Engaging the Word: Readings for 12/11/16 (The Third Sunday of Advent)

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 By Barbara Klugh

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10 ; Matthew 11:2-11. Go to www.lectionarypage.net to read or print the weekly lectionary text. In this week’s readings, Isaiah predicts the restoration of Israel, James tells us to be patient as we wait for the Lord, and, as John pointed to Jesus, Jesus points to his own actions as true signs of the kingdom of heaven.

White crocus photo by Sue Welsh. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

White crocus photo by Sue Welsh. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Isaiah 35:1-10: It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the book of Isaiah. Although its 66 chapters cover a longer time-span and contain more material than could be written by one author, scholars do attribute chapters 1-39 as mostly the work of the prophet.

During his ministry to the southern kingdom of Judah from about 740-680 BC, Isaiah served through the reigns of four kings while Judah was under threat of invasion by the Assyrians, and witnessed the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians c.722 BC. Isaiah predicted the overthrow of Jerusalem due to the people’s rebellion against God, yet he was sure that God would never allow this to be the end of the story. God would still use the Hebrew people to fulfill his purpose. He taught that there would be a faithful remnant to bring hope to Judah, and he foresaw the coming of a Messiah (lit. anointed one) who would rule the nation according God’s divine purpose.

Chapters 1-39 focus on God’s judgment, but our reading from chapter 35 is a poetic interlude (perhaps written at a later time) that envisions a day of deliverance, the time when the people will be released from captivity and God will restore creation. The dry desert “shall rejoice and blossom.” The people will be healed of their infirmities, and the exiles will joyfully return to Zion along a highway—a “Holy Way”—free of danger and so broad that “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”

Psalm 146:4-9: Psalm 146 praises God for his lasting and complete love and help. Psalms 146-150 are called the Hallelujah psalms because they begin and end with “Hallelujah!” What a fitting conclusion to the Psalter.

Icon of St. James, 1688. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Icon of St. James, 1688. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

James 5:7-10: by tradition, James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader in the Jerusalem Church, is the author of this letter. According to early church legend, this James was known as “James the Just,” possibly to distinguish him from the apostle James, the son of Zebedee, who is called “James the Greater” or “James the Great.”

Beginning in ancient times, and continuing to the present day, scholars debate the authorship of this letter. Critics say the Greek is too good to be by a villager from Galilee, and the contents of the letter indicate a time after James was martyred. It could have been written by a disciple of James who reworked material from James or by an unknown James.

The letter was intended to be circulated among the scattered churches, and is full of practical wisdom for anyone seeking a life of faith. James is the one who said, “Faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead.” I remember reading somewhere “Faith is the inhale, works is the exhale.”

This week’s brief reading encourages Christians to live lives of patient endurance as we wait for the coming of the Lord. “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” Living in community was important to James, and he says, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.”

John the Baptist in prison by Victor Meirelles, 1852. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

John the Baptist in prison by Victor Meirelles, 1852. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Matthew 11:2-11: Much has happened in the life of Jesus since week’s reading. Jesus was baptized by John, tempted in the desert, began his ministry, called the disciples, gave the Sermon on the Mount, and went about doing good—preaching, teaching, and healing.

At the time of this week’s reading, John is in prison and hearing reports about Jesus’ ministry. For some reason, John begins to have some doubts about whether Jesus is the awaited Messiah. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t just say “Yes.” He answered them, “Go and tell John what you 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This wonderful statement ties Jesus to our reading in Isaiah about the coming of the Messiah. “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.”

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds about John. First, he chastises the crowd for coming out to see John as curiosity seekers. He quotes Malachi and tells the crowd that John is the prophet that Malachi spoke about. In v.14, Jesus says John is Elijah, whose job it was to prepare the way of the Lord. To me, the unspoken message for those with ears to hear, is that Jesus is identifying himself as the Lord.

Jesus concludes by saying, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” I think Jesus is saying that as great as John is, he is the last of the old order, the one who is pointing to, but not participating in, the new order of the kingdom of God in Christ. (It reminds me of Moses not being able to cross over to the Promised Land.) In his Notes on the Bible, John Wesley speculated that it may mean “the least true Christian believer has a more perfect knowledge of Jesus Christ, of his redemption and kingdom, than John the Baptist had, who died before the full manifestation of the Gospel.”

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