Monday, December 11, 2017

Monday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, December 17th, 2017

We are preparing for the Third Sunday of Advent.  This year, we get a re-telling of the introduction of John the Baptist, which takes us in a different direction than last week's introduction.  How do we handle this distinction?  We also get another Isaiah story that is clearly referenced in Luke and a 1 Thessalonians reading that includes a few brief commands and a great promise.

I invite you to share your comments and questions below.  I will get back to you as soon as I can.

Isaiah 61:1 - 4, 8 - 11

1The 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 brokenhearted,
 to proclaim liberty to the captives,
  and release to the prisoners;
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
  and the day of vengeance of our God;
  to comfort all who mourn;
3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
  to give them a garland instead of ashes,
 the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
  the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
 They will be called oaks of righteousness,
  the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4They shall build up the ancient ruins,
  they shall raise up the former devastations;
 they shall repair the ruined cities,
  the devastations of many generations.

8For 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.
9Their 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.
10I 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,
 as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
  and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11For 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 up before all the nations.

It’s hard to read the beginning of Isaiah 61 and not hear the echo of Jesus reading from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16 – 30).  Leaving that story to the side, we find the Lord proclaiming through the prophet that the people will no longer carry the marks of mourning and exile.  The “recompense” for the exile, the Lord’s actions to restore the people from the harm of the exile, will include the restoration of Jerusalem and the reclaiming of the status as the Lord’s favored people on Earth.  Another Advent reading of this passage would focus on the multiple connections between the presence/arrival of the Lord and the presence/arrival of justice.  As we await the second arrival of Christ, we can look for the presence of justice as one sign that the Lord is present in a situation.

Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."
 3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
 4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
 5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
 6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Psalm 126 is a petition to the Lord for recompense/restoration.  The psalmist points back to a previous restoration, using this as a precedent for this request to “restore our fortunes…like the watercourses of the Negeb.”  The “Negeb” (literally “the South” in Hebrew, meaning the land south of Jerusalem) was an arid, desert land (and still is today, I believe).  But there were times when the wadis (the creek beds in the desert that would fill with water after a rainfall) were overflowing with fresh water and the land was temporarily restored.  The psalmist’s request is for a restoration of the Israelites that would be similar to the desert enjoying the fresh water of filled wadis.  Perhaps we can read Isaiah 61 as the Lord’s pledge to fulfill that request.

1 Thessalonians 5:16 - 24

16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
  23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

A couple of months back, we spent several Sundays reading through 1 Thessalonians, but we did not get this particular passage.  The passage raises this question: what does it mean to “quench the Spirit?”  My initial response is that we quench the Spirit whenever we hear the Spirit’s call to join the Lord’s work, but we resist the call because answering the call would require us to change ourselves, our congregations, and/or our communities.  The passage also gives us this great promise: “23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”  Notice that this promise is completely independent from anything we might do to deserve or not deserve these blessings from the Lord.

John 1:6 - 8, 19 - 28

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

  19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, 
 “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
 ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
  24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. 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.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

These selected verses from John 1 make up a different telling of John the Baptist’s story than we heard from Mark 1 this past Sunday.  The Gospel of John focuses on the priests and Levites attempting to identify who John the Baptist is supposed to be.  Is he the promised appearance of Elijah before the Messiah arrives?  John himself says no.  John also will not accept the designation of “prophet.”  John identifies himself as the voice crying out “Make straight the way of the Lord” that we first heard in Isaiah 40.  In this way, John testifies to the light of Christ.  This reminds me of the portrait of Luther in the pulpit, standing before the gathered community and pointing to the crucified Christ.  We join John and Luther in pointing to the light of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness, even the darkness of the Crucifixion.

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