Tag Archives: Third Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 13th

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the preaching of John, that, rejoicing in your salvation, we may bring forth the fruits of repentance; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure in the New Testament. I read a commentator recently who lamented the fact that we have lost the “historical” John in the mists of history and all that remains of him is the gospel portrayal of a literary character whose only role is to magnify the ministry of Jesus. Would that we were all so “lost!” Would that all of us disciples could die so thoroughly to self that others see in us only Jesus magnified. Would that we were a people whose lives are a total mystery apart from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We are never more real than when our lives are lived out of our relationship with Jesus. That beats the hell out of whatever “historical” existence there might be for us.

In last Sunday’s gospel John announced the Lord’s coming and urged us, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Luke 3:4. This Sunday he tells us concretely what that looks like. In response to John’s bold proclamation that the reign of God is immanent, the people begin to ask “what shall we do?” vss. 10; 12; and 14. The answer is starkly simple. Live now as though God’s reign has already come. Share your food and clothing. Stop exploiting your career and social standing to enrich yourself at the expense of others. This is not just whinny exhortation or even a cry for social justice. It is the good news of the arrival of God’s reign. Vs. 18. One either believes John and begins orientating one’s life toward the priorities and patterns of the world to come; or one rejects John’s good news and continues living under the old order of hierarchy, patriarchy, class distinctions and violent oppression.

Advent is that one time during the church year when the radical nature of the good news threatens to break through all of our ecclesiastical efforts to domesticate it. I have listened ad nauseam to theologians in my own Lutheran tradition harp on the paradoxical relationship between the “already” and the “not yet” in the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus. What irks me is not so much their pointing out the tension between these two seemingly contradictory assertions concerning the kingdom. That is real enough. My objection is that we Lutherans have always laid far too much emphasis on the “not yet.” Announcing the “already” rattles us. We are suspicious of the unexpected and disruptive. Revolution terrifies us. Being American protestant ever white and ever polite progressives, we prefer gradual, evolutionary, incremental change. The Sermon on the Mount is fine as long as it can safely be understood as an unattainable ideal designed to drive us to the despair of ever attaining it and to send us fleeing to the throne of grace for a dispensation from it. Or we can tolerate it as God’s expressed intention for life in the “not yet” side of things, but certainly not applicable to the “real world” as we now experience it. For now, we must be satisfied with modest tweaks to late stage capitalism and a kinder, gentler nationalism because the sort of world in which the Sermon on the Mount can actually be practiced is “not yet.”

John the Baptist doesn’t see it that way. For him, there is no “not yet.” It’s “already,” period. Why else would you empty your closet to clothe a stranger or raid your refrigerator to feed somebody you don’t even know? Why would a wealthy tax collector or a soldier of the king begin to doubt the legitimacy of their life’s work? Only because the “already” is eclipsing the “not yet.” John’s preaching made the impending reign of God more real to his hearers than the world driven by survival of the fittest. John is living in the “already.” Let the “not yet” be damned.

The “already” is meant to be lived in the midst of the “not yet.” To be sure, “already” takes the shape of the cross as long as it is still “not yet.” To a world thoroughly conformed to the “not yet,” the lives of those living in the “already” are something of a mystery. They seem impractical, ineffective and nonsensical. Yet if you are convinced that God’s reign is immanent and has indeed already broken into the present moment, conforming your heart and behavior to that reality is about the most pragmatic step you can take.

Here is a poem by Wendell Berry that captures what I think it must be like to live the “already” in the heart of the “not yet.”

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.

Love the world.
Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag.
Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot
understand.
Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millenium.
Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit.
Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world.
Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade.
Rest your head
in her lap.
Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it.
Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

From The Mad Farmer Poems, (c. 2008 by Wendell Berry). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. You can read more about him and his many works at the Poetry Foundation website.

