3rd Sunday in Advent

December 16, 2007
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 35:1-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 146:5-10
Reading 3: 
James 5:7-10
Reading 4: 
Matthew 11:2-11
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Isaiah 35:1-10
This passage from Isaiah is chosen for the Third Sunday in Advent largely to go with the gospel reading below: Jesus will quote (and emend) this passage to explain the significance of his own work and ministry when questioned by John the Baptist. In its own context, the passage continues and builds upon the emerging messianic hope we saw in last week’s reading from Isaiah 11. Like the former passage, this one combines themes of restoration and transformation in both the human and natural communities in the presence of God. When God’s saving presence is manifested, the prophet asserts, then nature will be transformed: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom”; “the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes”; arid and (nearly) lifeless lands will become lush and verdant and teeming with life. Likewise, barriers to full living will disappear from human communities: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”; weakness and feebleness and fear of all sorts will be transformed to strength. Human and natural cooperation are figured in the image of the highway, “God’s Way,” which will not be subject to violence and on which no one will go astray—although it must be said that the promise that there will be no lion or “ravenous beast” on the road is not quite so full a vision of the “peaceable kin-dom” as the lion grazing with the ox and the leopard lying down with the kid and a little child leading them, as in Isaiah 11. Nevertheless, the highway offers an image of human and natural powers united to bring the ransomed and redeemed to Zion, where all sorrows will be transformed to joy. Where this passage differs sharply from last week’s reading is in the absence of the Davidic Heir: here it is no human figure, but simply and wholly God who makes these transformations manifest: the prophet proclaims “Here is your God... He will come and save you.” In claiming this passage for himself, then, as he does in the gospel below, Jesus does more than identify himself with the Davidic Heir, but identifies himself more generally as the One through whom God’s messianic aims are actualized. We today, then, reading this passage through a Christian lens—not the only lens through which to read it, certainly, but the lens of our tradition—will see transformations from aridity to lush life and from weakness to strength as revelatory of Christ’s presence and work; we will see cooperative natural and human flourishing as Christ’s redemptive aim. The preacher might ask where we see that now, where we see the need for it now, and where we can be a part of it in our world.

Psalm 146:5-10
The theme of God’s transformative power is continued in the psalm, concentrating here on social transformations more than physical or natural. While the psalmist mentions sight for the blind; the greater emphasis is on justice and liberation for the oppressed, the hungry, the imprisoned, strangers, orphans, and widows. The psalm therefore complements the messianic elements of the Isaiah passage with more traditionally prophetic concerns. In this way it prefigures the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus in the gospel reading.

James 5:7-10
There is a verbal echo between Isaiah’s charge to “strengthen the weak hands” and James’s exhortation to “Strengthen your hearts,” which connects this otherwise out-of-step passage to the rest of today’s lectionary. These four verses from James may seem to counsel a kind of quietism, a call to “be patient,” to wait in passivity until all is judged at “the coming of the Lord.” But James offers as “an example of suffering and patience” the characters of “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord”—and they were hardly a quietistic bunch, as we see in both Isaiah and John the Baptist. The strength that Isaiah evokes in the call of the redeemed to travel on God’s Way is the same strength James calls for in the hearts of those who are raising a “precious crop” of faith and transformation. That crop can only grow in its own time; it cannot be rushed; and this requires patience. This patience, however, is not a passive waiting, but is a dynamic activity, a labor to actualize divine aims while at the same time knowing that the full realization of those aims lies beyond our present power to accomplish. James’s words, though brief, are a striking evocation of the Christian stance of active-waiting between the first and second Advents.

Matthew 11:2-11
Last week’s gospel reading introduced us to the uncompromising apocalyptic preaching of John the Baptist. It is hardly surprising, given that apocalyptic preaching, that in this week’s gospel we find John questioning if Jesus really is the one he had announced. John had been imprisoned for speaking truth to power, questioning Herod Antipas’s marriage to his brother’s wife, a relationship within the prohibited degrees and therefore considered incestuous; John is here acting in the mold of a Hebrew Scripture prophet. From his place in prison, John might well have been looking forward rather eagerly to the coming of the One with the winnowing fork who would gather the righteous but burn sinners with unquenchable fire! He is therefore confused when he hears reports of Jesus’ ministry and realizes that Jesus is not at all the supernatural judge his preaching had foretold. Hence John’s key question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answers by redirecting John’s attention to a different set of messianic expectations: not the destruction-and-judgment imagery from Daniel and later apocalyptic literature, but the shalom-fulfillment imagery from Isaiah, and particularly from Isaiah 35 above: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, ... the deaf hear,” to which Jesus then adds elements distinctive to his own work and ministry: “the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus’ ministry, the new thing God is doing through Jesus, cannot be contained in any preconceived expectations, neither John the Baptist’s nor Isaiah’s, but bursts out of categories assigned by human prophets and preachers to accomplish a more abundant end. With his answer to John, Jesus both confirms and disconfirms John’s expectations: Jesus is the one who is to come; yet his coming is not according to John’s prediction. For Matthew’s original audience—who might have felt themselves to be in competition with a Mandean/Baptist cult—this exchange would have helped to establish Jesus’ superiority over John. So also, in a different way, would Jesus’ praise of John in the verses that follow. Jesus here confirms that John the Baptist is a prophet—not an ephemeral voice, a “reed shaken by the wind”; not a political power, dressed in “soft robes” and ruling from a palace—but a messenger from God, like and yet greater than the prophets of the tradition. John’s apocalyptic preaching is a preparation for Jesus, even if Jesus’ actual ministry does not fulfill apocalyptic expectations, because John’s call to repentance for the future prepares people’s hearts to receive Jesus’ call to repentance for transformation in the present. That is why, for all John’s greatness as a prophet, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”: because those who come to participate in Jesus’ filial communion with God are not only messengers of God’s Word, but are also called and empowered to be actual embodiments of God’s Word, God’s ideal aims, in their lives and communities. This contrast between John and Jesus, between prophet and messiah, might be played out in our contemporary ecclesiology as well: while the church must certainly exercise a prophetic function and raise a prophetic voice, speaking truth to power among the Herods and Caesars of our time, in what way is the church called to be “more than a prophet,” embodying and empowering the shalom-vision of healing and transformation so central to the messianic hope?

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.