The Third Sunday of Advent, 15 December 2013

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
St. Matthew 24:36-44

Background:  The Composition of Matthew

The position of Matthew’s Gospel in the Canon (first of the four Gospel’s) was an indication to earlier commentators on the early composition of Matthew as opposed to Mark or Luke.  Interestingly enough, and recent Roman Catholic commentary on the Gospel still advocates for this position in spite of the bulk of opinion by other commentators.  It is the inherent distrust of “hypothetical sources” (Q and the supposed “M”) that motivated this point of view on the commentators’ part.  Most scholars see Matthew in two parts, The Birth Narrative, which is largely unique to Matthew, and the remaining collection of sayings, miracles, and Passion, which is made up of material unique to Matthew (M), material shared with Mark, and material from the hypothetical collection of sayings, called “Q” (short for the German Quelle or “Source”.  Most see the Gospel as a collection and redaction by anonymous editors who honored the Hebrew tradition of Matthew, although the Gospel was most likely first written in Greek.  Some (Stendahl) saw a school or editors, disciples, or others that was responsible for the collection.

Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God's people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

It would be helpful or the reader or the preacher to read the chapter that immediately precedes this one.  The whole of Chapter 34 seems to be an oracle against not only Babylon, but also Edom as well – Judah’s close and traitorous neighbor. The bulk of our reading today serves as a contrast to the situation in Edom, where streams are “changed into pitch” (cf. Isaiah 34:9ff.)  In contrast to Edom, Judah’s streams bloom in the wasteland and desert places.  Swamps, springs of water, and pools come into being in the sands of the desert.  And it is not only nature that blooms there, but civilization as well.  A highway is spread out, a “holy way” that indicates are return to Jerusalem, and a source of joy.  This ways suffers no fools for only the redeemed shall walk there.  The ashes of sorrow on their heads have given way to a headdress of “joy”.  These passages are a wonderful context and pretext for the reading about John the Baptist.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Isaiah has a vision of wasteland turning into a garden.  Do you have similar visions?  Where?  What?
  2. How do you deal with acquaintances who are unkind to you?
  3. Would you be qualified to walk on the Holy Way?  Why?

Psalm 146:4-9 Lauda, anima mea

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
whose hope is in the LORD their God;

Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;

Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

The LORD shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

This psalm has the elements of a thanksgiving psalm, but lacks the individual focus of that genre.  Here it is a general psalm of praise to a God who does good to the people.  What are listed and noted here, are those who live at the fringes of society, the vulnerable and the weak.  Thus we hear of God’s good intents for the oppressed, hungry, those in prison, the blind and the crippled.  Although there is a special love for the righteous, we should note that there is a special attention given to the “sojourner” (the foreigner) – what a note for our time.  In that general theme, and consonant with the prophets the psalm notes God’s notice of the widow and the orphan.  The gentleness of the poem belies the difficult nature of what Israel expects of God.  It points to the expectations of John the Baptist and his wonderment at whether or not Jesus is walking in the expectations of the psalmist.

Breaking open Psalm 146:
  1. How does God cause good in Society?
  2. How do you?
  3. What does this psalm say about our attitude toward foreigners?

Canticle 15
The Song of Mary Magnificat
Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

As an option, the lectionary proposed the Magnificat as a response to the readings.  It shares, in its verses, the expectations of Psalm 146, Isaiah, and the Baptist.  Mary’s hymn, modeled after that of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10.), is an excellent example of Luke’s obvious concern for the widow and the orphan, the “little ones” who make their way into his Gospel of awareness of the poor.  Thus, in Mary’s words we hear the same hopes for those who need to be lifted up, those who are hungry, and those who need God’s help.  The verbs in this hymn are all in the aorist, which contributes a timeless and on-going nature to what is expected, and it is underscored in the phrase, “in every generation.”  One might want to read Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (cf. Luke 6:21-36) to hear the social jolt that Mary’s song gives to us.  It is important to remember, for we will be inspired to do these things, that it is God’s power that enables them (see the Psalm again), for in Mary’s song, it is God’s hand that strengthens, God’s arm that lifts up.

Breaking open The Magnificat:
  1. What is the cause of Mary’s joy?
  2. What is the social message, as you see it, in the Magnificat?
  3. How might you be a part of Mary’s joy? 
James 5:7-10

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

James gives us the where-with-all for the living of an advent people.  Look at the verbs that are used, waiting, being patient, and strengthening hearts.  This is the conclusion to James’ three lessons concerning wisdom that precedes these words of advice.  James recognizes that the Church (the people) needs to make decisions borne of wisdom as they stand against the difficulties that were and will be confronting them.  The example of the farmer who “patiently waits” is one that would readily available to the mind of the reader in the second century.  It is not a very good example for those of us who buy strawberries and asparagus in the middle of December.  We no longer know how to wait patiently. 

The other aspects is James’ pointing to the parousia, the coming again of Jesus – “See, the Judge is standing at the doors!”  This is an aspect that Advent is quickly loosing.  With Christmas now nipping at the heels of Halloween, our time has lost the reference, the waiting, and the expectation.  Better a battle for Advent than Christmas.  Christmas we already know.  Waiting for the Coming One is almost a forgotten attitude.

Breaking open James:
  1. Is it Christmas for you, right now?
  2. What is Advent all about for you?
  3. What are your thoughts about expecting Jesus to come again?

St. Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

`See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.'

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."

In the chapters that follow this fascinating story about John the Baptist, we will meet others who wonder along with John about the real nature of Jesus.  Who and what is he?  Several words will cross their lips, Messiah, Son of God, prophet, Satan.  John wonders as well, and has reason to wonder.  The prison walls that surround him may have made him wonder about what he had announced to the world when he met Jesus at the Jordan River.  Thus his question is sent to Jesus on the lips of John’s own disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Remember how John sees Jesus as “the One who is to come”.  Is this the messianic figure who will…well, what will this chosen one do?

Jesus puts the prophetic words of the prophet Isaiah in front of John’s disciple’s eyes.  The references about blindness and sight, deafness and hearing, lameness and leaping all refer back to the ancient expectations, and the present reality of what Jesus is doing.  Such an answer informs not only John, but gives us the opportunity to expects something from God (as in the psalm, and Mary’s song) but also from our selves as well.

There is another aspect to this pericope as well.  That John had disciples still after the baptism gives us a clue as to an ulterior motive in Matthew’s Gospel.  Did these disciples of John just fade into the night, or was there an on going “competition” between the Jesus party and the John party.  Many commentators think that there was.  One even proposes that John’s disciples were responsible for the first rescission of the Book of Revelation (see J. Massyngberde-Ford).  This pericope not only ascertains the works of Jesus vs. the expectations of the Baptist, but also clearly puts the Baptist in his place.  The final verse sees John as an unparalleled prophet, but – “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  Now those are advent words.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What questions might you ask of Jesus?
  2. What are you expecting of him?
  3. Was John the Baptist disappointed with Jesus?  Are you?
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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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