Zephaniah 3:14-20

The book of Zephaniah is one of the twelve Minor Prophets. They are so called not because they are any less important than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (Major Prophets), but because these prophetic collections are much smaller. Zephaniah is only three chapters long. The name, “Zephaniah” means “Yahweh

Hides” or “Yahweh is concealed.” “Sophonias (Zephaniah),” Catholic Encyclopedia (c. 2012 by Kevin Knight). In the opening verses, Zephaniah’s ancestry is traced through Hezekiah. Zephaniah 1:1. It is not known whether this reference is to King Hezekiah who reigned over Judah between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E.  Hezekiah was one of the few kings that gets a favorable rating from the books of Kings and Chronicles. The prophets Isaiah and Micah both were active during his reign and it seems that he was somewhat receptive to their preaching. According to the opening verses of the book, Zephaniah’s preaching took place during the reign of King Josiah from 640 B.C.E. through 609 B.C.E. It is therefore possible that Zephaniah could have been sired by Hezekiah through one of his concubines. On the other hand, because Hezekiah was such a well-regarded king, it would not be unusual for the name to become popular. The Hezekiah named as Zephaniah’s father is not identified as a king or given any royal appellation. Consequently, Zephaniah’s royal lineage is not a foregone conclusion.

It is also thought that Zephaniah’s prophetic ministry must have come prior to the reforms introduced by King Josiah ten years into his reign that are reported in II King 23:4-25. Zephaniah criticized severely the idolatrous worship of Baal and Asherah in Jerusalem, all traces of which Josiah rooted out of the city in the course of his restoration and purification of worship at the Temple. Zephaniah 1:4-6. Zephaniah was also unsparing in his criticism of “the officials and the king’s sons.” Zephaniah 1:8. It seems unlikely that he would have leveled such criticisms during a period of time when the King was implementing the very reforms Zephaniah was demanding. Thus, it is likely that the prophecies we have from the prophet Zephaniah date from between 640 B.C.E and 630 B.C.E., the first decade of Josiah’s reign prior to the institution of his reforms.

The book can be divided into three sections corresponding to its three chapters. The first chapter focuses chiefly on the corruption of the royal court and priesthood in Jerusalem. Zephaniah threatens the nation with divinely wrought destruction for its sins. In the second chapter the prophet expands the threat of judgment to Israel’s enemies. The third chapter begins with what appears to be further indictments against Judah, but the prophet’s tone changes abruptly after chapter five. Beginning with Zephaniah 3:6, the prophet begins to prophecy judgment against “the nations,” and words of comfort directed to Jerusalem. This is the section from which our lesson for Sunday is taken. The prophet promises that God will rescue Judah, restore her fortunes and defeat her enemies. Instead of bringing a judgment of destruction, God now declares a removal of destruction. Some scholars have explained this abrupt change by attributing these verses to a prophet other than Zephaniah who preached during or shortly after the period of the Babylonian Exile. Montague, George T., Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Lamentations and Obadiah, Old Testament Reading Guide (c. 1961 by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) pp. 22-23. This is quite possible. Like other prophetic books, Zephaniah is a compilation of prophetic utterances given at different times under different circumstances. As was the case with both Isaiah and Jeremiah, it is possible that the work of one of Zephaniah’s disciples or an editor might have found its way into the book. But I am doubtful for the following reasons: First, there is there is no mention of Jerusalem’s destruction, Babylon, the Exile or the return from exile. Second, the theme of the nations being cleansed and united by the glory of God shining forth from Jerusalem is part and parcel of the earlier prophecies of Isaiah. This week’s lesson reflects these same themes that are entirely consistent with the earlier prophetic tradition of Isaiah and so fit into Zephaniah’s period of ministry in the late seventh century.

God’s promise to “live in the midst [of the people]” reflects the longing of Advent. Like Israel, the church is a people formed by its longing for God’s reign. We struggle between the reality in which we live on the one hand that is characterized by violence, injustice and cruelty and on the other hand an alternate reality proclaimed to us by the scriptures in which God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. For us the latter reality is the more real and compelling even though we cannot see it yet.

