Advent 3: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11, 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24, John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Through the prophets we hear of God’s preferential treatment of the poor and the oppressed. (Isa 61:1) God’s word constantly challenges structures in society that dehumanize and turn humans into widgets or outputs. While we tend to associate this message with the prophets, it is first spoken of in the Torah in the repeated calls to care for the widows, children, and sojourners, the most vulnerable in human society. (Deut 10:18)
The reading from Isaiah provides familiar words to the church; we immediately recognize the first four verses as the passage read by Jesus in Nazareth as he begins his public ministry (Luke 4). This episode in Luke introduces the public ministry of Jesus and highlights the work that Jesus will pursue. The witness of John the Baptist points toward the light that has come into the world, a light that shines in the darkness. In the Gospel of John, light symbolizes the work of God. The Christian witness is to dispel the darkness of poverty, oppression, racism, and other systemic forms of oppression. Even before the appearance of Jesus in the Gospel of John we are offered a glimpse of the form and substance of his ministry.
While the continuity is clear, we must be aware of these dangers within the texts:
- Viewing Jewish structures, including the Temple, as being agents of oppression.
While the Isaiah passage does not directly address theTemple and the cultic practices of Israel, the backdrop of the reading is the return from Exile, an exile that the prophets blame on Israel’s unjust society. The prophet describes God’s hatred of wrongdoing, wrongdoing that previously led to Israel’s exile (v. 8). Most importantly, despite disappointment with Israel’s former waywardness, God will “make an everlasting covenant with them” (vs. 8); God will indeed, for all people including those “who mourn in Zion,” “cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (v. 11).
- John is greater than the prophets of old, as such his message is greater than their message.
John is the New Testament’s example of a prophet, but he is not described as such in the Gospel of John. When John encounters the religious leaders, they seek to define him in religious terms, such as a prophet, but he denies each. (vs. 21-22) John does not identify himself through any of the religious terms of previous messengers of God, but that does not mean he is breaking from the past and offering a greater message.
- The Jewish leaders did not understand their own scripture and could not see the truth in front of them.
John’s encounter with the religious leaders and the pairing of this reading with Isaiah might lead readers to believe that the Jewish leaders of the day did not understand Jewish scripture (vs. 23), a charge that the early church would use against the Jewish community. John’s ministry was during a time of great messianic hope, with many roaming the countryside preaching. The religious leaders frequently engaged these preachers to understand better who they were and if their words were true ( v. 25).
- The hope that comes is the hope that will come in Jesus; there was no present hope for Israel in Isaiah 61.
While it is tempting to jump from Isaiah to the story of Jesus, it is Advent after all, we would be remiss to ignore the promises of God that the people of Israel will find new life (vs. 10-11). A restoration does take place as we read in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. God’s promises to Israel are fulfilled in their present. God’s hope of new life for the world, found in Christ, can only be true if we recognize the restoration that God already provides to Israel. Together, Jews and Christians and all creation continue to wait for the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision.
- While Isaiah focuses on mourning, Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians focuses on a joy that meets all circumstances.
The beginning of Isaiah 61 begins in a song of lament and despair that leads to an understanding of hope (vs. 1-4). Paul seems to ignore the reality of lament and despair (vs. 16) in a way that might ignore the human need to offer lament. In the joy of Advent, and Paul’s call to rejoice constantly, the Christian message of joy might overwhelm the real-time mourning of Jews. We must be careful not to make the reality of mourning essential for Israel nor to ground the church’s joy in its contrast with Jews..
Instead, our message for Advent should focus on:
- The power of God’s preferential treatment for the poor and oppressed is seen in its eternal witness. From the teachings of Moses in the Torah to the proclamations of the prophets to the life and ministry of Jesus and into the ministry and proclamation of the church and synagogue today, God has been consistent in the divine message. John the Baptist, while not a prophet of old, stands on the witness of the prophets. His and Jesus’s testimony are consistent with God’s will for creation, for all to live in abundance and opportunity.
- Our message during Advent of the return of Christ points to the reality that our world still oppresses, our society is still unjust. Nevertheless, God is faithful and working to bring about renewal and rebirth. God’s promises of renewal and rebirth are promises to all and not just to some.
- The gospel calls us to be faithful and vigilant, to be awake and continue to work towards the goals of God. In the in-between times, we must remain watchful and vigilant for the Kingdom, to pursue justice and care for the most vulnerable in our society.
God’s gift of the Torah, the words of the prophets, and the life of Jesus point out that part of the human condition is to gravitate towards oppressive systems. God’s word throughout the scripture of biblical Israel, the early church, and Judaism and Christianity down through the ages rings out with indignation at the suffering imposed by those systems and with promise of rescue and care for all.