Saturday, December 9, 2017

Sunday 17 December 2017 - Advent 3

Theme(s): God's glorious future for God's people / John the Baptist as Witness to the Light / Being ready for Christ's return

Sentence: The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24)


Almighty God,
you sent your servant John the Baptist
to prepare your people for the coming of your Son;
grant that our feet may be guided in the way of peace by those who proclaim your word
so that we may stand in confidence before him
when he comes in his glorious kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Judge and Redeemer. Amen.


Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 (but Luke 1:47-55 is an alternate).
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28


Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Centuries before the coming of Jesus, Israel had been treated to extraordinary verbal pictures of God's future blessing. Some of these verbal pictures feature in the Old Testament readings in Advent. Here is one of the richest of these visions.

Effectively it says that through the Lord's Anointed (i.e the Messiah) all wrongs will be righted and all shortcomings of the world turned into splendid advantages.

In particular the picture is of Israel transformed from plight and blight endured through historical ravaging by conquering nations into a glorious nation, as beautiful and as blessed as garlanded bridegroom or bejewelled bride (10).

What then is always worth contemplating is the manner in which both gospels and epistles take up these once future visions and identify them with their now present experience of Jesus who lived among them and now lives as the Risen One in their midst. It is extraordinary that these visions for the future of Israel become focused in the early church on the One Person, Jesus Christ, and those who now believe that they are identified with him in a new life equivalent to being the new temple and new people of God.

Psalm 126

Of the words of this psalm we could refer to the words above about Isaiah 61! The sense of hope for a better and more glorious future are effectively one and the same.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

In chapter five Paul is concerned about the Thessalonians' concern to know when the day of the Lord will be (1). In our passage today, Paul is setting out 'how then shall we live?' when the time of our remaining on earth is uncertain. This setting out has begun in verse 12. In verses 16-22 we are treated to a rapid fire series of directions: rejoice ... pray ... give thanks ... do not quench ... etc.

Each such direction is worth a sermon in its own right. What kind of church would we be if we rejoiced always? (No grumblers!) What happens to our life in Christ as the church when we do quench the Spirit? How do we, in fact, 'not quench' the Spirit?

In verses 23-24 Paul changes tune, a little. We cannot be whom God intends us to be without God's help. So verse 23 is a blessing-cum-intercession. May God enable you to be ready for his coming. Verse 24 is an encouragement-cum-promise. The God to whom Paul prays in verse 23 'is faithful' and in respect of the prayer Paul has just made, 'he will do this.'

How can we grumble when we have such a God?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Given that last Sunday we had a focus on John the Baptist, our challenge with this reading is to think about the things that are said here which do not repeat last week's thoughts from Mark 1:1-8.

Despite the many differences between John's Gospel and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is a hard challenge this week because we read one (combination) passage in which a lot of common ground exists between the four gospels!

First, we might note the way in which the references to John the Baptist here also become the means to develop the full status of Jesus in its broadest terms.

Thus to be told in verses 6-8 that John is not himself the 'light' is a reinforcement of the claim that Jesus is 'the light' (not merely the Messiah, Son of God but also). Note how this is introduced in verses 4-5 and developed in verse 9. In verses 19-28 John's denial that he is Messiah or Elijah or prophet is simultaneously a way of saying that the One to whom he testifies is the one who fulfils expectations about those three figures in the theology, history and prophecy of Israel.

Secondly, we might pause on the words in verse 7, 'so that all might believe through him.' Are these words referring to 'He came as witness', that is, to John, in the first part of the verse, or to 'the light' at the end of the first clause of the verse? We should go with the usual Greek understanding that such a phrase refers to the subject of the verb in the first clause, so John has this extraordinary role in proclaiming who Jesus is, a role in bearing witness to Israel that has the ambition that all Israel might believe in Jesus.

The point then would not be to marvel at what John did as a preacher and baptiser nor to reflect on how well he achieved that ambition but to note an implication of what the gospel author is doing here: charting out a role for his readers, those who now have the role of bearing witness to the light, it is through us (and only us) that all will come to believe.

Thirdly, verses 19-28 underline the declaration in verse 11, '[Jesus] came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.' Although Jesus is 'The true light, which enlightens everyone' (9), from before the beginning of his ministry there is opposition. John the Baptist makes a (bad pun coming up) splash and the reaction of religious authorities in Jerusalem is to send an inquisitorial delegation not a congratulatory committee.

One of the great questions through John's Gospel which (uncomfortably for those of us who live in post-Holocaust times) constantly presents a clash between Jesus and the Jews is why 1:11 was truthful. Why didn't those who believed in the God of Israel find that God now dwelling among them in Jesus Christ? In turn, that is a great (and difficult) question for all Christians through all subsequent centuries, both in the particular reference to Israel, Why haven't the Jews turned together to Jesus as their Messiah? and in general reference to the world, Why has the world resisted the enlightenment of the Light?

While such questions could be catalytical for your sermon this Sunday, here I will only pause briefly to reflect on the actual opposition depicted in our reading. The questioning stance of the authorities in Jerusalem suggests an anxiety shared in common with past authorities about the ministry of prophetic figures, the anxiety of the establishment facing the possibility of the people turning away from the establishment to a new religious leadership. In turn this suggests that the established leadership of Israel were more concerned about their relationship with the people they led than with the God they served. The latter, surely, lends itself to openness to God doing a new thing among his people.

The obvious point - or perhaps it is not so obvious - is that we worry less about how the leaders of Israel could have gotten themselves into this spiritually precarious position and more about whether we in the church today are open to God being at work among us in new ways. Or, have we become used to a position which is now 'established' and thus threatened when change presents itself?

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