The Third Sunday of Advent, 11 December 2011

Isaiah 62:1-4. 8-11
Psalm 126
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
St. John 1:6-8, 19-28

Background: The Advent Wreath

The use of the Advent Wreath by Christians may be more of a modern innovation than an ancient tradition.  Some commentators talk about wreaths with candles being used in northern European countries as a reminder of the continuity of life, even in the harsh winter.  Other see the wreath being introduced into German churches in the 16th Century, but one historian has located the innovation to a Lutheran Pastor, Johann Heinrich Wichern (1808 – 1881) who used a wreath in his work with poor families in the cities of Germany.  It began to be used amongst German Roman Catholics in the 1920s and by Lutherans in North American around 1930.  The custom spread to Anglicans and others as well.  The Orthodox have taken to the wreath as well, only using six candles to reflect their longer season. Today’s wreaths use candles colored to reflect the liturgical vestments for the season: three Sundays of purple, and one (Gaudete) colored rose.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
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 brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to 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.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

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.
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,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
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 up before all the nations.

Whoever is the author of Isaiah 61 borrows the language of call and anointing used by the first Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others.  These are claims that are made to verify the good news that the prophet proposes to announce.  The language will not be unfamiliar to us; we have heard its insights before.  They are good words for the people that have returned from the exile in Babylon and are now recreating the land of their fathers and mothers.  Substitutions are made in remarkable and moving images, “to provide for those who mourn in Zion, to give them a garland instead of ashes.  Following these initial blessings in the first two and a half verses, the tone changes to a vision of what these people must be in relationship with the Lord God.  The covenant is mentioned and the very appearance of God’s people is an image of joy.  The ruins of a former life will be built up, and the Lord will be their God.  It is a messianic vision.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Have you ever felt anointed by the Spirit?  What was it like?
  2. Have you ever felt pressed to tell people good news?
  3. What was the news?

Psalm 126 In convertendo

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Then they said among the nations, *
"The LORD has done great things for them."

The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Psalm 126 spreads a garden of beautiful language and easily understood images.  It is easy to understand why the framers of the lectionary chose these verses to accompany Isaiah’s vision.  The language is very human and emotional, “we were like those who dream”, and “our mouth was filled with laughter.  The context of the situation gives us a clue to these extreme emotions.  Like the farmer who waits, sometimes desperately, for the rains to water the crops, so is the anxious expectation of Israel, and the Advent Christian as well.  One hopes upon hope that God will bless the land with fecundity, and that the people will be fed.  These emotions and images can also be found in Jeremiah 31.

Breaking open Psalm 126
  1. Of what do you dream?
  2. What might be your supreme joy?
  3. How do these things compare to your religious life?

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May 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. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

The images of joy from Isaiah in the first reading, and from the psalm, are now reflected in the First Letter to the Thessalonians.  It is from this first word, Gaudete (Rejoice) that this Sunday takes its name, and it is the reason for the rose vestments that are used on this day.  Paul, however, does not dwell on the theme of joy too long.  There is work to be done in this period of waiting and watching.  The verbs form a list of actions that become a Christian’s behavior as she waits on the Lord: do not quench, do not despise, test, hold fast, and abstain.  The rewards are quickly mentioned as well, sanctify, soul and body kept sound and blameless.  One might suspect that Paul is speaking of a holy laziness as one waits upon the coming of the Christ.  But no, it is to be a period of activity, prayer, and good deeds – that is the rejoicing.

Breaking open Thessalonians
  1. What do you wait and hope for?
  2. How do you wait?
  3. Is there a holiness to waiting?

John 1:6-8,19-28

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

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

In this reading, John the Evangelist introduces us to John (known in the Synoptic Gospels as the Baptist).  John the Evangelist is not interested in what John does, other than he was sent by God, and that he is a witness to the light.  John E is clear about the role of John B, “he himself was not the light”.  That was the role for someone else.

Verses later, we begin to hear John B’s testimony, and John E goes to some lengths to authenticate John B’s role.  “Who are you” is the immediate question on the mind of the reader that is reflected in the question of the priests and Levites.  In a back-and-forth series of comments, the Evangelists help us to discover whom John B is not, and by his own mouth (and the mouth of Isaiah) to determine for whom they are truly waiting.  Only after these important distinctions are made does the Evangelist tell us the where of John B’s activity.  He hopes, however, that the reader is waiting along with John B for the “one who is coming after me.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think that John the Evangelist means when he uses the word light?
  2. How is John the Baptist a witness to the light?
  3. How is Jesus the light?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.


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