Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28
O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger to prepare the way before you: grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in your sight; for you are alive and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
THE focus is narrowing as Advent progresses. We began with Isaiah’s passionate cry to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” which was met by God’s returning cry, “Comfort, O comfort, my people.”
Now it is not nations that are addressed, but individuals, as we hear from and of the servant of the Lord about God’s anointing and commissioning to bring good news to the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Heaven’s big picture is coming down to earth, and it will burst the confines of earth’s expectations.
This astounding belief is captured in some of our wonderful, stately Advent hymns, which should shake us to the core of our being as we gasp in awe at what God has in mind. They wade into the deep things of life, our own and our world’s hopes and fears, and they both undo and remake us as people of extraordinary hope and deep compassion for those who suffer.
This part of Isaiah dates from around 538 BC, when the Persian King, Cyrus, defeated the Babylonians, who had originally taken Israel captive into exile. Cyrus’s policy was to return enslaved people to their homelands, and Isaiah interprets this political approach in theological terms, presenting it as God’s turning again to restore his people.
This third part of the book of Isaiah proclaims the daring idea that, through God’s blessing of Israel as a nation, all the earth is to be blessed. Israel can no longer boast of being the sole recipient of God’s favour; now she is to be the means of God’s blessing of all creation. It has to be said that Israel has never entirely grasped this message, which radically and disturbingly expanded the people’s understanding of themselves.
Trapped in exile, how could they hope to be described as the planting of the Lord, the rebuilders of generations of devastation? God works through individuals, and so the servant of the Lord speaks of God’s anointing by the Spirit for the tender ministry that a bruised and broken people needed.
Here is hope beyond anything that they could imagine in exile: their tears of grief will turn to shouts and tears of joy; once more, there will be singing and dancing, righteousness and praise in front of all nations.
The servant of the Lord is identified by life-giving action, and not as a particular person. The same can be said of John, who is faced with religious leaders desperate to find out who he is. We sense their mounting anger, as they fire questions at him like frustrated interrogators.
John confounds them by refusing to define himself except by who he is not, and by his vocation to prepare the way of the Lord — that straight path in the wilderness which we heard of in last week’s readings.
Isaiah anticipated God’s blessing of the whole world through the liberation of his people, Israel. John the Baptist anticipated the revealing of the unknown coming one — standing among them, but as yet unrecognised.
Paul encourages the Thessalonians to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances” — 11 words that model an attitude in life that is not triumphalist or unrealistic, but a faithful way to hold fast to what is good when facing adversity or prosperity. Like them, we are invited to live as people of confident hope in God.
In the collect, we pray for all who are entrusted with preparing God’s way today, and, as with all prayers that we pray, we may find ourselves becoming part of the answer. The opportunity before us this Advent is to be caught up in God’s audacious ways of responding to earth’s cry, not just with the brazen power that we heard Isaiah yearning for two weeks ago, but through the hands-on, compassionate actions of binding up the broken-hearted, comforting the mourners, providing for those unable to help themselves, and bringing God’s joy into situations of despair.
It does not take much imagination to see how God might call us to this, in our economically inept, politically confused, and exhausted, war-torn world. If we gave half the money or time that we spend on Christmas with our families and friends to embodying the joy of Christmas for the needy in God’s world, that would be a radical start.
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
1 Thessalonians 5.16-24
Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
John 1.6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.