Isaiah 12:2-6

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters of Isaiah 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters of Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters of Isaiah 56-66 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. So it appears that the words from our lesson, which fall within the chapters attributed to First Isaiah of the 8th Century, are more likely from a later time. Most likely, they were placed by the editor as a poetic doxology to the collection of prophetic utterances by Isaiah in the first eleven chapters of the book. Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N. attributes these verses to the prophet who gave us Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). See Commentary on Workingpreacher.org. I believe they also fit into the context of disillusionment and despair following the return from exile addressed by Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). There does not appear to be enough in terms of historical references to date it with any certainty. The call to praise God and acknowledge God as savior is naturally appropriate for Advent which looks back to Jesus who came and forward to the Christ who is to come.

Philippians 4:4-7

As I pointed out last week, the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Phillipi at different times. These letters were collected together and over time became integrated as a single document. The three letters in their likely chronological order are as follows:

  • Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
  • Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
  • Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

See the post for Sunday, December 6, 2015 for more particulars on this letter.

As was the case last week, so this week the reading is from the second of these three letters and constitutes its conclusion. Paul reminds the Philippian church that the Lord is near and encourages them to rejoice. Once again, it needs to be emphasized that for followers of Jesus the announcement that “The Lord is at hand” (Vs. 5) does not conjure up images of terror, divine wrath and damnation. It elicits rejoicing. Advent is above all a season of joy. We do not face the future with dread. We look to tomorrow with hope, but not out of some blind optimism that everything will work out in the end. No, our hope is grounded in the promise of Jesus’ return to reign in gentleness and peace.

Luke 3:7-18

Last week’s lesson introduced John as the voice crying, “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” This week, we come face to face with John the preacher. Luke’s account of John’s preaching differs significantly from the Gospel of Matthew in one respect. In Matthew, John addresses only the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism with the scathing words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In Luke, this stinging rebuke is directed at the “multitudes that came to be baptized.” Vs. 7. We don’t know much about John’s audience. Luke does not tell us who was among the multitudes. We learn a few verses later, however, that there were soldiers and tax collectors among them. We can safely assume that the folks who sought John out and came to receive his baptism were looking for a renewed Israel, perhaps along the lines of Zephaniah’s vision. That would have involved an end to corruption within the priesthood and worship in the Temple-just as rampant in John’s day as in that of Zephaniah. They might also have been looking for restoration of Israel as a great kingdom. Or they may have expected some miraculous transformation of the present world into a world in which Israel would be glorified rather than downtrodden. Again, this last expectation would have been consistent with the hope expressed in our reading from Zephaniah. But whatever they were expecting, John makes clear to them that the change they are hoping for must begin with them. Submitting to John’s baptism without repentance would be an empty and futile ritual exercise. It is not enough to be a descendent of Abraham (or a confirmed Lutheran). It is fruits, not roots that matter.

Understandably, the people respond, “Well then, what are we to do? What are these fruits you are talking about?” John does not have to look far for an answer. His reply concerning the fruits of repentance is squarely within the framework of prophetic tradition. See, e.g. Isaiah 58:1-9:

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Repentance that is all about ritual formalities like fasting, wearing of sackcloth and ashes falls far short of what the Lord requires. Repentance is turning back to the Lord and one cannot do that without turning toward the sister or brother in need. One of the most ancient and urgent commands in the Mosaic law is that “You shall open wide your hand to the poor in the land.”  Deuteronomy 15:11.

The temptation here is to jump too quickly from John’s admonitions here to a more generalized charity that reduces the poor to an abstraction. Note well that both the prophetic passage from Isaiah and John’s preaching is directed toward Israel, not the world at large. These proclamations make sense only to people living in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel such as Israel itself or disciples of Jesus who are united with that God through baptism. This is particularly important for us American Christians to keep in mind as we frequently confuse America with the people of God. The Bible was written to shape the life of the church, not to reform the structures of American society. Furthermore, the sharing that John speaks about is to take place within the frame work of a covenant people called out of the rest of the world to be a “light to the nations.” So the “poor” here are not the starving masses, but the fellow in the next pew who lost his job and cannot afford coats for his kids. John is not asking us to immerse ourselves in the war against poverty. He just wants the extra coat in our closet for the brother without one.

