The passage that we read is part of what is usually referred to as “Third Isaiah”, which includes Chapters 56-66. It is probably set around the year 520 BCE, after the exile, when Jews were in the process of reshaping their community after the return from the exile. The audience is probably the exiles who have become despondent and frustrated at the sad state of Jerusalem. The prophet is presenting a picture of hope and encouragement in order that they will rebuild Jerusalem in response to the glad tidings of the proclamation. Woven through the proclamation, the writer figuratively stands in the midst of the ruins of what was and foretells that perfect reign of God, the time when all Creation will be renewed and fulfilled. This is the hope for our future.
We look to this servant to lead us through “fixing things”. But you’ll notice that in verse 3 of the passage, the pronoun changes from “me” to “they”. All of those who are righteous are to be God’s own planting, so that God will reap the glory. All must be a part of this work. Here, the Lord God will cause the seed to spring into righteousness. There is also an overwhelming emphasis on the type of justice that the Lord requires. This is justice beyond acts of mercy; this is bringing God’s justice to the world permanently. There is also the sense of God’s abiding Presence with the righteous, as God nurtures them toward full righteousness. God is the provider in control of creation, history, and redemption of the people.
Again, it is all the righteous who have been anointed to do these things—bring good news, bind up, proclaim liberty, to comfort, build up, raise up, repair. Hope, then, is founded on the Lord’s love of justice which overthrows oppressive structures, regimes, and conditions in life, to bring wholeness, joy, and peace. The “Year of the Lord’s favor” probably refers to the Year of Jubilee, which occurred every fiftieth year and returned property which was held as debt to its owners. It is the year when all debt is forgiven and liberty is made permanent. But here, the prophet is declaring that year now. Now is the time for liberation. Now is the time to begin again. Now is the time for justice.
Notice that this is not just a current rebuilding but a transformation of “former devastations.” The “sins of the past”, so to speak, are not acceptable. They, too, are transformed and made new. The city that lay in hopelessness will now burst forth with righteousness and praise. It will not be like it was before. This is not a divine rebuilding project. This is new life, re-creation, and transformation into something new. This is God’s justice.
This Scripture may sound vaguely familiar to us for a different reason. In the fourth chapter of The Gospel According to Luke, Jesus stands in the synagogue in his home temple in the midst of a world smarting with Roman occupation and cites these words. Things change. You might say that it’s Jesus’ commissioning. He sets forth his agenda using the words of the writer of Third Isaiah. So, in this Season of Advent, we are reminded of the agenda. We are reminded what we as the people of Christ are called to do—to bring good news, to bind up, to proclaim liberty, to bring justice, to comfort, and to build the Kingdom of God.
- What is your response to this passage?
- In what way does this passage speak to you today?
- What does it mean to you for “all” to be called to be a part of this recreation?
- How does this speak to us in the midst of this Advent season?
- What ruins are we called to rebuild in our world?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
The First Letter to the Thessalonians is one of the letters that is believed to been actually written by Paul. It’s also believed to be possibly the oldest text in our New Testament canon. This letter is to the church at Thessalonica, which was part of the Roman Empire. The city was a commercial and cultic center and was a key trading center of the region. The residents of the city purposely cultivated a good relationship with the Romans and were then awarded the status of a “free city” (with an independent government). So they had a relationship where they got the benefits of being Roman but did not have to pay as much as other cities. So, Paul’s preaching was to some a threat to this status. In the eyes of some of the Thessalonians, support for Jesus weakened support for the Romans, who had brought tangible benefits to the city.
Paul’s letter, then, is a call to what it means to be distinctive in their belief in Christ. He is reminding them to exult in the new age’s manifestations brought about by Christ, whether or not they are tangible or apparent. The point was to strengthen the church in the midst of the overwhelming culture. Paul is urging them toward distinction in the name of Jesus Christ. He is reminding them what it means to be Christian and what it means to live within the hope of Christ.
In the context of the first century, people related to each other mainly based on survival and pay back. It was a pretty self-centered world. (Oh, who are we kidding? Has it changed all that much?) Paul is preaching here a sort of openness to the other. It is an openness that characterizes the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We wait for the full coming of the Lord but we wait IN the Spirit of the Lord. And there is great joy and great peace even in that waiting. So, as Paul says, do not quench that Spirit. Let it live in you and sanctify you. And praying without ceasing? What is that? It is living a life in the Spirit, a life lived in prayer. All of life is a prayer. Olga Savin says that “it tells us that ceaseless prayer in pursuit of God and communion with [God] is not simply life’s meaning or goal, the one thing worth living for, but it is life itself.”
