Posted December 9, 2013:
The Advent season rushes on and we come to the lessons for Advent
III, Sunday, December 15, 2013. Texts from Isaiah and Matthew
continue, while the epistle takes us to James. Another week of John
the Baptist -- perhaps a strategy for getting people really, really
eager -- begging -- to hear the nativity story, which finally begins
Isaiah 35: 1 - 10
Though the word "transformation" does not itself appear in this text
(it would be too abstract), it is -- from beginning to end --
The transformation is in the realm of the natural world -- "the
wilderness and dry land shall be glad." It is also in the realm of
human life and human history -- "Say to those of fearful heart, 'Be
strong, do not fear! . . . Then the eyes of the blind shall be
opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped." For our faith it is
about not either nature or history; it is always both.
At this time of year, our hopes often involve the right gift or the
surprise of Christmas morning. But those items and events, however
important, don't usually touch our deepest longing, do they? So the
day or afternoon after Christmas morning may have a certain
emptiness or melancholy about it. That suggests that our real
longing and true need are a far deeper one. They are for the
transformation of life. They are for God. Preachers ought not
retreat from bold, wild claims of this text. Change is possible.
Newness is possible. "Say to those of fearful heart (most of us),
'Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.'"
James 5: 7 - 10
At first glance the reading from James seems to be at odds with the
glad hope of the preceding Isaiah text. James counsels "patience."
But there is no real contradiction, for James is not counseling
patience as a general or abstract virtue, but the patience of those
who await the sure fulfillment of God's promises. Patience in that
sense means keeping the faith.
So a key image of both Isaiah and James is the strong heart. In
verse eight, "Strengthen your hearts," recalls the word of Isaiah,
"Say to those of fearful hearts, be strong, do not fear." So this
Sunday might be a kind of cardio workout!
Get the cardiovascular system of your faith in shape and strong. The
call to strengthen hearts is again not an isolated "buck up," but
put forward in light of the promises of God that change, newness,
healing, forgiveness, reconciliation -- a new creation -- are
possible and sure.
James also lays out the ethical pitfalls to which we are tempted
when our faith grows weak or our spiritual arteries are blocked --
we are subject to judging others, that is, criticizing others
instead of doing our own work. We are also tempted to grumbling.
Well, I'd say grumbling and judging characterize a lot of dispirited
human institutions and communities -- and far too many churches --
these days. What do you think?
Matthew 11: 2 - 11
Yes, another text in which John the Baptist figures but quite
different than last week. For challenging the immorality of the
powerful John has landed in jail. From there he sends his own
disciples to ask him, "Are you the One?" (I always hear the pop song
"Still the One" in the background.)
I've heard this Advent III text turned into a kind of Easter II
("Doubting" Thomas) paroxysm/ blessing on doubt. "John, languishing
in prison, is now afflicted with doubt. Aren't we all? Or wouldn't
we be if we had been rotting in prison? Perhaps you reside in a
prison of your own making?" I think this interpretative gambit is
not only trite but untrue. Besides, prison has proved a refiner of
faith for so many -- Bonhoeffer, MLK Jr., Mandela -- come to mind.
No, I think that rather than exploring the recesses of John's
psyche, the issue is more likely the fact that Jesus is -- even for
John -- not quite the kind of Messiah he expected. Too much mercy,
not enough judgment from this Jesus. Are you, is he, really the one?
If you are a super righteous dude, as was John, you may expect a
Messiah who brings, as John said he would, the winnowing fork in his
hand, casting the chaff into the eternal fire. Jesus seems more
focused on mercy and healing than on judgment and vengeance. This
can be irritating, hell, it can be offensive. Don't believe me? Ask
another elder brother (Luke 15: 11 ff).
I wonder if when Mandela was released from prison and he was no
longer preaching violent revolution but reconciliation, some of the
ANC were offended? I expect so.
At the end, Jesus speaks of John as the greatest of the old order.
And as much as we may want, even need, to speak of the continuities
between old and new covenants, there is also a break. There is
something new in Jesus. It may offend. Moreover, it may offend the
best of us and the best in us.