The Third Sunday of Advent, 11 December 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 15 The Magnificat
James 5:7-10
Saint Matthew 11:2-11

Background: The Magnificat

Those of you from the liturgical churches will recognize this canticle that is sung at Evensong (Vespers) following the first reading. Anglicans will be especially familiar given their tradition of saying both morning and evening prayer every day. The song that Luke puts into Mary’s mouth is related to and a bit reliant on the song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10). A quick read through of Hannah’s song would reveal many similar themes and phraseology. Hannah’s circumstances are different. Her song is a cry of thanksgiving following the gift of son, while Mary’s is a song of thanksgiving in anticipation of the gift of a son. The first is a cry to God, and the second is sung as she visits her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. These songs of Luke, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, the Gloria in Excelsis, and the Nunc Dimittis, are bound into and make for a cohesive whole in his Birth Narrative. Each of them offers commentary on the holy history that is happening about them.

First Reading: 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.

You may want to take time to read the chapter that immediately precedes this pericope, Chapter 34. In it, a later Isaiah describes the wrath that will fall upon Judah’s enemy Edom. In chapter 35, we have a description that is in sharp contrast to the destruction described in 34 – the restoration of the land of Judah. The vision begins with the land itself. Whereas Edom’s land would soon be filled with pitch and desolation, Judah is described verdant and fruitful. It sets the scene for a renewed society and offers those peoples a prescience of not only a renewed land but a renewed self as well.

That given, the prophet then outlines the messianic program that accompanies the dreamland. This listing of benedictions to come will become an outline of what the Messiah will do: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap, and the speechless are given a song. The renewed people and the renewed land become a place for holiness and joy, an anticipation of what God desires for all God’s people.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          When has your world been remade or renewed?
2.          Have you seen this in the lives of others?
3.         How has God healed you?

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;
5      Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;
6      Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
7      The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
8      The Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
9      The Lord shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

In this psalm we see a reiteration of what we discovered in the reading from Isaiah, a rehearsal of the hopes of Israel made real in God’s actions. The list is familiar, beginning with the gift of creation itself and then moving on to justice, freedom, and sight. It is more expansive in scope that Isaiah’s listing, and serves as song of praise to the God of Jacob.

Breaking open Psalm 146:
1.     What acts of God, described in the psalm, have you witnessed?
2.     Did it happen to you or to someone else?
3.    How does God sustain you?


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.

For comments, see the background material above.

Breaking open the Magnificat:
1.     What are Mary’s emotions here?
2.     What is she anticipating in this child?
3.    What do you anticipate about Jesus?

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.

This reading from James reminds us that we are still in Advent – the Christmas celebration is still in the future. It is a text that anticipates, and describes our behavior as we look forward to the future of things. The pericope urges patience and uses the example of the patience and persistence of the farmer. Patience is described as not only an attitude toward self, and the times, but to the neighbor as well, “Do not grumble against one another.” There will be judgment in the end, but it is not the judgment of one person against another, but rather the judgment of God who will review all of life. His final example of patience (and he must have been thinking of Jeremiah) is the prophets.

Breaking open James:
  1. About what in life are you impatient?
  2. How do you deal with your impatience?
  3. What are you truly waiting for?

The Gospel: 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 chapter eleven we wrestle with an essential question in the Gospels – who is this Jesus, and what is his role in our lives. The people of faith in the bible were not immune to this inquiry, and so John the Baptist sends off his disciples to quell his doubts. John asks the question from prison, and so realizes that there have been consequences to his preaching and to his acceptance of Jesus. He wants to know, Are you the one who is to come?” The answer is drawn from Isaiah and from Psalm 146 – where we see the messianic virtues that have become familiar to us in these readings: sight, movement, healing, hearing, and resurrection – all good news.

In the next segment, the focus shifts away from the “professional”, John’s disciples, and moves to ordinary people, the “crowds”. Here Jesus is posing the question. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” What might they have been anticipating? Like the disciples in the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus suspects that they are really concerned about the restoration of Israel, and the enthronement of a new king, “Someone dressed in soft robes>” The hope is that they have come to see and witness a prophet. Here Jesus looks back at John, the John who posed the question. In the inquiry and asceticism of this man came the knowledge of who Jesus was.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How do you describe Jesus?
2.     What does it mean to believe in him?
3.    What do you expect of 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 © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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