The Third Sunday of Advent, 13 December 2020
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
or Canticle 15 (or 3)
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.
As the readings reflect on John the Baptist, it might be good for us to look at the nazirite, a person who took a vow of abstinence from certain things. A description of the vow is found in Numbers 6:1-21, where we read that these persons were to abstain from alcohol, grapes in general, shaving or cutting their hair, and contact with the dead. Offerings were described in cases of defilement, or anniversaries of their dedication. There are two notable examples of Nazirites in the Hebrew Scriptures, Samson (Judges 13:5) and Samuel (I Samuel 1:11). The office is also mentioned in Amos 2:11. The practice was known in the Maccabean and Inter-Testamental period and is part of Luke’s story of the birth of John the Baptist. “He shall be great in the sight of the Lord and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filed with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15). In Acts, Luke mentions that Paul had cut off his hair because of a vow that he had taken. Sources such as Eusebius also report that James, the brother of Jesus, and Bishop of Jerusalem was also a nazirite.
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.
It isn’t certain who is speaking here. It might be either Zion herself, or it might be the prophet. It is a call of sorts, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” and a call to mission as well. It might be helpful in your understanding of the context of this hymn to look at Leviticus 25:10. What is described here is a situation in which Israelite farmers lost their land and became slaves (indentured). Leviticus describes the Jubilee Year in which the land would be returned to the people. Thus, Isaiah describes a return to the land (in ruins), only this time the Jubilee was the effect of Cyrus the Mede’s Edict which allowed Israel’s return. Isaiah saw this as a year of jubilee and of restoration.
I don’t understand why the framers of the lectionary omit verses 6-7. I shall note them here:
“Ministers of our God” you shall be called.
You shall eat the wealth of the nations
and in their riches you will boast.
and disgrace was proclaimed their portion,
They will possess twofold in their own land;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
It may be a look back to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, when they were allowed to take the wealth of Egypt with them. It also suggests a spiritual role, and a superiority over the nations, that seems odd in this passage of Isaiah.
What follows is the triumph of Zion, but the whole people here, not just the monarchy. The honors and dignity of kings is applied to the prophet, the people, and to Zion. What is underscored here is the duties of a supreme people: justice, blessings, salvation, and righteousness. These are the gifts that God gives to a restored people.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. What have you been brought back to?
2. Did it bring you joy or sorrow?
3. What are the realities of a return?
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 celebrates the same instance that Second Isaiah celebrates in the first reading – the return of Israel from the Babylonian captivity. Whether it is anticipatory, or reflective we are uncertain. Some see it (the return) as already begun but not complete. This psalm is used in Jewish households after the main meal on the Sabbath or festivals.
The restoration may have been the return from Babylon, or it may have been some other stroke of good fortune. The reference to “those who dream” is probably more than what we see in our time as a fairytale, but rather revelation from God – from the prophets who dream, Joseph and company. Other thoughts about the dreaming are that it might be something that passes quickly, like a dream. The return from Babylon may have been a dream, but the realities may have been harsh. The psalm, however, rejoices in the moment with laughter and shouts of joy.
The rehearsal of “great things” that the nations see are quite real, or at least the images alluding to them are. When the wadis run with water the land is renewed and becomes fruitful. In contrast to this are the waters that ae tears, shed upon the land. The harvest, however, is joy.
Breaking open Psalm 126:
1. What are your dreams?
2. What are your tears?
3. What is the fruit you expect from the harvest of your life?
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.
Some commentators ask us to entertain the notion that it is actually Elizabeth who sings this song made up of various pieces of psalmody, some of it from the Septuagint. It is also helpful if you read Hannah’s song in I Samuel 2:1-10, which may have supplied Luke or the tradition with a great deal of imagery and phrasing. Regardless of who is responsible for the song, there is a great deal of theology in its two sections. The first section (verses 46-50) speaks to an individual joy in what God has done for her. That she should be blessed, and that God has done great things, are seen as realities for the woman who sang this.
The second section (verses 51-55) speaks of the blessings that are to be given to Israel. The phraseology is strong, almost strident – “He has shown might with his arm.” God here is related to all of Israel, not to just one individual. Fred Danker in his commentary comments, “Typical of prophetic language is the use of the past tense to describe the certainty of fulfillment for God’s promises.” Luke loves to tie the details and promises of the Hebrew Scriptures to the new Kingdom of Heaven, and to the nations that are called to it. Here, however, the promises ae for Israel, and Abraham and his descendants.
Breaking open the Magnificat:
1. What are the social aspects of this song?
2. Do you hear a call to do something in these verses?
3. What are you called to do?
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 has several passages of exhortation and paraenesis that are directed to the church – advice about how one ought to live in community. There needs to be respect given to those who lead and to those who work within the church. Paul ends with elements that are quite necessary: joy, prayer, thanksgiving, openness to the Spirit, listen to the prophets, discern, and stay away from evil. As I look over this list (Paul loves lists) I see many things that are so important in this time of being separated from the church. The community still exists, and the need for prayer and joy is unparalleled. This is the third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete) and so the joy theme is important here.
Breaking open I Thessalonians:
1. What is your prayer life like?
2. How do you listen for the Holy Spirit?
3. How do you wait upon the coming Jesus?
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 two sections from the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel which introduce us to John the Baptist. The verb used here sees John as a creature in creation “sent by God.” Thus, we are introduced to a continuation of Salvation History. Later, John the Evangelist, will describe the Baptist as one who is sent to reveal Jesus to Israel (verse 31, “that he might be known to Israel.”) Here in verse 6, however, it is a proclamation for a much wider audience, “that all might believe through him.” The Creation theme is again seen in the reference to the Light – the True Light, but this John was not the light.
Raymond Brown, in his Commentary on the Gospel of John, divides our reading into two parts. The first verses (6-8) are from the Prologue proper, and the second part (verses 19-28) are entitled “The Testimony of John the Baptist” (he defines the pericope as verses 19-34), and with it begins the main part of his commentary. He goes on to describe two interrogations of John first by priests and Levites, and then later by Pharisees. The two questions help us to realize the person of John the Baptist. To the question, “Who are you?” John says who he is not, Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet (although he certainly operates within that role). What he does admit to is straight out of Isaiah (40:3).
The second question comes from “some Pharisees”. John notes that they were “sent” but declines to tell us who did the sending. They want further definition about who John is. What is interesting here is that the questions are asked by ritual purists, and that John the Baptist, at least in Luke, is seen as the son of a priestly family. So, the answer about baptism makes sense, but John goes on to qualify it to a greater degree. “The one who is coming after me”, (or ‘the one who is to come’) is an ancient title for Elijah and defines the air of expectation in John’s answers. That one will be greater than John, and than Elijah.
The Bethany that is mentioned here is not the town near Jerusalem, but rather a site in the Transjordan, that is no longer extant. It may be that the actual town is Bethabara, according to Origen. If so, it would be the site of the “crossing over” (see Joshua 3), then this may be seen as a parallel of Jesus to Joshua. There are also symbolic nuances to the name Bethany as well (house of testimony).
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What questions do you have for John the Baptist?
2. Who is your “voice crying in the wilderness”?
3. What does the voice tell you?
General Idea: Expectations and questions
Example 1: What was Israel in exile expecting and what did it get? (First Reading)
Example 2: What are the joys of faith? (Psalm 126, or Magnificat)
Example 3: How should we live in these times of trial and expectation? (Second Reading)
Example 4: For what was John the Baptist really in expectation? (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller
 Danker, F. (1988), Jesus and the New Age – A Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, page 43.
 Brown, R. S.S. (1966), The Anchor Bible, The Gospel According to John, Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York.