The Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete), 17 December 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Canticle 15
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
St. John 1:6-8, 19-28

Background: Baptism
The roots of baptism come long before John’s ceremonies in the Jordan River valley. In Jewish practice Tvilah, a ritual washing for purification was a repeatable event that was required at the point of conversion. If we look at the ceremonies and practices in the mikveh, or behold the ruins at Qum Ran with their multiple pools, water courses, and basins, we can see that baptism, or washing was an already established practice. John’s supposed connection with the Essenes may have led him to use this ritual as a way of honoring a person’s acceptance of his call to repentance. He acknowledged, however, that the practice would be rethought and changed under the direction of Jesus, the strong one who was to come.

First Reading: 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.

Claus Westermann[1] deems this pericope to be a part of a lament that stretches from Chapter 60 to 62. Understanding its structure and content is key to understanding Third Isaiah’s purpose in these texts. The most notable lament elements in chapter 62, are elided from our reading, so it might be a good thing to print them here:

Isaiah 62:6-7:
Upon your walls, Jerusalem,
I have stationed sentinels;
By day and by night,
they shall never be silent.
You who are to remind the LORD,
take no rest,
And give him no rest,
until he re-establishes Jerusalem
And makes it the praise of the earth.

There are faint remembrances of the pericope for Advent I, where God is called upon to break the heavens open and to come down. There is a similar demand here, “give him no rest until…”  

The verses are ones of substitution in which what had been given (ashes, and mourning) are replaced with more joyful means (a garland and gladness). Although there is the hope for the concrete advent of God, re-establishing the city of Jerusalem, the final verse looks forward to an advent of salvation, “so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” There is an implicit universalism here as well, not unexpected from the prophetic work from this period.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.      What have you lamented in your life?
2.      How did you overcome your lament?
3.      What would you like to have substituted in your life?

Psalm 126 In convertendo

1      When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2      Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3      Then they said among the nations, *
"The Lord has done great things for them."
4      The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
5      Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
6      Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7      Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

This psalm is a happy match for the first reading, and for the general themes of gladness and happiness on this Rose Sunday, Gaudete. There are themes with which we should be familiar having read the series for Second and Third Isaiah, the notion of return and restoration. Though the translation indicates a past action, “Then was our mouth filled with laughter,” the strangeness of Hebrew verb tense may actually indicate a hope for a future condition. The psalm goes on to give a series of images that can enable the reader in understanding what is hoped for here – the wadi of the Negeb, and reaping the harvest. The notes about the harvest in the final verses are redolent of anticipation and hope – good Advent themes.

Breaking open Psalm 126:
1.     When has your joy been made complete?
2.     When have you given someone else joy?
3.     What is your joy during this season?


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.

It seems to be a bit early to be singing the Magnificat, to my taste. We still are in the quick of Advent, and wrestling with the prophet’s hope. None-the-less, the framers of the Lectionary thought it appropriate as an option, however it will be offered again next week. Here Mary looks back, knowing and acknowledging God’s great acts of the past. Somehow, I think that forms the context for her knowing in a profound way what will happen to her (and to Elizabeth) as they become a larger part of the story already seen, and recreated in the acts of Jesus. Luke’s agenda of love and care for those who stand at the edge of society is evident and we begin to see how radically different this time will be.

Breaking open Magnificat:
1.     How is Mary strong and courageous in this song?
2.     Do you share some of her hopes? Which?
3.     How do you regard the poor?

The Second Reading: I 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.

Here Paul’s letter turns into sort of a “Poor Richard’s Almanac” with a collection of aphorisms and paranesis for the Christian community. The Rejoice section is happily met with the themes of this Sunday, and happily attaches the Spirit to our joy and rejoicing. It is a condition of happiness that ought to obtain until that time when Christ comes again – a time of true joy and rejoicing. In a period of doubt, Paul inserts a note certitude and absolute expectation for the second coming, “and he will do this.”

Breaking open I Thessalonians;
1.     Describe your prayer life?
2.     For what do you give thanks?
3.     What makes you rejoice today?

The Gospel: 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.

We have a snippet of the prologue of John in which we meet the Baptist, and then move quickly on to John the Evangelists discussion of the ministry of Jesus. As we naturally encounter John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry notice the judicial terms with which it is described. It is the Baptist’s testimony that we hear and his confession to the Jewish leaders that explains his relationship to the Coming One. He strips from himself a goodly number of Old Testament titles and distinctions so that Jesus might be seen. At the same time, he holds on to some roles – “I am the voice,” and to aspects of Isaiah’s message, “make straight the way of the Lord.” It is, however, his standing aside to make a way for the one who comes after, that sets John apart. It gives Jesus a historical context for his message and his ministry. Jesus does not enter the scene empty-handed, but rather full of the expectation of the ages.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What words would describe you as a Christian?
2.     What is your message?
3.     How do you make way for the Christ?

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]      Westerman, C. (1969), Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia.


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