The Third Sunday of Advent, 14 December 2014
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Canticle 15
St. John 1:6-8, 19-28
Background: The Magnificat
In the Gospel of Luke, at least in his Birth Narratives, characters often burst into song, namely, Mary sings the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah sings the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79), the angels sing the Gloria in Excelsis (Luke 2:13-14), and finally, Simeon sings the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:28-32). Mary’s song is sung at her visitation with the mother of John the Baptist, Elizabeth, which is celebrated by the western church on 31 May. In many respect the song reflects the Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2) whose phraseology, themes, theology, and vocabulary are reflected in the Lucan psalm as well. It presents an able summary of Luke’s concern for the poor, or “the little ones” as he calls them. The psalm serves as a liturgical piece on various occasions – as the Responsorial Psalm either on Advent III or IV in the Revised Common Lectionary. The song is also sung at Evensong, or Vespers in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. In the Eastern Church it is sung at Sunday Matins.
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.
In the midst of a general message of salvation that encompasses chapters 60-62 in so-called Third Isaiah, this pericope stands out in contrast to the surrounding material. One might think, given the language of the opening verse, that this is a call to a particular individual, such as the call to Isaiah (Isaiah 6) or Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1). It has more in common with Second Isaiah Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:1-4, or Isaiah 49:1-6). Like the servant this person is anointed with the Spirit, and the mission is one of gladness and telling good news. It clearly stands in the tradition of those who have been anointed as “seers”, and in its words we can see reflections of Micah, Elijah and Elisha, and others. The mission “to comfort mourners” is unique to Third Isaiah, and unlike Second Isaiah, who looks forward to God’s intervention in particular history and event, the Third Isaiah has a much more hazy approach.
In the second pericope (verses 8-11) we see what God is offering “instead of” (“garland instead of ashes”, etc.) as seen in the first verses of the pericope. The themes are more definite here, revolving around “justice”. It would be good for you to read the intervening passages that the lectionary skips over (verses 5-7), in order to see the specificity that this Isaiah describes:
Strangers shall stand ready to pasture your flocks,
foreigners shall be your farmers and vinedressers.
You yourselves shall be called “Priests of the LORD,”
“Ministers of our God” you shall be called.
You shall eat the wealth of the nations
and in their riches you will boast.
Because their shame was twofold*
and disgrace was proclaimed their portion,
They will possess twofold in their own land;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
Shame is followed by recompense and a renewal of the “everlasting covenant with you.” The former devastations are reversed with images of the garden/earth bring up shoots, which are the signs of salvation. Interestingly, Claus Westermann, excerpts verse 10, and places it after verse 11, giving it a responsorial flavor – an ejaculation of praise for what God has done. His reasoning for this placement flows from the examples in Second Isaiah, where similar hymns of praise form a concluding statement after large pieces of material with a common theme. There is a difference, however. Second Isaiah’s hymns are sung by the community, while Third Isaiah’s hymns are sung by an individual.
Breaking open Isaiah:
- Is God’s promise for your future hazy? How?
- Do you have shame in your life? How does God answer it?
- What might your hymn of praise sound like?
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.
This psalm functions in much the same way as Third Isaiah’s Hymn of Praise (see verse 10 above). The difference is that the voice of this sung is more than one; it is the voice of the entire community. Its metaphor is an agricultural one, in which the psalmist would have us understand and take on the anticipations of the farmer. Planting the seed, watering, hoeing, and finally harvesting, give us a good picture of the anticipation of God’s graces to Israel. Notice the contrasting language – sowing/tears, reaping/joy, go out/weeping, come again/joy. For those who think of a life of faith as a steady stream of happiness and good fortune, this psalm is a good reminder that God’s good fortunes for us come in the context of difficult things, and yet we are called to dream.
Breaking open Psalm 126:
- What are your dreams?
- What have you sown in your life?
- What do you hope to reap?
The Song of Mary Magnificat
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.
Like Hannah’s song (see I Samuel 2), Luke’s Magnificat is a collection of phrases and themes from other sources. The reader may want to consult Psalm 111, especially verse 9 as well. It is also similar to Psalm 126 (above) in its picture of the reversal of fortunes. Here God is seen as the One who does not take what the world gives as given, but stands against it and its harsh truths and realities. It is a theme that Luke rejoices in as he constantly pictures God’s interventions into the lives of the lowly. Mary does not stand outside the song as an observer, but as a significant contributor, “for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Mary not only sings about the lowly and those that are servants, but also embodies that role in what she has taken on, “be it unto me according to your will.” She is not the only one who lives the life of this psalm – Abraham and Sarah are remembered as well. Mary in her role as the theotokos is the reality of the promise made to them. Thus generations from Abraham on – into the future – can remember God’s gracious promise.
Breaking open Canticle 15:
- How have you been a “lowly servant”?
- In what way are you one of “the proud”?
- Will other generations call you blessed? Why?
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.
Once again Paul advises Christians on the duties of “holy waiting”. It is a formidable list of rejoicing, praying, giving thanks, testing, abstaining, and testing everything. It was a fervent and fertile time. The Gospel was being tested for its limits and its applicability as the people of the new Israel waiting for the second coming. So Paul’s admonitions are a good addition that brings responsibility and conscientiousness into the duties of those who wait. The goal is simple, to be found “sound and blameless”. Paul describes Jesus as the faithful one, and by implication makes the same requirement of his readers.
Breaking open I Thessalonians:
- What do you usually do while you’re waiting for something?
- What is “holy waiting”?
- What are you waiting for god to do in your life?
St. 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.
The great commentator on the Gospel of John, the Rev. Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S. describes the Prologue of John with these words,
“An early Christian hymn, probably stemming from Johannine circles, which has been adapted to serve as an overture to the Gospel narrative of the career of the incarnate Word.”
One wonders if these are also not remembrances of the Baptist’s community as well who speculated about the “career of the incarnate Word.” Our pericope comes from the prose end inserted after the second strophe, and a pericope that follows the Prologue proper in the introduction to the Book of Signs where the ministry of John and its relationship to the ministry of Jesus is described. John’s introduction to the Baptist seems to deflect the focus on John to a focus on Jesus, “He himself was not the light…” If the Prologue has displayed for us a cosmic vision of the Word, the introduction of John the Baptist quickly brings things into a focus. No long the cosmos, but rather the world of humankind will be the stage upon which the Baptist speaks his message, or, should I say, give his testimony.
The lectionary casts a quick light on the ministry of the Baptist by cutting to these questions borne of the Pharisees. It is a question of authority. The prior piece from the Prologue quickly dispenses with any question of authority as it describes the Baptist as “a man sent from God.” The foes, however, want to know more – “who are you?” they ask. The possibilities are interesting: messiah? Elijah? or a prophet? Which will it be? John quickly dispels there wondering. “None” is the sharp response, and like the John in the Prologue the light and focus is shifted to “the light.” All of this is meant as an introduction to the work and ministry of Jesus, but one wonders if this is not also a comment to the contemporaries of this Gospel who still wondered about and followed the message of the Baptist. John the Evangelist is clear. Jesus is the focus, and even the innovations of the Baptist will be followed by a completely different ministry of the one who follows. Liturgically these texts set up a sharp anticipation of the cradle, and the mother and child. Who is it that the shepherds will worship, and the magi travel to see?
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What kind of authority do you look for in those who would preach to you?
- How is John actually a prophet?
- How is John different from Jesus?
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.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller