Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
When the Jewish Exiles returned home from their years in Babylonian captivity there was great excitement and expectation amongst the people. Their time of darkness was over. God was no longer angry. They would once again be a people blessed by God, and a light unto the nations. This excitement and expectation was soon muted by the harsh reality of life back in a depressed and ruined Judea. The mountain top experience that they envisioned was replaced by the valleys of endless toil, insecurity, and inhospitality. The final chapters of Isaiah, sometimes referred to as Third Isaiah (i.e. Isaiah 56=66) were written to encourage the returned exiles, and renew their hope that God could set their world to rights again.
The author of Third Isaiah takes upon him/herself the mantle of the Spirit (vs. 1) and proclaims God’s favor to the people. Third Isaiah asserts that God is the one who has set the captives free, and released the prisoners. God is the one who will comfort all those who mourn in Zion. As the exiles looked out over the rubble of Judea Third Isaiah encouraged them with these words, ” 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.”
Isaiah 61 grounds its optimism in the fact that God “loves justice” and will “make an everlasting covenant with them [the Israelites].” This covenant will clothe the people in the saving work of God, and will be the cause of great praise flowing from the hearts of the people to the Lord. The coming of the covenant is as sure as the new shoots the earth brings forth each Spring.
The third Sunday of Advent focuses on the coming joy of Christ’s arrival. Even though we remain in a world not set to rights we hear proclaimed freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners. We are told that God will comfort those who mourn, and that we will return to former glory for the praise of God. Sometimes in the winter of life we become discouraged and question whether this will come about. We need look no further than the new shoots of spring which each year break through the warming sod reaching toward heaven in praise of their creator.
Psalm 126 continues the theme of restoration. It was written after the Israelites lived through an unidentified calamity and saw deliverance from God who “restored the fortunes of Zion.” We do not know if the Psalm references the deliverance from exile, or if it’s historical referent is some earlier disturbance. Whatever the case, as a result of the deliverance the people had mouths full of laughter and tongues replete with shouts of joy. This psalm read in the exile (if it was written to commemorate a pre-exilic deliverance) would have rung with hope for a people who could no longer sing (e.g. Psalm 137). Another result of the deliverance was that the nations around Israel offered up confessions that the “The Lord has done great things for them [i.e. Israel].” Again this would have resonated with a people who were all too often ridiculed by the nations, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem (e.g. Psalm 79).
The Psalm ends with a call for future restoration. This makes it clear that the past restoration was not the end-all in God’s restorative work. Looking to past deliverances for encouragement for future deliverance is the posture of Advent worship.
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
Our epistle lection is taken from the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Paul ends most of his letters with a series of rapid fire admonitions encouraging proper Christian living. Because the latter part of 1 Thessalonians deals with the second coming, Paul’s admonitions in this epistle are specifically concerned with how to live as Christians await the “coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Most of the admonitions encourage a worship-filled life: “pray without ceasing”, “rejoice always”, “give thanks in all circumstances”, “do not despise [i.e. neglect] the words of the prophets.” As we await the coming of the Lord our hearts are to be turned toward his in joyous thanksgiving of his coming.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
“There was a man sent from God”, that is how the gospel of John introduces the character of John the Baptist. The gospel is quick to point out that although John’s provenance was divine, John was not the ‘light’ mentioned earlier in John’s prologue, but that John came to testify to the light.
After introducing John our lection skips ahead to the content of John’s testimony. When priests and Levites come to John they inquire about who he is. John denies being the Messiah, denies being Elijah, and denies being ‘the prophet.’ Instead he identifies himself as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,'” The priests and the Levites, having heard John’s own admission that he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, call into question John’s baptizing activities, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John’s responds by downplaying his own significance and pointing to the greatness of the one who is to come. John describes his baptism as a baptism of water. Although John does not say anything about the coming baptism of the Spirit (ala Mark’s gospel) it seems evident that John’s baptism was preparatory in nature making way for the baptism of water and the spirit that will follow the ministry of Jesus (and will be part of Jesus’ own baptism). Just as John prepared the way for the Christ, so too John’s baptism prepared the way for the baptism commanded by Jesus.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the joy of being set free from captivity. God is proclaiming this advent freedom to the oppressed, and release to the prisoners. When we hear his declaration we are like “those who dream” and out “mouths are filled with laughter” and our “tongues with shouts of joy.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoice.