This is a challenging Sunday for faithful Anglicans. For some faithful Anglicans, today is the day when we best, relative to the ending of school year and proximity of Christmas, hold our Sunday School Pageant/Christmas Play, or, possibly, a Nine Lessons and Carols service, and thus the lectionary takes a back seat. For some faithful Anglicans, this Sunday is "Gaudete Sunday" and time to replace "violet" with "pink" and to rejoice with the Virgin Mary with the slightly awkward lectionary challenge that in the Year of Matthew, the gospel reading has nothing to do with Mary and everything to do with John the Baptist. (Our lectionary does offer Luke 1:47-55 as an alternative for the psalm).
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,
(2) My improvement:
"God of the unexpected,
[My improvement of my improvement:]
(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.
Psalm 146:5-10 (or The Magnificat, Luke 1:47-55)
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? 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 catastrophe but 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.'
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.
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.
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 when in a state of uncertainty, 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. "Dear John, Doubt no longer! Love Jesus."
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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