Advent 3A: The Holy Way

15-01-18-COLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 35: 1-10

Read the Old Testament Passage

This passage is actually paired with the preceding chapter (Chapter 34) and together they provide a significant part of the total writings of the prophet Isaiah.  Chapter 35 is definitely plays the key role.  Even though the chapter is part of what we know as “First Isaiah”, there are questions as to whether or not it was actually written during the time of “Second Isaiah” (which probably occurred at the end of the exile about 540 BCE).  If you read Isaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah), there are many similarities in the poetic phrasing.  The writer of the 35th chapter echoes the writings of the return of the exiles (the “highway”, the “streams in the desert”) but it is apparent that whoever wrote this chapter expected even more.  The dispersed of Israel from throughout the world shall return to Zion, and the dry and lifeless desert will become a fertile garden.

Although it resembles a prophetic announcement of the coming salvation of the Lord, it almost sounds a little like a writing that would have been read to an audience.  There is no “thus says the Lord” language or specific addressee that follows most prophetic writings.  Its central theme is the proclamation that the natural order will be dramatically transformed and that the “ransomed of the Lord” will come in joy to Zion.  Even the land will rejoice, as vegetation flourishes even in the desert.  The desert itself will bloom!  There is a promise that help is coming from the Lord, who will heal the sick and bring streams that flow through the desert.  The highway in the desert, which is normally filled with threats from wild beasts and enemies, will become the “holy way”.  For the writer, this highway is restricted to those who are holy, or ritually “clean”.

As we’ve mentioned before, this is not depicting a destruction of what is there and a replacement of something new.  What is there now will still be there, but it will be recreated into something new.  It is similar language that is used when one talks of buying someone back from slavery or debt.  Here, it is reclaiming of the exiles from Babylonian captivity and bondage.  There is an image of the exiles returning along this road with praise and celebration.

In this season of Advent, we are not just called to look toward that day.  We are reminded to look FOR that day, to imagine and believe it into being and to see what of it is already there.  We live within a holy tension of the way the world is and the way God calls the world to be.  But we are reminded that the blooms in the desert are already planted.  We just have to open our eyes to the possibility and then sing and dance for joy.  It will be the fulfillment of the promise that has always been there and, finally, “joy to the world.”

  1. What are your thoughts about this passage?
  2. What does the notion of “redemption” mean for you?
  3. How is this promise of redemption reconciled with the suffering and despair, the deserts, if you will, that still exist in the face of our lives?


PSALTER:  Luke 1: 47-55

Read “The Magnificat”

Our tradition (and in particular, the Protestant one) seems to domesticate Mary, giving her characteristics of one who is meek and downtrodden.  Maybe so, but these words are anything but meek.  They are downright radical.  Less language has started wars.  Somehow the insertion of Mary has shifted the story.  This is not some doe-eyed girl bowing to the whim of a frightening God; this is a strong and faithful young woman who responds to God’s call to bear God for the world.  She has transfigured the story itself and brought God’s presence into something that we can grasp, something that we can embrace.

  1. Stanley Jones called The Magnificat “the most revolutionary document in the world”. It is said that The Magnificat terrified the Russian Czars. It is an out and out call to revolution.

The Magnificate is God’s revolution. The Magnificate is the charter, the document, the constitution of God’s revolution. The Magnificate is the basic, fundamental document. You don’t change the constitution. I saw the Magna Carta, the real thing, in a museum in London. That Magna Carta is the fundamental document on which freedom is based in English society. So also, the Magnificate is God’s charter; it is God’s Magna Carta. That document lays down the fundamental principles of the Christian revolution.

In the Magnificate, God totally changes the order of things. God takes that which is on the bottom; and God turn everything upside down, and puts the bottom on top and the top on the bottom.  God revolutionizes the way we think, the way we act, and the way we live. Before God’s revolution, we human beings were impressed with money, power, status and education. We were impressed with beauty, bucks and brains. But God revolutionizes all of that; God totally changes all of that; God turns it upside down.  The poor are put on the top; the rich are put on the bottom. It is a revolution; God’s revolution. The Magnificate clearly tells us of God’s compassion for the economically poor; and when God’s Spirit gets inside of Christians, we too have a renewed compassion and action for the poor.  Our hearts are turned upside down.