I might be criticized here for lack of a social conscience. One irate person who heard me make this point responded, “Don’t you think Christians should be concerned about social justice?” My response was that I think everyone should be concerned about social justice whether they are Christians or not. But social justice is not enough. Jesus did not merely feed the hungry. He invited them to the messianic banquet. Jesus did not simply make donations for the care of lepers. He touched them. The prophet Isaiah did not call upon Israel to build homeless shelters. He told them to “bring the homeless into your house.” There are disciples of Jesus who do just that. I know, for example, of families that have taken on several foster children, some of them with serious emotional problems and physical disabilities, all in an effort to provide for them a secure and loving home. One example of precisely this thing is Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. This is an intentional Christian community dedicated to “freely sharing life and resources with one another and with our neighbors in order to demonstrate God’s peace and justice in the world.” I encourage you to check out their website.

I have been told repeatedly that, while these individual efforts are commendable, the problems of homelessness and poverty are systemic and that we need systemic reform of one sort or another to solve them. That might well be true, but so is the converse. Systemic change will never overcome poverty as long as we continue to view the poor as social problems to be solved rather than as sisters and brothers precious both to God and to us. The church is called to be a community where the poor are welcomed as valued partners rather than tolerated as burdens. Let me add here that I think we could be and should be doing a far better job with this. That is one reason why we need to hear John’s preaching so much.

How, then, does John prepare the way of the Lord? Our lesson concludes, noting that “With these and many other exhortations, [John] preached good news to the people.” But in what sense is this good news? John tells us of this “coming one” that “his winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is an unsettling image, but maybe that is the point. Can you really expect to be baptized with fire and not get burned? If repentance is about a radical change of direction, it stands to reason that some things are going to have to be left behind-like the notion that you can ride into the kingdom of God on the proper pedigree. Some things must be given up-like the extra food in the pantry and the extra coats in the closet. But the promise of health is well worth the pain of the cure. The judgment John proclaims is not one of doom, but of promise. The unquenchable fire is for purifying, refining and renewing-not for destroying. That flame is lit each time Jesus calls another disciple to follow him. Throughout the way that leads finally to the cross, that flame burns to strengthen, purify and refine the new creation.

I think a word or two should be said also about John’s words to the soldiers and the tax collectors. In all likelihood, the soldiers belonged to Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee under leave from Rome. Ellis, Earl E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 by Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 90. We should not think of these folks as disciplined members of an armed service doing a patriotic duty for the good of their country under a strict code of military ethics. These “soldiers” to which Luke refers, were more like armed thugs hired to protect a local warlord. Their wages were meager, but that did not matter because they had a license to take whatever they wished from the local population to supplement their income. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by G.B. Caird, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 73. The tax collectors were not civil servants. They were free agents who, through payment, patronage or some other means obtained the right to collect taxes for Rome within a given geographical area. They were told generally the amount they needed to collect for Rome and whatever else they could manage to extort was their living. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 73. The tax collectors most frequently encountered by Jesus, and probably John as well, were at the very bottom of the food chain. They were Jews recruited by regional tax collectors to do the dirty work of extracting revenue from their neighbors. Naturally, they also had to make a living and so collected a premium of their own. Thus, one must wonder how John could expect a soldier of Herod to make do with his wages or a tax collector to extract no more than what his principal required. In both cases, obedience would result in poverty.

Some scholars have suggested that Luke, who was writing in a time long after these events took place, was projecting into the story a more respectable means of taxation and a more developed military ethic than existed in the time of Jesus. In other words, we have an anachronism. I don’t find this explanation convincing. Luke consistently takes a very radical view of discipleship throughout his gospel. Sometimes the shape of discipleship is poverty, persecution and even death. I believe therefore that John knew full well that he was calling the soldiers and the tax collectors to a life that would put them at odds with their professions and their loyalties. But, once again, like the priceless pearl or the treasure in the field, the reign of God is worth letting go of everything else to pursue. Along with the rest of the multitude, the soldiers and tax collectors are promised a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Sunday, December 14th

