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3rd Sunday of Advent

09 December 2022

11 December, Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.1-10 [or Canticle: Magnificat]; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11


I WOULD like to begin with a word of heartfelt thanks to the prophet Isaiah for remembering people with weak hands and feeble knees (Isaiah 35.3). At some point in our lives, most of us will have to deal with one of these difficulties, or both. Not that the prophet can have imagined a future including surgery to replace joints, or clever work-arounds, such as rubber discs for lids on jars, for those, like me, whose grip-strength is poor.

This passage of Isaiah delights us with its inclusiveness. It is a word of comfort for those whose ailments are not dramatic or disastrous, but simply wearing, and joy-reducing. The list of cures and healings mentioned by Isaiah is picked up, centuries later, in the Gospel, when Jesus sends John a message about the blind, the lame, and the deaf. But he adds some new categories: lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor get good news.

The logic of this sequence is hard to fathom. We might have expected the raising of the dead to be mentioned last, as a nature-defying climax to prove God’s power. But no: it is followed by what feels to me, even though it probably should not, like an anti-climax. Having good news preached to you — which most of us have experienced, one way or another— is hardly as remarkable as seeing the dead raised. I’ve had plenty of one, but never observed the other (though I did once have to cross someone off the “departed” section of the prayer list, and put them back under “sick”).

Both the raising of the dead and the hearing of good news have been traced by scholars to passages elsewhere in Isaiah (26.19; 61.1). But that still does not explain the logic of the sequence; and the concluding sentence, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me”, makes it even more puzzling.

Yet, there is a logic to the shift from simple healings of physical ailments (blind, lame, deaf, lepers) to proofs of the Kingdom (resurrection, good news). Perhaps “the poor” who get to hear the good news are meant to make us think of the “poor in spirit” in the beatitudes of a few chapters before (5.3). That is my impression, given that the last part of Jesus’s message to John the Baptist incorporates an additional beatitude (“Blessed is”, 11.6).

When preparing to write, I had hoped that verse 6 would turn out to speak wisdom to a problem of our time: the giving and taking of offence. Could “blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me” clarify for us the right balance between being sensitive and being over-sensitive? That would certainly be precious Bible wisdom. But, alas, it does not — not when you get into the meaning of the Greek word. It is a churchy kind of word, which has come down to us as the English word “scandal”. It refers to a snare, or stumbling-block, or something which causes offence; and is found almost nowhere in ancient literature apart from the Bible.

The Old Testament has examples of the word “scandal”, and there it mostly means a snare. Whatever word we choose when we turn it into English, it must be something that makes us lose our footing.

With divine wisdom (unsurprisingly), Jesus anticipates the effect which preaching the good news is going to have on people. Like the first three beatitudes in Matthew 5, his solo beatitude here is counter-cultural. Prevailing wisdom says that it is a bad thing to be poor, or bereaved, or meek. Here is a hint that encountering Jesus may upset our equilibrium, and that finding him to be a stumbling-block will be the common reaction to the man and his message.

Welcoming Jesus into our life is almost impossible to do without causing some bumps in the level ground of daily living. It is a decision with consequences for every choice we make, and even for our unspoken thoughts and feelings.

From Paul’s own experience in a single New Testament letter, Christ can be both our sure foundation (1 Corinthians 3.10), and also a stumbling-block (1.23, skandalon). It is hardly surprising if the Lord who has so discomposed our comfortable lives should indeed turn out to be a stumbling-block for anyone who knows Jesus principally as a swear word.

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