Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
(For an update on our “new” format regarding this Teaching the Text section, click here.)
All of today’s texts, in some way or another, bring us back to considering what the “kingdom of God” will be like. The view of scripture is one that has been characterized as “the kingdom is now, and not yet;” there are characteristics of God’s kingdom that are part of our lived experience (especially as we seek to live them out.) And yet, we realize that the fullness of God’s kingdom is not yet come. There is something that we are still waiting for. As you read Isaiah’s words, what are the things that you can identify that are (partially, at least) part of our world — and what things are “not yet?”
A similar question may be asked about the psalm text: just how real and valid do we find these kinds of descriptions to be when we consider life as we know it? If there are some things that don’t seem very evident to us, is this because these kinds of things simply do not happen, or is there some possibility that we just don’t see them — maybe we’re not paying attention?
Do you believe the assertions of vv. 9-10? Why, or why not?
This brief portion from Luke’s gospel is a “substitute” reading for the psalm text for this day. It is considered to be a song, sung by Mary just after she has been told that she will bear a child that will be the Son of God. Pretty big news for any woman to receive, but especially a teen-ager who is just weeks before finishing her engagement and preparing to move in with a new husband.
Mary’s song is a testimony — almost a prophecy — of the things that God will do through the birth of this child. It’s a pretty tall order — and not one that will sit well with the “powers that be” (who will, apparently, be on the “brought down” list of those in power.) What do you sense in Mary’s words — excitement, anticipation, anxiety, fear and trembling, wonder, uncertainty…or what?
The writer here is James — by tradition, one of the half-brothers of Jesus who grew up with him and came to faith after the resurrection. James is an important leader in the early church, and was known for his bent toward the no-nonsense, practical side of faith.
What practical words of advice is he offering here, as we all are in a time of waiting for the coming of the Lord (and the fulfillment of the “not-yet” kingdom?)
Even John, the bold Baptizer, got a little quizzical when considering the “wait” for the realization of God’s kingdom. Maybe he thought Jesus was going to work a little faster; he certainly would not have been alone in that camp. Lots of folks thought that the coming of Messiah meant God was ready to fix the world — RIGHT NOW!
Jesus had ultimate respect and high praise for John (see v.11.) But he pointed John — and us — to the things that God was doing through him and his disciples as evidence of God’s kingdom. What exactly do you think of when you pray, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” Does it look like the things Jesus is describing here?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
When I was 5-10 years old, my favorite TV show was “The Cowboy Bob Show” (or something like that, it was about 50 years ago). It was a local show, on Saturday after the early morning cartoons. Cowboy Bob wore a stereotypical Western shirt and white Stetson and sat behind a table where he demonstrated card tricks and simple science projects in between episodes of old 1930s, serial westerns starring people like Lash LaRue and Hop-along Cassidy. Cowboy Bob was my hero.
One day at school, I heard great news. “Glad tiding of exceeding great joy,” at least for a third-grade boy with a cowboy fixation; Cowboy Bob was coming to town! He was going to be in the annual Mount Airy Christmas parade on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I was agog with excitement, I made a calendar and marked off the days, just like I had seen one of my heroes do in a western, (except I used a red crayon and I’m pretty sure he used his own blood).
Finally the day arrived. I persuaded my 6’3” father to let me sit on his shoulders so I could get a really good look when Cowboy Bob rolled through on his float. After too many clowns and Cob Scout troops and church floats and high schools bands (2) for my taste, here he was, on the back of a flatbed truck – the floor covered with scattered hay, a few bales with little kids sitting on them and a short, paunchy man lamely spinning a rope and waving at the crowd. The wind almost blew his hat off and for a moment I could see that he was bald. I have never been so disappointed in my life. “Who is that?” I cried to my father, “That can’t be Cowboy Bob!” But alas, it was; it really was.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is the question John sent to Jesus. I can’t help but think John was more than a little disappointed in Jesus up to this point.
John had boldly proclaimed that his cousin was the long-awaited Messiah. He had pronounced that Jesus would baptize people with fire and the Holy Spirit. I’m pretty sure he expected Jesus to come out shooting from the hip, with both guns blazing, to emerge from the desert with fire in his eyes and the vengeance of the Lord in his hands. Uh, that’s not exactly what happened, is it?
Jesus and John kept on with their separate preaching and teaching tours, with word going back and forth about what the other was up to. John ends up in prison for taking on the king. (He kind of insulted him for marrying the ex-wife of his brother – nobody really likes being called an incestuous adulterer, even if it’s true.) So John is languishing in prison, anticipating his own death on any day and begins to wonder; is this Jesus really THE ONE, the MESSIAH, the SAVIOR of us all. Nothing seems to be happening. No riding in on a white horse to save the day, no main street-high noon confrontations with the head honcho bad guy and his minions; maybe I was wrong, maybe he’s not the one.
John is not alone in asking the question, “Who is this guy? Is he the One?” One time later, after John’s death, Jesus polled the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The replies are interesting, “Moses, Elijah, some say John the Baptist.” For the last two thousand years, many have asked the same question. The answers have varied; some focusing on Jesus’ godlikeness, others on his obvious humanity, some questioning his importance, others his very existence.
Jesus’ answer to John deals with none of these things. Jesus’ answer points John, and us, to the things that are happening because Jesus is in the world. Jesus’ answer points to the things that are happening that show his ministry to be a fulfillment of the Biblical promises of God. Jesus’ answer not only shows a deep awareness of the Hebrew Scriptures but also attempts to draw a pretty straight line from the prophetic vision of the coming of the Lord to the life and ministry Jesus is living out.
In Isaiah 35:5 and 6 we read “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.”
In Psalm 146:7-8 we read “who executes justice for the oppressed, who give food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, “
These, and many other Hebrew Scripture promises of the coming Kingdom of God, are what Jesus is referring to when he tells the messengers to go back to John and tell him, “. . . what you have hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Matthew 11:5-6
This is the time of year when many of us are struggling to figure out exactly what it is we are waiting for. For many, the annual, early winter celebration of gift-giving and family get-togethers is exciting and exhilarating; filling hearts and souls with joy and renewal; for others, not so much. Some are quietly contemplating the meaning and significance of the incarnation, the audacious idea that God came to be with us in the form of a human baby, while others stand back, put-off and mystified by strange stories of virgin births, angelic visitations and stars in the night. It’s an interesting story, but what does it mean for me, really? Is this the one, or are we, am I, to look for another; another Messiah, another story, another way to make sense of our lives.
Jesus’ answer points us in the right direction. The coming of Jesus, the coming of the Messiah, was the coming of the Kingdom; and the coming of the Kingdom is the coming of true goodness, real healing, and genuine justice for all. To sort out the meaning of Jesus for our lives, we must first join in the work of the Kingdom with him. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines, working out the nuances and implications of Jesus Christ, son of God, of Man, etc. etc. in our minds while the parade passes us by. Advent calls us to step off the sidewalk and onto the highway, leaping into the parade; becoming a part of the ongoing Kingdom of God in the world, following the stories and rumors of hope and healing, justice and joy, truth, tragedy and triumph wherever they may lead us.
Because, ultimately they will lead us to the cross and beyond, to the place where, “. . . the ransomed of the LORD shall return, . . . where everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; (where) they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sadness shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10)
Amen and amen.