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that, anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Our gospel reading for this Sunday tells us a lot more about who John the Baptist isn’t than who he is. You can sense the frustration in the voices of those sent from Homeland Security Headquarters in Jerusalem to investigate him. “If you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the great prophet, who the hell are you? Why are you baptizing? We need answers!” Perhaps John was a little frustrated himself. It isn’t much fun answering questions that are designed to pigeon-hole you, put a label on you and box you in. I have been through that before. “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” “Do you believe the Bible is literally true?” “Are you in favor of the death penalty?” “Where do you stand on gun control?” More often than not, the folks who ask me these questions are not particularly interested in any opinions I might have about these issues or the reasons for any such opinions. The objective is usually to determine whether I am with them, whether I am on their side, whether I am one of their people.

So how do I respond? I would like say that I am pro-life for the unborn children, for the born children fleeing into our country, for the victims of military action and for the prisoner sitting on death row. I would like to say that truth is more than a bundle of propositions. Truth is a person and the Bible is true because it points us to the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I would like to say that I am in favor of self-control which, if practiced, would make the whole issue of gun control mute. I would like to say that I am a baptized child of God which defines who I am more than any opinion I may have about any particular issue; that I am in the process of being transformed into the image of Christ and so, of course, my views on just about everything are always changing. In today’s polarized climate, that is called “flip flopping.” The Bible calls it repentance.

But most people who press these “where do you stand” kind of questions have little patience for nuance. Like the emissaries from Jerusalem sent to John, they want their questions answered on their terms. So the conversation ends with both of us coming away frustrated. Neither of us is getting what we want. They don’t get their answers and I don’t get to explain myself.

Perhaps the problem is that I am too concerned with making myself understood. John doesn’t have that problem. “Me? I’m just a voice,” says John. “The one you should be focused on is coming after me. Save your questions for him.” You see, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is Jesus. My job as a disciple of Jesus is to point to him. When I focus on explaining myself, I just get in the way.

On this third Sunday of Advent our focus is on the prophetic testimony of Isaiah pointing us to God’s redemptive purpose for the world and the testimony of John the Baptist to the One through whom that purpose comes to fruition. Saint Paul warns us to be open to the Holy Spirit and the voice of prophetic testimony bearing witness to Jesus. Only so can we be shaped into the kind of people whose words and lives point beyond ourselves to the One who died, who was raised and who will come again.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

As I have noted previously, the fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E.

Our lesson has affinities with the “servant songs” of Second Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 50:4-11. (For more info on the “servant songs,” see my post of Sunday, April 13, 2014.) These words constitute the opening declaration of a section Professor Claus Westermaan calls “the nucleus” of chapters 56-66, the third part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 352. The prophet announces that s/he has been anointed to “bring good tidings to the afflicted.” Vs. 1. The term afflicted might also be translated “poor.” However one chooses to translate the term, it obviously applies to the Jews who took up Second Isaiah’s challenge to return to their homeland and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. If these pilgrims were expecting this task to be an easy one, they were sorely disappointed. Upon their homecoming, they faced grinding poverty, hostility from their Samaritan and Arab neighbors and political opposition from within the Persian Empire that now dominated the Middle East. Enthusiasm for rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple waned. For some time after the arrival of the first returning exiles it appeared as though the whole project would be abandoned.

The prophet we commonly identify as “Third Isaiah” understood his calling as a continuation of his predecessor’s mission. Whereas Second Isaiah’s preaching inspired the Jews to return to their homeland, Third Isaiah encouraged them to complete the task of rebuilding it. To that end, the prophet is endowed with the Spirit of God. Vs. 1. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of the Lord is recognized as that power of God enabling human beings to do extraordinary things. See, e.g. Judges 3:10; Judges 11:29; and II Chronicles 20:14. So also, the word of God proclaimed by the prophet is more than just verbiage. The Word is the agency by which God acts and in some sense God’s self. See, e.g., Isaiah 55:10-11. By the enabling power of God’s Spirit, the prophet is sent forth to unleash the freeing power of the word that heals, liberates and releases. Vs. 1.