Listen carefully to the words of the Magnificate. Not the poetry of the words, the beauty of the words, the loveliness of the words. Listen to the five important verbs. In the Magnificate, God tells us that God regards or respects the poor, exalts the poor, feeds the poor, helps the poor, remembers the poor. In that same chapter in Luke, we hear the story that God chose a slave girl, Mary, to be the mother of Jesus. God didn’t chose the beauty queen of Ballard; God didn’t chose a mother who was a millionaire; God didn’t chose a bride with brains. God chose a little thirteen year old girl from a fourth world country, with dark skin and dark brown eyes and dark brown hair to be the mother of Jesus. The Bible didn’t call her a handmaiden. The word, “handmaiden,” sounds so pretty. The Greek word is, “doulos,” which means slave or servant. Mary was a servant girl.  God exalted a servant girl from a fourth world country to be exalted and lifted up. And this servant girl sang her song and it is called the Song of Mary. The actual words of her song are revolutionary. The Song of Mary is a revolutionary bombshell because it turns the values of this world upside down. (“The Magnificat and God’s Revolution”, by Edward F. Markquart, available at



NEW TESTAMENT:  James 5: 7-10

Read the New Testament Passage

The Letter of James is traditionally seen as the first of the “general” or “catholic” epistles.  It is clear and forceful in its moral emphases.  It actually was made part of the canon much later than many of the other epistles, even though it seems to have been used by philosophers and theologians prior to that.  (As an aside, Martin Luther made clear is distaste for the letter because of the emphasis on justification by works.  But it is fairly clear that the writer of this letter and Paul are not in conflict over this; they are just addressing two different points.)

The letter deals primarily with four ideas:  concern over morality (as opposed to just acting nice), intentional community (rather than just one household), egalitarianism, rather than hierarchy (you’ll notice that it has lots of “brother” and “sister” language), and a focus on the community rather than just an individual or a specific group of individuals.  There are many that think the letter may have been written by “James the brother of the Lord”, which would place it before the year 62, but many also consider it to be written under a pseudonym and perhaps later in that century.  As far as a Christian writing, it is the New Testament writing that most clearly yields a social ethics grounded in the perception of the world as created and gifted by God.

The passage that we read is addressing a community with the assumption of the expectation of judgment—to vindicate the righteous and poor and to punish the oppressive and rich. (so you can see why it fits with our other writings this week).  For those who are waiting, James tells them that they must strengthen their hearts and stay focused.  They must exercise patience.  In the meantime, oppression and injustice will continue and the community needs to focus on solidarity and unity in the meantime.  For now, we are called to patience and courage, strength and fortitude.


  1. What are your thoughts about this passage?
  2. What do you think is meant by patience here? How well do we exercise that?
  3. What does this “call to community” vs. our own society’s call for individualism mean for us?



GOSPEL:  Matthew 11: 2-11

Read the Gospel Passage

We talked last week about John the Baptist, a Jewish prophet with his own message and disciples who was ultimately executed by Herod Antipas.  We saw John depicted as this sort of wild wilderness man who preached the message of repentance in the name of Christ, the Messiah.  The passage today begins with John in prison.  And here he starts to doubt what he is doing.  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the One, or should I be waiting and looking for another?”  Essentially, what Jesus was doing was not in the mold of what John had envisioned.  John was going around preaching repentance in the face of what was surely the Kingdom of God coming soon.  And here was Jesus healing and freeing and raising the dead.  John probably didn’t see it as wrong—just sort of a waste of time.  After all, in his view, there were people that needed redeeming!

Jesus responds not by rebuking or patronizing John but by praising him for having the courage and the conviction to stand up for his beliefs.  The concept of the “reed shaken by the wind” probably held more meaning for Jewish hearers than for us.  There was a Jewish parable in first-century Judaism known as “The Parable of the Reed and the Oak”.  According to the parable, a giant oak tree and a thin reed were both planted by a river.  When a storm came, the deep roots of the oak kept it firmly established, enabling it to withstand most winds.  There was nothing wishy-washy or compromising about the oak.  The reed, on the other hand, would bend to the left or right, even with a slight breeze.  The conclusion of the story was that the oak, because of its refusal to compromise, could end up losing its life in a fierce storm, snapping in two at the hands of hurricane-force winds, but the reed, though it might survive, could only do so by continual bending to the force of the winds around it.  Jesus was probably pointing to this familiar Jewish story when he asked this question about the reed.  In other words, he was probably saying, “Did you expect this prophet of God, this forerunner of the Christ, to be a weak-kneed compromiser?”

Often people look upon theological or Biblical study as something that answers questions.  I don’t think that’s the way it works.  I think it instead teaches you how to ask the questions.  Hans Kung said: Doubt is the shadow cast by faith.  One does not always notice it, but it is always there, though concealed.  At any moment it may come into action.  There is no mystery of the faith which is immune to doubt.  As we’ve said before, God does call us to blind faith; God calls us to illumined doubt.  Another issue here is the idea of someone (like John was) being so locked into their own convictions and images of God that they neglect to see what God is doing in the world.

