Title: Isaiah’s Advent vision, and ours
Date: December 14, Third Sunday of Advent
Texts: Psalm 126; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Author: Tom Lehman
The sequence of passages in the Revised Common Lectionary during Advent reminds me every year that the Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas are more varied and complicated than I ever imagined years ago. The first two Sundays are never what we expect: the first Sunday of Advent deals with the second coming of the Lord, at least in some years. Chris Huebner in his sermon two weeks ago noted that “the beginning of Advent brings us face to face with the anger of God.” The path to Christmas isn’t as straight or as cheerful as we would like.
The Second Sunday belongs to John the Baptist. The divines who guard the lectionary must surely be aware of a gross anachronism when John the Baptist enters the Advent narrative prior to the birth of Jesus. John the Baptist was only a few months older than his cousin Jesus, and in today’s passage from the Gospel of John we have John the Baptist telling his inquisitors that “Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Thus we have a young adult Jesus quietly waiting to begin his public ministry while we await his birth.
By today, the third Sunday, it starts to sound like Christmas is really coming. Ideally, an Advent sermon should ignore the tremendous commercial and secular aspects of Christmas; by now the merchants have been promoting their profit-seeking version of the season for many weeks if not months. However, one secular symbol perfectly expresses the mood change in the Advent calendar for today. It is as though a Christmas tree suddenly arrived in your home this week and the first gifts appeared under it. Now everyone older than one year knows that something good and exciting is underway.
Our reading from John’s gospel again talks about John the Baptist; the writer does not refer to him as “the Baptist” but it’s obvious that this is the person so named in other gospels. Another surprise is that John the gospel writer never says that this John the Baptist actually baptized Jesus.
Under heavy questioning by underlings of the religious authorities, John the Baptist claims that someone far greater than himself is unrecognized among the religious people of the time. His questioners can’t figure out who John is; they are looking for a Messiah, and he says emphatically that he is not the Messiah. Perplexed, they ask him if he is Elijah, who was said to have been snatched bodily from earth directly to heaven. Their questions reveal that they did not know what kind of Messiah to expect. We can hardly blame them.
John the Baptist describes himself as one crying in the wilderness, saying “Make straight the way of the Lord.” That familiar line is a quote from Isaiah 40, and is sung all over the world this month in the first text of Handel’s Messiah.
Our two OT passages, especially Isaiah 61, are full of hope. Before we look at his chapter 61 it will be helpful to establish what a prophet is. The older meaning, on which some of us were raised, is that a prophet describes important future events, based on messages received directly from God, and some prophets have produced impressionistic sketches of a future age. Their status depends entirely on whether the predictions are fulfilled, a subject of much debate and squabbling among prophecy-driven students of the Bible.
Neils Bohr, a major physicist of the early 20th century quipped that “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” A better definition is that a prophet expresses a fervent hope for a better world, or tries to teach people how God wants them to live. This can include vigorous condemnation of the way people are actually living. Jeremiah, a notably gloomy prophet, even ”argued that true prophets only announced disaster.” (New Interpreter’s Bible VI, p 49) From him we have the English word “jeremiad,” which means “a long, mournful complaint.” (OAD)
Jeremiah aside, a prophet brings a message of hope and a vision of how life should be transformed to conform to God’s will. In other words, a prophet proclaims what should happen, not what surely will happen. [See also Sermon Clips file] I close this little digression on prophets with a few lines in today’s lectionary reading from 1 Thessalonians: “20Do not despise the words of prophets,* 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.” Here again it’s clear that the primary role of a prophet is guidance in how we should live – in sorting good from evil. The admonition to “test everything” reminds us that there are false prophets. You may even be able to find one on television.
Isaiah, a major OT prophet, begins Ch. 61 with an inspired statement of his purpose, which is nothing less than the transformation of society, starting with the most needy. His words are often assumed to work just as well if spoken by the Messiah, and in Luke chapter 4 Jesus has read the first two verses of the chapter from a scroll handed to him in the synagogue, and claimed them for himself by declaring “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Thus at least for a moment I can simultaneously preach from the New and the Old Testament. Here is part of Isaiah’s proclamation:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…
Then Isaiah changes voice and speaks for the Lord:
For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;*
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
By another change of voice he responds to the Lord:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
One Old Testament scholar says of this passage: “A poem such as this is not of an age but for all time. It is a superb product of the Oriental imagination at its best.” (Interpreter’s Bible, p 711)
Isaiah’s concern for all God’s chosen people, i.e., for the community of the covenant, is forcefully proclaimed by a commitment to the powerless members of society – the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, the prisoners. The idea of a social gospel, one primarily concerned with meeting human needs, is championed by some Christians and scorned by others; it is typically assumed to come from the New Testament. Here it arises quite prominently in the Old Testament.
Isaiah proclaims a message “before all the nations” of great hope based on divine justice and mercy, and human justice: Verse 8 has God saying that he loves justice, and in verse 10 the citizen finds himself covered with the robe of righteousness, where righteousness and justice mean the same thing. The Lord’s mercy is expressed in verse 10, where he finds himself clothed with “the garments of salvation.” The prophet’s task is to bring good news to the oppressed, which today means not primarily criminal justice, but rather social, political, and economic justice.
The Bible, both OT and NT, piles up evidence that we serve a God of both justice and mercy. (See Wm. Neil, The Message of the Bible, Harper & Row, 1978, Book 1, Ch. 2) Humans are expected to deal justly with each other. What about showing mercy to each other? That too, as indicated most clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But can we really be God’s agents in showing mercy? I think so, and the sinking economy may provide us new opportunities.
I’ve said above that Isaiah proclaims a message of great hope, and many places in the world have such immense needs that merely thinking about them is overwhelming. Zimbabwe, Darfur, Congo, and Iraq come to mind at once. We are a small group; how do we respond to the challenge to bring a measure of hope to needy people? Last week Monica spoke of the joy of seeing hope return to the patients on the hospital ship on which she served as it went from port to port in western Africa. But nursing is a skill practiced on one patient at a time, and that approach can keep us from being overwhelmed. Who can we help during this church year, working one person or one family at a time? MMA provides matching grants of various kinds for urgent needs of our own members, but will also match appropriate kinds of help we give to needy people who have never worshiped with us. Our local acts of kindness can be matched. The challenge is to see the needs and act on them. We have only touched the surface of opportunities around us; our deacons benevolence fund of $1500 is unspent in 2008. Isaiah developed a vivid image of Advent. Our Advent vision is underdeveloped.
This Sunday, Advent 3, is also called Gaudete Sunday, “gaudete being the Latin word for “rejoice.” Today’s Psalm says it beautifully: “Those who go out weeping… shall come home with shouts of joy…”
As most of you surely know, the word Advent comes from the Latin words “come to” or equally well “to come.” When Advent ends we come to the climax of this blessed season. Advent brings hope and the promise of good things to come for each of us as a consequence of God’s great gift of salvation through the Messiah. We have ample reason to rejoice, beyond merely celebrating the end of the semester. But are the poor and the oppressed similarly fortunate? Not unless we help to make it happen for them. The world’s wrongs don’t right themselves. May God grant us vision and energy in the extension of the Kingdom in this new Christian year.