“The day of vengeance of our God.” Vs. 2. Though not literally incorrect, the use of the word “vengeance” is not the best choice for the Hebrew meaning. The word might better be rendered “rescue” or “restore” as the notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible point out. The prophet maintains that it is God’s intent to erase the hierarchical power structures under which God’s people are “afflicted” and “poor.” This restorative intent is evident from the following declarations of “comfort” to all who mourn, “gladness instead of mourning,” “praise instead of a faint spirit,” rebuilding for the “ancient ruins” and repair for “devastations of many generations.” Vss. 2-5.

The makers of the lectionary have omitted verses 5-7, no doubt out of squeamishness. Here are the offensive words:

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their* shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.

Isaiah 61:5-7.

Only God and the lectionary people themselves know what was in their peevish little minds when they took their scalpels to this text. I suspect that this lacuna was created out of respect for the sensitivities of their mainline protestant, progressive, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite constituency. Nothing spoils the progressive mood like making foreigners into laborers in the vineyards of the chosen people. That hardly squares with our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics. But then, our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics don’t square with the Scriptures either. The Scriptures speak not of equality, but justice. As Jesus frequently noted, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16; Mark 10:31. He was speaking, of course, of life under the reign of God. Even those who are last in the kingdom are still within the kingdom. That should be enough. If being the last in the kingdom is a problem for you, it’s a sure indication that you don’t yet understand the kingdom and are not yet ready for it. Why should we balk at being servants to the people of God? Why should we object to taking our place among the “least”? Isn’t that the way to true greatness in kingdom terms?

Another problem in our reading of these verses arises from our cultural disdain for labor generally and manual labor in particular. Only recently an article in the Wall Street Journal warned workers in the fast food industry that, if they continued lobby for a living wage, they would be replaced by machines. Late stage capitalism’s undervaluation of such work and its contempt for those who perform it is alien to biblical thought. Caring for livestock, plowing and planting are all essential to human wellbeing and proper care for the land. It is precisely the sort of work for which human beings were created. That the nations should share their wealth and contribute their labor to the restoration of Israel does not amount to exploitation anymore than did support of the Levitical priesthood by means of the tithe in ancient Israel. Just as God blessed Israel through the ministry of the Levites, so God now blesses the nations of the world through a restored Israel.

Finally, Israel’s restoration does not come about through conquest and subjugation of the nations. Rather, God’s restoration of Israel draws all the nations to the worship of God. “And all nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Isaiah 60:3. Within the larger canonical context, Israel herself is seen as a “suffering servant” whose faithfulness unto death is a light to the nations. It is through her witness that the nations will learn how service to the God who is God, rather than striving for nationalistic dominance, leads to blessing and peace. Thus, the nations’ service to Israel does not come about through conquest and is not carried out in a hierarchical context. It is instead the faithful response of a world that finally recognizes its Creator. The intent is summed up in verse 11: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (I owe this last insight to Rev. Roy Riley, Pastor and former Bishop of the New Jersey Synod-ELCA).

Verse 10 marks a transition. Whereas the speaker in the first nine verses is the God of Israel, the prophet himself/herself begins speaking in verse 10. These last two verses of the chapter constitute a brief psalm of praise in which the prophet rejoices in the privilege of his/her calling and expresses confidence in God’s willingness and ability to bring about his redemptive purpose for all humanity. All in all, this passage delivers a powerful declaration of hope altogether fitting for the season of Advent.

Psalm 126

This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a larger group of fourteen other psalms. (Psalms 120-134). The meaning of the title has not been established beyond doubt. It is thought by a number of scholars to mean that this group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the Zion tradition.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” Vs. 1. The reference may be to a revival experienced by Judah under the long and prosperous reign of King Uzziah (783 B.C.E. to 742 B.C.E.). It might also refer to the reign of King Josiah (640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E.) who, during a power vacuum resulting from the decline of the Assyrian Empire, was able to re-conquer all of the lands and territories belonging not only to Judah, but also to the former Kingdom of Israel to the north. The Psalmist may also be alluding to the decree of Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C.E. allowing the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. In any event, the psalmist is reflecting on a significant act of God’s salvation experienced at some point in Israel’s history. Obviously, this saving event is in the past. Verses 4-6 make it clear that Israel’s present situation is bleak and in need of restoration.