The message in all of our passages today have to do with standing firm and being open. Be patient but work hard and keep planting, knowing that someday the desert will bloom.  Faith is a balancing act between knowledge and mystery, conviction and newness, life and death.

Christmas did not come after a great mass of people had completed something good, or because of the successful result of any human effort.  No, it came as a miracle, as the child that comes when his time is fulfilled, as a gift of the Father which he lays into those arms that are stretched out in longing.  In this way did Christmas come; in this way it always comes anew, both to individuals and to the whole world…

And so it shall be with our yearning for the redemption of humanity and for a new shining forth of the world of God.  When we are discouraged by the apparently slow progress of all our honest efforts, by the failure of this or the other person, and by the ever new reappearance of enemy powers and their apparent victories, then we should know:  the time shall be fulfilled.  Because of the noise and activity of the struggle and the work, we often do not hear the hidden gentle sound and movement of the life that is coming into being.  But here and there, at hours that are blessed, God lets us feel how [God] is everywhere at work and that [God’s] cause is growing and moving forward.  The time is being fulfilled and the light shall shine, perhaps just when it seems to us that the darkness is impenetrable…

For the miracle of God comes not only from above; it also comes through us; it is also dwelling in us.  It has been given to every person, and it lies in every soul as something divine, and it waits.  Calling, it waits for the hour when the soul shall open itself, having found its God and its home.  When this is so, the soul will not keep its wealth to itself, but will let it flow out into the world.  Wherever love proceeds from us and becomes truth, the time is fulfilled.  Then the divine life floods through our human relationships and all our works.  Then everything that is lonely and scattered and seeking for the way of God shall be bound together by divine power.  Then, of human effort and of the divine miracle, shall the world be born in which Christmas is fulfilled as reality.  (“When the Time Was Fulfilled”, by Eberhard Arnold, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, January 1st.)


  1. What are your thoughts about this passage?
  2. How does this speak to you about convictions and beliefs?
  3. How does this speak to you about doubts?
  4. In this Advent season, what does this say about our time of preparation?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Your imagination is your preview of life’s coming attractions.  (Albert Einstein)

The ultimate goal is to transform the world into the kind of world God had in mind when it was created. (Harold Kushner)


The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves:  It is because his manifestation in the world must be through us.  (Evelyn Underhill)




This text speaks of the birth of a child, not the revolutionary deed of a strong man, or the breath-taking discovery of a sage, or the pious deed of a saint.  It truly boggles the mind:  The birth of a child is to bring about the great transformation of all things, is to bring salvation and redemption to all of humanity.

As if to shame the most powerful human efforts and achievements, a child is placed in the center of world history.  A child born of humans, a son given by God.  This is the mystery of the redemption of the world; all that is past and all that is to come.

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. (From Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. By Manfred Weber)




Proper 28C: New

Peaceable Kingdom, by John August Swanson

OLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 65: 17-25

Read the passage from Isaiah

In this week’s reading, there are three familiar motifs:  the recurring theme of comparing the former and latter things, the glorification of Zion, and the theme of the shalom and peace of God’s holy mountain.  The theme of a new creation, of a new Jerusalem, of joy replacing weeping, of life overcoming death abounds in this reading from near the end of Isaiah. The passage is part of the closing sequence not only of the third major section of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66, known as Third Isaiah) but of the book of Isaiah itself. Some writers have drawn comparisons between Isaiah 65-66 and Isaiah 1, seeing these chapters as “book-ends” enclosing the whole and bringing it to a conclusion.

Today’s reading echoes the restoration of Jerusalem in other parts of Isaiah.  There is a sense that in Isaiah 65-66 not only do the last 11 chapters draw to a close but that all the themes of the previous 66 chapters–judgment, salvation, and further judgment–have their conclusion here with the promise of a new creation.  The reading also needs to be set in the context of Isaiah 65-66. Verse 17 begins as if it is a development of what has gone before.

The chapter begins in vv. 1-7 (prior to this week’s reading) with a statement by the Lord that the people have rejected the Lord, worshiped idols and participated in all sorts of foreign practices. The Lord’s statement bears all the marks of frustration at the people’s rejection, of anguish over their foolishness, and of suffering their abuse. It ends with words that are both just and angry as God contemplates the punishment of the people. The Lord no longer calls them “my people” but “a people” or “a rebellious people”.   But then a change occurs.  Even if this people do not know what repentance is about, the Lord does and that is their hope. The Lord leaves off executing his punishment for the sake of those servants among the people who do remain faithful. For the sake of the ones the Lord calls “my servants’, “my chosen’, and “my people who have sought me” the prophet says the Lord will delay his just anger and reserve its outworking for those who continue to rebel against him. The central section then ends with the Lord called “the God of faithfulness”.

