The Third Sunday of Advent, 15 December 2019

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9 or Magnificat
James 5:7-10
St. Matthew 11:2-11

Background: The Baptist

When we think of John the Baptist, a single image might come to mind. There’s always a ruggedness, and rough vesture. There is also a beard, surely and a dark complexion. We tend to think of this one character in a manner that doesn’t allow for difference. Perhaps it is time to explore John in his diversity. Afterall there are four visions of him – in each of the four Gospels, and as some would assert in Q as well. Jesus mentions the Baptist in the Gospel of Thomas (logion 46), and he has various roles in Islamic, Mandaean, and Baha’i writings as well. He is also mentioned in Josephus.  It might be interesting for a serious student of the Baptist to explore what is written about him in the Synoptic Gospels and then in John as well. Walter Wink has an interesting article on the Baptist in Q in his monograph on John in the Gospels (see below). Is there one role he played? Or are there different roles depending on the Gospel writer? There were/are problems associated with John. Is he a forerunner only important in his role over against Jesus, or was he a prophet in his own right, preaching a baptism and life of repentance? We get a clue as to the problem of John (especially for the followers of Jesus and the early church) when we look at Matthew’s account of the question that John has his disciples ask. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Today’s Gospel).  It seems that there is a broad spectrum in the relationship of Jesus to John. Walter Wink encourages us to explore more, “It is not enough that one know who John was, but that one encounter, through the medium of his history, that same summons to judgment and repentance which he issued.”[1] Was Jesus take on the Kingdom different than John’s? We need to explore in order to find out. Another help volume in addition to Wink’s work is W. Barnes Tatum’s, John the Baptist and Jesus.[2]

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.

Isaiah 34 and 35 have long been linked together, but it seems that chapter 35, from which our reading is taken, has a greater affinity for Second or even Third Isaiah, and indeed bridges from the first 33 or 34 chapters into the themes of Second Isaiah, the glory of God (verse 2), the giving of sight to the blind (verse 5), and the highway of the righteous (verse 8ff.). The list of healings will find itself again in Jesus’ answer to the disciples of John (Matthew 11:3ff.). In describing the salvation of Israel, this Isaiah sees a reversal or rather a renewal of creation, as the desert blooms, the highway is built, and the disadvantaged are healed and redeemed. The release from Babylon is not the only “salvation” here, but rather the return to the holy land, a recognition of God’s covenant with the people. As a result there is joy and song, with sorrow and sighing being put away.
d interests to include all the nations. Truly a messianic hope.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.            What signs of renewal do you see around you?
2.            How are you renewal in your community?
3.            Where is joy and singing in your life? 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.

Psalm 146, at least in this selection, almost seems a synopsis of what Isaiah has to say in the first reading for this morning. There is salvation, the recreation of earth and see, and the making whole of those are imprisoned or ill. In a sense it has a prophetic nature to it, taking on the welfare of widow and orphan. 

Breaking open Psalm 146::
1.        Of what are you needful?
2.        Of what is your neighbor needful?
3.        How might you recreate your community?


Canticle 15 Page 91, BCP
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.

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 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 a 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 Mary 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 found into and make for a cohesive whole in his Birth Narrative. Each of them offers commentary on the holy history that is happening around them.

Breaking open the Magnificat:
1.        Who are the mighty in your life?
2.        Who are the low in your life?
3.        How has God exalted you?

Second Reading: 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.

In this reading, James looks into the future of the community that is founded on wisdom. This is not just an esoteric or solely spiritual wisdom, but rather a wisdom that informs the Christian how to live in the time of difficulty and trouble. There is hope here, borne of the hope in Christ’s coming again. The practical nature of this exhortation is highlighted with the vision of the farmer who looks for signs in the earth and the weather. His patience is a model for those in the Christian community who are advised to suffer one another in joy. The principle message here is one of Advent waiting.

Breaking open James:
  1. What in life makes you impatient?
  2. For what are you waiting from God?
  3. What hopes do you have in your faith?

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.”

Here John is taken out of the preaching and prophetic aspect and is seen in his distinction from Jesus. In the Gospel, Jesus is fully engaged in his preaching of the coming of the kingdom, a little different than John’s vision of the coming kingdom brought about by repentance. Apparently, there was such a difference that it causes John to question Jesus’ teaching and activity. Are you the one? I think his question is one that we ought to continually ask ourselves, and Jesus’ answer is one that out to reassure us, and challenge us in our own lives of faith. In Jesus’ answer we hear the words and see the vision of Isaiah (first reading). 

What is interesting here is how the early church dealt with the ministry of John, his eventual absence, and his relationship with Jesus. Surely some of his disciples continued on, wondering about Jesus as well. It becomes a significant point for the followers of Jesus to ask John’s question and hear Jesus’ answer. What did John’s ministry mean and how did it participate in the ministry of Jesus? There must have been an active discussion on all these points, but Jesus reassures those who wonder. John is great, but the kingdom welcomes those of a lesser degree.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        What questions might you have for Jesus?
2.        Why was John wondering as he was?
3.        Jesus asks us to look and see. What do you see?

General Idea:              Where do we find the kingdom of God?

Idea 1:                          In the healing of those who suffer (First Reading, and Psalm)

Idea 2:                          In the lifting up of those who are downcast (Magnificat)

Idea 3:                          In the wisdom that comes with the Kingdom of God (Second Reading)

Idea 4:                          In Repentance (John) and in the Kingdom (Jesus) (Gospel)

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Wink, W. (1968) John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, Society for New Testament Studies 7, Wipf and Stock, Publishers, Eugene, p. 115. 
[2]     Tatum, W. (1994) John the Baptist and Jesus, a Report of the Jesus Seminar, Polebridge Press, Sonoma, 182 pages.


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