse the people of Israel, thereby making them fit for the coming reign of heaven.
There is good reason for John’s doubts. So far from separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus associates with the chaff, the “sinners” and outcasts of his people. He touches people who are unclean and violates the Sabbath-hardly the sort of behavior you would expect from someone sent to purify the people of Israel. Though Jesus has established a following, he also faces stiff and perhaps insurmountable opposition from the powerful Pharisees and the Sadducean leadership in Jerusalem. Moreover, John’s reward for baptizing and endorsing Jesus is prison and ultimately death. It seems that Jesus has some explaining to do.
As is his usual habit, Jesus does not give John’s messengers a direct answer. He merely tells the messengers to go back to John and tell him what they have seen. “You be the judge,” says Jesus. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” What’s your verdict? Vs. 5. That might sound like a no-brainer. Much of this comes straight from our lesson in Isaiah and the rest goes considerably beyond. If works like these cannot convince a skeptic, what can? And yet, Jesus goes on to add, “and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’” Vs. 6.
What does Jesus mean by that? I suspect that part of this stems from John’s imprisonment. Jesus must be a poor sort of messiah if he cannot save his messenger, the promised Elijah, from the clutches of a penny ante thug like Herod Antipas. How will he fare against the Roman Empire? Jesus seems unaware or unconcerned that the jaws of powerful historical currents are closing in upon him. In view of all this, what difference do all these wonderful signs make? To what use is sight restored only to see more injustice and oppression? The relief Jesus provides to the individuals he touches means nothing if the rest of the vast creation remains untouched and enslaved to systemic sin. Even now the offense of the cross is in view and John’s question seems to be: “If Jesus winds up getting himself crucified, as seems likely, will there be another to whom we can look for salvation?” The answer is “no,” there will be no other and that is the core of the offense.
Jesus’ remarks about John’s role indicate clearly that something is dying with John. Notions of messianic salvation molded on tactics of violence, whether through military action or through imposition of morality, whether they are grounded in the scriptures or elsewhere, have no place in Jesus’ mission. Our efforts to build a moral society through just laws and procedures are doomed to failure. Whatever hopes we have for salvation through political or military might, through education and knowledge or through gradual human progress die on the cross. History is not something made by great societies or influential individuals. God is directing history toward his own chosen future which is revealed in Jesus’ resurrection. The way lies through the cross-suffering endured as a result of living the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount in a world that is, for now, hostile to the way of life it portrays. It bears repeating: it is not that the Sermon provides a blue print for a perfect church or a better society. Rather, it reflects the future Jesus promises and invites us to live in even now. What prophets like John could only foretell Jesus inaugurates-under the sign of the cross.