This faithfulness of God (even sometimes in the face of the faithlessness of God’s people) is what is described in this week’s reading with its emphasis on newness and joy. The Lord will now delight in “my people”. All that destroys life will pass away – weeping, distress, premature death, unfulfilled hopes, injustice, robbery, pillage, even genocide. Some of the imagery comes from the ancient context of a people caught up in the atrocities of war as foreign armies march through their land decimating the countryside, its crops, herds, villages, towns and cities, and slaughtering the population. The prophet is speaking about the most horrible experiences and even these things will be overcome by the faithfulness of the Lord.

Every Sunday of every year Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer. They could say it in their sleep; I often wonder if some do! Rather like the “Gary, Indiana” in Meredith Wilson’s classic musical, The Music Man, that prayer sort of “trips along softly on the tongue this way.” In other words it just comes out without a whole lot of thought. But one of the requests we make in that prayer is fraught with power and rife with implications for us and for our world. It happens early on: “Thy Kingdom come,” we ask. We say we want God to come now and reign over us; we want God to rule in our lives. We want no longer to rely on our own resources to make our own way in the world. I want to be honest with you; sometimes when I say that, I have another voice in the corner of my mind saying, “But not today! I rather like the way I am directing things at the moment, God. Maybe tomorrow, please!”

…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together;  The lion will eat straw like the ox . . .

Well, isn’t that all grand? And just when can we all expect to see this magnificent reign of God? Just exactly when will terrorists stop their destructive hate and sue for peace? Just when will preventable childhood diseases finally be prevented so infants do live full lives? Just when will cancer be eradicated so that old people can live to be 100? When will there be food enough for all, houses enough for all, good and enriching work for all? Just what are we all to learn from this expansive dream of the reign of God?

I think we learn this. When a Christian and a Muslim sit down to eat and talk, it is a sign of the rule of God. When people band together to begin the eradication of malaria in Africa, it is a sign of the reign of God. When prostate cancer deaths are reduced to increasingly smaller fractions, it is a sign of the reign of God. When millions are fed, when Habitat for Humanity builds another 100 houses, these are signs of the reign of God. Isaiah 65:17-25 is a sign and seal of the certainty of the coming reign of God. It is a divine vision that we can never fail to hold before us, reminding us of our part in the dream and reminding us of God’s constant work to make that dream a reality. “Thy kingdom come,” we say, and it will, oh, yes, it will.  (Excerpt from “Thy Kingdom Come:  Reflections on Isaiah 65: 17-25, by John C. Holbert, available at, accessed 10 November, 2010)

This new creation will be the peace that the Lord envisions and for which God works.  It is not “putting things back” the way they were before; it is recreating something new—a new Creation, a new peace unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, a new life.  Death and violence are consumed by harmony and peace and life.  Justice reigns.  Everyone has what they need and those who have always had more than they need are finally satisfied.  All labor will be rich and fulfilling.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, without one taking advantage of or consuming the other.  The lion shall eat straw like the ox and both will be satisfied without needing more.  None of us will ever again hurt or destroy another.  All of Creation is resurrected.   You know, we were shown that before.  I wonder when we’ll finally get it.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your vision of this “new Creation”?
  3. How willing, really, do you think we are to embrace newness, embrace change?

NEW TESTAMENT:  2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13

Read the text from 2 Thessalonians

As we said last week, this is penned as Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonica, but in all likelihood it may have been written by a follower of Paul’s who sought to protect Paul’s foundations that had been so carefully laid before.  The point is that the church at Thessalonica was apparently experiencing some idleness and probably some boredom when it came to faith. (Imagine!)  The practice of the faith had become routine.  Prayer had become a rote monologue.  This is not what we had in mind.

The truth was that things had gone on for a while.  Maybe it was becoming a little too rote, a little too routine.  Maybe it has been a while since the Holy Spirit has been allowed in the heavy front doors.  Perhaps the church was in need of some new creative dynamics to show people the grace of God through Christ.  In fact, some of the members of the faith community are just flat letting others down by refusing to contribute to the community by working.  The writer is not advocating that they be kicked out of the church though, but rather that they be brought back in and nurtured in the faith.  But life in community requires that everyone be enabled and encouraged to work.  Actually, leaving someone out of the work is essentially demeaning.  Finding a way to engage everyone is a sign and means of grace.

