Year B — The Third Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 11, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Fresh.

That’s the word that comes to my mind as I read Isaiah’s words. Maybe it’s more like “refresh” — but either way, it’s good news for those who are oppressed, brokenhearted, held captive and imprisoned.

None of these experiences are pleasant; they deplete us, destroy us, demean us. They dry us up — oppression is a desiccating wind that blows its ill effects into our lives. “Suck the life right out of you,” is a phrase that comes to mind. Most of us identify with that experience at one time or another — actually, we identify a lot more than ONE time!

So, the Lord’s word comes as a refreshing, renewing promise: no more ashes for you who have been tossed on the midden heap of life. Here’s a beautiful green garland to adorn your brow, instead. Wash away the worn lines of your mourning; use this oil of gladness as a salve for the pain you’ve felt. The spirit within you — your humanity, your dignity — that light that flickers so faintly — here’s a mantle of praise to wrap it up in. Chin up, head high — you belong to God! You matter!

God is making everything new — fresh!

Psalm 126
Psalm 126:1 has to be one of my all-time favorite Bible phrases: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”

Dreams are the stuff of our hopes, our best wishes, our life’s aspirations. When we dream, we are transported beyond the world of the mundane; for a time, in our dream-like state, it seems that anything is possible. We can fly!

God’s presence among us is the stuff of dreams — but, it is more than that. When God’s hand moves, people know it: “The Lord has done great things for them!” (v. 2)

Interesting, isn’t it, that the “great things” of the Lord are so often sown in the midst of tears? The God of Advent and of Christmas is the God Who Brings Forth Joy from Weeping. Weeping, we certainly have plenty of…may we find the patience and the wisdom to endure till the joy comes.

Luke 1:46b-55
This bit of Mary’s “Magnificat” (the opening phrase in the traditional Latin setting) reflects God’s propensity for turning things upside down — some would say, “right side up.” We read Isaiah last week, who spoke of valleys being lifted and mountains being brought low.

Similarly, Mary highlights God’s acting to bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill up those who are hungry and empty the purses of those who (perhaps) trust vainly in their riches.

 Oh, and one other thing — God has helped his servant. The newly-chosen mother of the Lord is already ahead of the game. Mary gets it. As her offspring will someday say, “Whoever wants to become great, must learn to be a servant.” (Matthew 20:26)

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 
There is a great debate among preachers about the inherent usefulness (or devil-spawned evil) of sermons with titles like, “Ten Ways to Live the Successful Life God Wants You to Have!”

Well, apparently the apostle was wont to throw out the occasional list of actionable items for Christ-like living. There are at least 8 pretty cool things to do here that lead to a much-to-be-desired result: sanctification.

God’s work in our lives, through Christ, is a process of becoming. It is ever God’s work, to be sure, though we are co-workers/participants/beneficiaries; what we are becoming is more “holy” — more like Christ.

John 1:6-8, 19-28
John, who would become the Baptizer, sure had to get through an awful lot of negativity in order to do his job.

Notice all of the “nots” in this passage. He is not the light; he is not the Messiah. He is not Elijah, he is not “the prophet” — that voice of help and salvation that every generation seems to long for.

I imagine those gathered around John — the people famously described by former Vice-President Spiro Agnew as “nattering nabobs of negativity” — surmising that he must not be worth much. So many “nots.”

When they finally asked him what he thought of himself, who he was, John’s reply is laser-focused: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness — get it straight, people! Get ready for God’s way!”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton


Trying to preach on this lesson from Isaiah reminds me of an old preacher story about the pastor and the Children’s sermon.


Pastor says, “Well, boys and girls, what has a bushy tail and runs around in trees?” Nobody says anything. Pastor waits a bit, then says, “You know, it gathers nuts and puts them in holes in the tree and makes chirping noises, doesn’t anybody know?” Again, a long silence.


Pastor sighs and says, “Help me out, boys and girls; surely somebody knows what animal I’m talking about.”


After another awkward silence, one little boy slowly raises his hand. Pastor smiles and says, “Yes Jackie”


Jackie swallows hard and says, “Well Pastor, we all know it sounds like a squirrel; but since this is church, we all know it’ll turn out to be Jesus.”


None of us can hear this text from Isaiah without also seeing in our imagination Jesus standing in his little home synagogue, reading this text and then saying to his friends, neighbors and relatives, “Today this scripture  has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


And because of this, even though we seminary trained folk are aware that that which was running around in the Prophet’s brain might have been a political Messiah like Cyrus, or it might have been the tiny community of folk who had returned from Babylon to find Jerusalem in ruins, it might even have been the writer himself; 


But, since this is church we immediately think of Jesus. And, like the children listening to the Pastor, we are both wrong and right in that assumption.


We are wrong if we think it is primarily, or only about Jesus, but we are right if we think it has something to do with Jesus, and us.  


This text is set among those who have returned to Jerusalem after exile in Babylon.  They have come home to find their city in ruins and their lives in disarray.


There are two important things that the texts calls upon that community to do; 1) Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and 2) Thank God even before it happens.
Most scholars agree that “the year of the Lord’s favor” refers to a Jubilee year, when all debts are cancelled andland is returned to its original owners.  (UM? Sounds a little like Occupy Wall Street.)


The “servant” is sent by God to proclaim a year of God’s favor to a group of down-hearted folk and to invite them to praise and thank God not for the good God has done, but for the good God will do.


John Goldingay, in his commentary on Isaiah, says they are to offer this response before the event actually happens. (Isaiah, p. 349)


That line, “before the event actually happens,” made me rethink Advent a bit.  Most of the time we talk about Advent as a time of waiting for the LORD to act.


 Perhaps our call is to recognize that, like the folk in beat-up old Jerusalem, we are called to  proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor and thank God for the Good News before it happens.


Most folks could use a bit of Jubilee, I think.  Things have been hard in the world and in this country for some time now.


Long years of war and social conflict have raged all over the globe, most countries are struggling economically; there is very little political stability anywhere in the world.


 In the midst of all this we are called to both proclaim and live out a year of the LORD’s favor.


Jesus claimed this text for himself and his life on earth, we are called to do the same.


This is the cross that Christ called us to take up when he invited us to follow him, this cross of proclaiming God’s preference for those whom the world despises,this is what we are called to do while we wait in the time between his coming years ago in Bethlehem  and his coming again.


Amen

4 thoughts on “Year B — The Third Sunday of Advent

  1. I love the squirrel story, and thought about it several times yesterday in the pastors' text study when people kept referring to Jesus' use of the Isaiah text in Luke. Other participants probably wondered why I kept laughing to myself! I also appreciate pointing out all the "not" usage to describe John. I think I'm headed that direction with my sermon. John – like most of us – was "not" anyone of great status, yet he was "sent by God" and served an essential and worthy role.

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