“…we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” Vss. 1-2. Extremely good news does seem to have a dream like quality about it. So also one can become light headed from laughter. Perhaps that is what the psalmist had in mind. Of course, dreams frequently have a prophetic dimension the in the scriptures, i.e. Joseph (both the patriarch of Genesis and the husband of Mary in Matthew’s gospel). The Hebrew word pronounced “goyim” is used for “the nations” in verse 2. Though the nations were considered outside of God’s covenant with Israel, what God accomplished for Israel was intended not merely for Israel’s own benefit, but as a testimony to the nations of God’s goodness and power.

“Negeb,” in verse 4 means literally “a dry land.” The reference is to a triangle of 12,500 square kilometers in the southern area of Palestine. It has numerous riverbeds that are dry for most of the year but rush with water during the seasonal rains. During these brief periods, the beds become lush with vegetation. The psalm concludes with a prayer that the life-giving streams of God’s Spirit will revive Israel again just as the seasonal rains revive the Negeb. God’s saving acts in the past strengthen Israel’s resolve to look toward the future in hope, even as she toils now in what seems to be fruitless labor.

This Psalm inspired the popular American Spiritual, Bringing in the Sheaves, lyrics and music of which is in the public domain:

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Refrain:
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Refrain

Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Refrain

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Vs. 16-18. This condensed word of exhortation is worth its weight in gold. It sounds hopelessly trite to say that we would all be a good deal happier if we rejoiced instead of crabbing; prayed instead of worrying and gave thanks instead of complaining. Like most biblical exhortations, it is trite apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Placed into the context of the entire first letter to the Thessalonians however, these words are rich with meaning. Because Jesus conquered death, we can rejoice even when death encroaches upon our lives. Because Jesus is always present in our midst, all times are right for prayer. Because we know that the most precious possession we have, the kingdom of heaven, can never be taken from us, we always have much for which to be thankful. It is God’s will that we be joyful, prayerful and thankful. God enables us so to live by giving us good reason for joy, prayer and thankfulness.

Paul warns the Thessalonian church not to “quench the Spirit” or “despise prophecy.” Vss. 19-20. To fully appreciate what Paul is saying here we need to look beyond this letter to his first letter to the Corinthian church. There Paul speaks of the Spirit as the One that calls each individual member into a single Body. Members of the Body never act on their own behalf to further their own selfish interests. They exercise their unique gifts to build up and strengthen the Body. See I Corinthians 12. Prophesy is one such gift to be exercised to that end.

Why would anyone despise prophesy? You only need to read a little of it from the Hebrew Scriptures to understand why prophesy is sometimes met with hostility. Part of a prophet’s job is to tell the community things it does not want to hear. Churches don’t like to be told that they are unwelcoming, member oriented and harbor attitudes of racial prejudice. Churches don’t like being told they need to change. Churches sometimes wish that the prophets among them would just shut up already. But the health of a church depends on vigorous prophetic critique to keep it honest and focused on what matters.

Of course, prophesy is designed to build up the Body of Christ. Even when it seems to anger, tear down and divide, its ultimate goal is the health of the Body. Thus, prophesy is more than simply an angry rant. Sadly, too much of what passes for prophetic preaching these days amounts to little more than “Bad Dog Sermons.” That is a phrase coined by M. Craig Barnes in a recent article in the Christian Century. He writes: “Most of the people who come to church these days already have a pretty clear sense of their ethical and moral responsibilities. We’re well trained and know what we ought to do. There is little gospel in telling us we’re not doing enough. But that’s the message the church keeps giving.” I must confess that I am not quite as convinced as Barnes that people who come to church always have a clear sense of ethics or morals. Very often it is our very morality that messes us up. Still, simply beating people over the head with their shortcomings does little to motivate and transform. For that we need the good news of Jesus Christ.