There is a little bit of an interpretive question here.  It is possible that the problem addressed is more “disorderliness”, rather than “idleness”; in other words, the problem of one walking “without order” and not as part of the faith community.  Either way, this was not the way to build the Kingdom of God.  There is a “rhetoric of obedience” as Abraham Smith at Perkins put it.  It is not that there is one way to walk or one way to act; just that each one must work within the community to build together this vision of God, this peaceable kingdom.  It is an act of hospitality and an act of inclusion.  It is becoming faithful people in the midst of a faithful community.  It doesn’t mean that we all look the same or think the same.  It just means that we love each other enough to want the best for each other; it means that we love God so much that we can only imagine being who God calls us to be—all of us.  Nothing else makes sense.

Elizabeth Barrington Forney says that “these [very] thoughts bear important implications for much of our congregational life.  The church who participates in a feeding ministry might wonder if the guests who are willing and able are being given ample opportunity to serve alongside church members in preparation and serving of the meals.  Is a disparity being created that makes guests dependent on being served?…There is ample opportunity in this text both for instruction about compassion and for a prophetic call to partnership in ministry.” (From Feasting on the Word, p. 307)


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do you think happens when one or when a whole community experiences “idleness”?
  3. Does it change the meaning if you think of the warning as one against “disorderliness”?
  4. What do you think of the implication of involving those to whom we minister in ministry? What sort of vision does that bring about for you? How would that change our ministry?



GOSPEL:  Luke 21: 5-19

Read the passage from the Gospel According to Luke

This is, needless to say, a difficult text.  But, despite how we may read it, it is not meant to be a prediction of the future.  It was written to a persecuted and frustrated minority that lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  They were feeling as if the veritable end of their world had come.  And some, perhaps at the prodding of the disciples, were looking to the temple, the center of their world and their life, the symbol of God’s very presence in their midst, a shining thing of beauty in an otherwise dark world.  But then they were told not to look there for it, too, would fall away.  Instead, the writer of Luke is telling them to listen to Jesus and trust in Jesus.  We didn’t read the first four verses of this chapter but they portray the account of the widow with two coins.  Jesus is essentially saying:  “Not the temple!  Look at her!  Look what living a life of faith means!”

So the passage that we read begins with that prediction of destruction.  From Luke one senses sadness rather than smugness. Just a few chapters later, we would read the account of Jesus weeping over a city that would not listen and would not change course.   Instead they wanted concrete evidence of exactly when this would happen and some had begun to listen to messianic “fortune-tellers”, if you will, that claimed to have all the answers.  Like today, there were those who were easily swayed with predictions of “doomsday”, with the foretelling of the end at hand.

Remember, Jesus never promised that following this Way would be easy.  And despite what some would claim, there is no known timetable of when something will happen.  But it is a reminder for us of the God who triumphed over chaos over and over again.  Jesus is not calling them to be martyrs or heroes—just faith-filled followers.  All of the other usual symbols will eventually fall by the wayside.  But Jesus promises that he will remain as a holy presence with the wisdom to persevere.

I don’t really think Jesus was telling the future (regardless of the fact that those beautiful stones were indeed soon destroyed).  Perhaps Jesus was just saying, you know…this is not easy.  Life happens.  Bad things happen.  But nothing, absolutely nothing, can take me away from you.  Just hang on!  The Sabbath is coming!

David Livingstone, the legendary missionary to Africa, prayed, “Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me.  Lay any burden on me, only sustain me.”  And he testified, “What has sustained me is the promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”  This is the promise that Jesus conveys.

And when the world does shake to an end, whether it’s through natural decay or we humans just blowing the whole thing up, there’s always something more.  The truth is, the temple WAS destroyed.  And the great Roman Empire collapsed into history.  But the story has not diminished.  “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What things are we tempted to hold onto in our world, hoping for something better?
  3. What does this passage say about the church itself?
  4. What does this passage call us to do?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

True hope isn’t blind…The messianic hope for the new world looks into the future with its eyes wide open.  But it sees more than what can be seen on the horizon of history.  The Indonesian word for hope means “looking through the horizon to what is beyond.”  True hope looks beyond the apocalyptic horizons of our modern world to the new creation of all things in the kingdom of God’s glory.  (Jurgen Moltmann, from The Source of Life:  The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life)

A dreamer is one who can find [his or her] way in the moonlight, and [whose] punishment is that [he or she] sees the dawn before the rest of the world.  (Oscar Wilde)


The marvelous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives.  Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises.  Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey)





Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that hath stood too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood, and where the sun that shineth is God’s grace for human good.  Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair; lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare; yea, bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there.  Amen. (From “O Holy City, Seen of John” (vs. 4-5), by Walter Russell Bowie, The United Methodist Hymnal # 726)