In this season, Paul’s words ring true. We are called to active, prayerful waiting. We are called to be the people of God, to live in relationship, to be for each other. It is to live in anticipation of what is to come while we awake to the presence of God that is here even now. G.K. Chesterton exhorted us to “let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” I love that. Maybe that’s what Paul was trying to say. You know, God is coming. It will happen. But don’t forget that God is here. Rejoice! And live your life waiting and rejoicing, rejoicing and waiting. That is how you pray without ceasing.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- How do you relate to the directive to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”?
- How does this passage speak to us during this Advent season?
- What would it mean to live in ceaseless prayer?
- What would it mean to live your religion as a love affair?
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Once again, we encounter John, who we now call John the Baptist. But he’s really John the Witness. Here, we are told that John is but a witness to something bigger. He is there to point to the light of Christ that is coming. But what makes John’s message uncomfortable is that he is always pointing to that which the light illuminates. For the writer of the Gospel According to John, the Logos was the true light bursting forth into humanity. Rather than an angel announcing the birth of a baby, the writer is using John to point to that light as well as the purpose of that light. We love the image of light but sometimes we are uncomfortable with full illumination. Here’s John, running around like a wild man in the wilderness preaching repentance, calling for us to change, and just being really loud. Our reaction in this season is to respond with: “John…shhhh! You’ll wake the baby.”
The problem is that this light is a lot brighter and more fully illuminative than any of us bargained it would be. Looking at the light of Christ is blinding—blinding to our own needs over those of the world, blinding to the ways of the world. And here’s a newsflash…the baby is not asleep! It’s our move now. We cannot help but be changed.
Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt said this: “a light has a purpose; a light ought to shine into our lives so that we can see what needs to be done and set our hand to it and clean it up.” That is the Light of Christ. The Christ light is not a warm, delicate light. The Christ light is this incredibly bright, all-encompassing light that enables us to see the world differently. It is a light that illumines not only the present, but also the future. The Spiritual Masters would refer to this illumination as a type of liminality, a way of existing in two worlds, betwixt and between. We are standing in the world in which we live, but the light is illumining the world to come. And when we learn how to see with that light, the world in which we live will look different. We will finally see that some of this is just not right. We can then no longer close our eyes to what the light has shown us. It will be impossible. Because, for us, all the shadows will finally once and for all be exposed. We will no longer be able to live with hunger and homelessness, with destruction of people’s lives and waste of our planet, with violence and war, or with the exclusion of any of God’s children from the light. The light in our lives will find those things not just sad, but unacceptable, inexcusable, incapable of being.
So in this Season of Light and Enlightenment, we read of John, a man, not divine, just a man, but a man who knew and witnessed to the Light of God coming into the world. As the writer depicts in this passage, John makes it abundantly clear who he is not. He is not trying to be something that he not. He is witnessing to what is. He is pointing to Christ. Aren’t we called to do the same? John did not wait around for God to appear in more conventional form. He instead pointed to what was and what will be. John prepared the Way of the Lord. So, what are we doing this Advent?
When our daughter was born, one of the first difficulties we encountered was the problem of light. To make sure that she would always experience the presence of a gentle, comforting light if she awoke during the night, we installed a little lamp close to the nursery door. It also meant that if she cried we could grope our way to her even in a half-asleep state.
However, visits to a newborn baby in the night can be frequent and can take a heavy toll on the parents’ mental and physical well-being. One of the side effects of surviving on a meager ration of sleep is that the eyes start to burn. Even the little nursery light, we soon discovered, burned our eyes, especially after the third or fourth unscheduled awakening during the night. So we went to the local electrical shop to ask whether they had any bulbs lower than 15 watts!
It’s strange how light that is so needful for growth and life can also be so hurtful when we are unprepared for it. (Margaret Silf, in Lighted Windows: Advent Reflections for a World in Waiting, p. 101.)
Prepare the Way of the Lord!
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- Why is John the Baptist sometimes an uncomfortable character for us?
- What is illumined that we’d rather ignore?
- So what does it truly mean to “prepare the Way of the Lord”?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
I heard the bells on Christmas day, their old familiar carols play And mild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men. I thought how as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom Had roll’d along th’ unbroken song of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bow’d my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.” ‘Til ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of peace on earth, good will to men! (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863)
The joy of Advent is a joy born of eager expectation and waiting: waiting for something good, in fact, something wonderful. It is waiting for something sure. And what is sure? That God, the God who once came in Jesus, will come to us again. The joy of Advent springs from expecting him who came before “to build his tent in our midst” as one of us, and who will come again and again. It is a joy that springs from hope. (Jaime L. Cardinal Sin, D.D., Archbishop of Manila)
God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid. (Annie Dillard)
For the good of all humankind Jesus Christ became human in a Bethlehem stable. Rejoice, oh Christendom.
All who at the manger finally lay down all power and honor, all prestige, all vanity, all arrogance and self-will; all who take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high; all who see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger: these are the ones who will truly celebrate Christmas.
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Amen.
(“In a Bethlehem Stable”, in Christmas with Dietrich Bonhoeffer)