Paul is a model of prophetic preaching. He could be painfully blunt in pointing out the failures of his churches. Yet he could also say of his most troublesome and dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ,” or “if you ever get your act together, someday you might be the Body of Christ.” Paul assures his churches that they are in fact Christ’s Body, the church for which Jesus died and the church through which he now lives. Then he goes on to encourage his churches to become what they already are!

John 1:6-8, 19-28

“The material about John [the Baptist] in each Gospel is best understood as each evangelist’s attempt to make clear to his readers this important distinction between the Baptist and Jesus Christ.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 John Marsh pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 116. At least that is the take of one commentator. While it probably is the case that John’s disciples continued as a community after his execution by Herod Antipas and that this community’s existence made it necessary for the church to address John’s role in the drama of Israel’s redemption, I doubt that this was the only or even the primary purpose for including his ministry in the gospel narrative. In all of the gospels, and most explicitly in John’s gospel, the Baptist serves a critical literary and theological purpose. John the Baptist grounds the ministry of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptural narrative while at the same time showcasing its radical uniqueness. What the story of the transfiguration accomplishes for the synoptic gospels, John’s narrative concerning the Baptist’s ministry does for his own gospel. It testifies to the continuity of Jesus’ mission and ministry with the law and the prophets while distinguishing his person from both Moses and the prophets.

As noted by commentator Raymond Brown, the Sadducean rulers in Jerusalem would not likely have sent Pharisees to represent them. Their appearance here reflects the time of this gospel’s composition following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the reconstitution of Judaism thereafter. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, vol. 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 44. By this point, the Pharisaic tradition had come to define Judaism as a whole and was the chief antagonist for John’s church. Ibid. Not surprisingly, then, the role of the Pharisees all but eclipses that of the chief priests who were likely the principle authors of Jesus’ arrest and conviction.

That said, it would not have been unusual for the religious authorities in Jerusalem to investigate the activity of John the Baptist. Vs. 24. Anyone capable of drawing a crowd of admirers within the restive provinces of Judah and Galilee would naturally be of concern to the ruling elites eager to maintain the status quo. It would also be natural to inquire whether John was claiming to be a messianic figure or even a lesser apocalyptic figure such as the returning Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5-6 or the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. Vss. 20-21. But John’s gospel has a specific theological point to make here. As the representative of the law and the prophets, the Baptist must disclaim every redemptive role to be fulfilled by Jesus. Thus, he testifies “I am not” the Messiah. “I am not” Elijah. “I am not” the prophet. These disclaimers must be viewed against the multiple instances in which Jesus will declare “I am.” See e.g., “I who speak to you am he [messiah].” John 4:26 (To the woman at the well); “I am the bread of life” John 6:35; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” John 8:12; “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58; “I am the door of the sheep” John 10:9; “I am the good shepherd” John 10:14; “I am the resurrection and the life” John 11:25; “You call me teacher and lord; and you are right, for so I am” John 13:13; “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” John 14:6; “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” John 15:1; “I am he.” John 18:5 (To the temple police at his arrest).

When it comes to who John the Baptist is, John will only say that he is “a voice.” “Essentially, John does nothing [in the gospel] but testify to Jesus.” Collins, Raymond F., “From John to the Beloved Disciple,” Interpretation Vol. 49, no. 4 October 1995, p.362. “[I]n effect, his is the voice not only of God but also of the implied author.” Ibid. John cannot speak positively until Jesus arrives on the scene. Only then does John have something to which he can point and say, “Behold!” John 1:29.

Karl Barth once said that the church is only the impact crater left by Jesus. I think that says too little. The Apostle Paul is emphatic in his insistence that the church is the Body of Christ, and for him that is no mere metaphor. It is nevertheless true that the church is called to be fully transparent so that the world sees Jesus in it. We faithfully discharge our witness solely to the extent that we have been shaped by the impact Jesus has made upon us. To the degree that we call attention to ourselves, our works and our projects we get in our own way. So Barth is correct in one sense. Without Jesus, we are just an empty hole in the ground. Our existence derives from our testimony to the One who is to come.