Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sunday 15 December 2013 Advent 3

Apropos of using the lectionary in our church life together, Bosco Peters has a challenging post at Liturgy. In that post he draws attention to an intriguing comparative table which demonstrates four lectionary options for Advent 2013. (These are not options for licensed Anglican clergy of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia for whom the RCL is the only one of the four lectionaries listed which is permitted for usage).

Do you have a favourite collect or top five favourite collects? Cranmer's Curate offers one of his favourites here.

OK. On to Advent 3

Theme(s): Restoration / Healing / John the Baptist /Jesus the true Messiah

Sentence: For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert ... and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing (Isaiah 35:6,10).


(1) Original as given by our church as part of a set of trialed 'traditional' collects:

"God of the unexpected,
your ways are not our ways. 
Open our ears to the prophets you send,
help us to hear the good news from unforeseen messengers.
Empower us to join the healing work of the one whose coming draws near,
our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen"

(2) My improvement:

"God of the unexpected,
whose ways are not our ways,  
open our ears to the prophets you send,
help us to hear the good news.
Empower us to join the healing work of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen"

[Even that is not very good: I think a collect should have one request at its core. So let's try again].

(3) God of the unexpected
whose ways are not our ways,
open our ears to the prophets you send
that we might hear your gospel and act on it
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and always. Amen.


Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11


Isaiah 35:1-10

We cannot understand the Old Testament if we do not keep in view the cataclysmic event of Israel being exiled (the northern kingdom, 721 BC; the southern kingdom, 597/587 BC).

The people of God living in the 'promised land' provided by God were now living as subjects of a foreign power in a foreign land. Theologically this seemed to be a complete denial of all the promises of God. In a world of competing gods of nations, did YHWH the God of Israel even exist? If YHWH did exist, what kind of pathetic power did he have? Bereft Israel - it appeared - was no more. Or not. In passages such as this one we have a 'prophetic oracle of salvation' which conveys a sweeping and thrilling vision of 'the return' of God's people, 'redeemed' by God out of new slavery, to live again in 'Zion.'

In other words, Israel, theologically and psychologically could hold their heads up high. The promises of God were true, the exile was a hiccup and not the end of Israel or of Israel's God. Indeed the future spelled out here in certain ways was to be more glorious than the most glorious past of Israel (i.e. when David was king).

Later aspects of this passage will feature in the reception of Jesus and his 'restorative' ministry of healing and mighty acts (e.g. Matthew 11:5 which is part of our gospel reading today).

The (arguably) most famous New Testament scholar in the world today, N.T. or Tom Wright, has made much in his gospel scholarship of the theme of 'return from exile', arguing that the gospels present Jesus as the one who truly and completely brings Israel (finally) out of exile.

The reality of Israel's return from exile (as we can read in books such as Nehemiah, Ezra, 1 and 2 Maccabees) was a 'mixed bag': there was a return of people and a rebuilding of the temple and walls of Jerusalem but there was also further subjection by foreign rulers, first Greece and then Rome. Thus Wright's approach (much debated) has something in it: to the extent that the return from exile was envisaged in all its dimensions in Isaiah 35, much was missing and unfulfilled by the time Jesus appeared in Israel to preach the 'kingdom of God.'

Psalm 146:5-10

This psalm conveys a similar message to the prophetic oracle in Isaiah 35 (see above).

The completeness of God's care for his people is emphasised: God will execute justice AND give food to the hungry; set the prisoner free AND open the eyes of the blind; etc.

James 5:7-10

When we consider Advent in respect of the return of Christ inevitably we ponder the question of 'how long?' A thousand years may be as one day in the Lord's sight but to us it is a very long time and two thousand years is twice as long! In this passage James urges us to be patient. A timely lesson in more ways than one.

Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist in prison finds his mind going round the bend. He has discharged his prophetic ministry at great cost. The central theme of that ministry was announcing the coming of the Lord's Anointed One (or Messiah). He thought the Messiah was Jesus. Now he is not so sure. As any of us would do, he decides to check up on what is happening. Perhaps Jesus was just a bit like the Messiah-of-expectation but not the actual Messiah.

Jesus responds in a kind of code language which also reports accurately on what has been happening. The list of what had been happening, verse 5, to be reported back to John, was framed in the language of the great restoration, return and redemption vision in Isaiah 35. Jesus knew that John would understand the meaning of the report: messianic deeds were happening because the Messiah was here and at work. Doubt no longer!

In turn, Jesus sets out his understanding of the impact and importance of John the Baptist, vss. 7-14. John the Baptist is the last and greatest prophet of the old order or pre-kingdom history of Israel. God is doing a new thing and John's honour was to usher that new thing into being.

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