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This Week's Commentary
Third Sunday of Advent
December 15, 2013Isaiah 35:1-10 | Psalm 146:5-10 | James 5:7-10 | Matthew 11:2-11 | Luke 1:46b-55
Advent invites us to imagine “impossible” future scenarios for our world, and then open ourselves to their power to lure us forward. Advent invites, and it also judges. Advent asks, “Where are we going in history and in our personal lives? How far are we from the vision of personal, ecological, and global healing imagined by Isaiah, Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus?” Spiritual teachers speak of the examination of conscience (examen) and this examination is at the heart of Advent. We are a long way from Isaiah’s vision, but the spiritual arc of history challenges us to continue our pilgrimages toward God’s realm.
The prophet Isaiah presents the vision of a new age. The desert shall bloom, the weak will become strong, the lame will dance, and the frightened will become bold. The trajectory of history is aimed toward wholeness and redemption. The adventures of ideas take form in a transformed world, reflecting God’s vision for nature and humankind.
Still, in the ambiguous and hardscrabble nature of history, I wander how Isaiah’s first listeners responded to this passage. How shall we respond to this amazing vision, the precursor of modern visions such as the Age of Aquarius? Is it mere words? Will God somehow bring about this new age of Shalom? Or, are our efforts essential to realizing the realm of Shalom in our world? However we look at this passage, it is an ideal that shapes history, leaving us with a holy discontent, and an inspiration to creative transformation, first, of ourselves and then the world around us. In contrast to world-destroying apocalyptic, Isaiah’s vision emerges from our world, imaging what a transformed world could be. Isaiah seeks a restored world, continuous with the past, but revealing new energies and possibilities, and a new human orientation.
The Psalm positions God on the side of the vulnerable and oppressed. God’s justice will be done and the poor will be uplifted, the wounded healed, and the wicked punished. The creator of heaven and earth is biased toward justice. In the beginning, God brought forth order from primordial chaos. Throughout history, God continues to bring about new forms of order, confronting the disorder of injustice with the powerful vision of a just and orderly society. Order is not static in the Psalmist’s vision but the foundation of creaturely creativity and adventure.
Once again, the Advent readings connect divine order on the microcosm and the macrocosm: humanity and nature are in synch as a result of God’s dynamic call, eliciting innovative responses from human partnership. The Psalmist imagines a divine reign radically different from any theocracies past or present: there is no coercion or domination, but invitation and transformation. Freedom and creativity are preserved and aligned with the greater good of all creation.
Mary’s song of praise exalts God’s preferential care for the poor and dispossessed. Mary’s hymn unites the microcosm with the macrocosm: what God is doing in her life reflects God’s aim for history. Mary is a way shower and revealer similar to John the Baptist. She sees herself as a bearer of a new age to come: her humble and risky situation mirrors the challenges the vulnerable and poor are facing; God’s work in her life reveals God’s intention to lift up the forgotten and desperate. Mary echoes the readings from the Psalms and Isaiah: God is praised for God’s justice and care for the “unimportant” and not the exercise of brute and coercive power.
In the Matthew passage, John the Baptist and Jesus are in dialogue. The way shower is looking for signs of the Way. Jesus responds in terms of action and not metaphysics – there are no creeds or self-referential Messianic statements. Take a look: here’s what’s going on. Jesus has inaugurated a healing community that potentially encompasses the whole creation. Jesus is embodying Isaiah’s dream and Mary’s praise. Healing abounds: cells and souls are transformed. God is doing a new thing that transforms minds, bodies, spirits, and relationships, and God wants us to become part of a divine holistic healing adventure.
The passage ends with what, at first glance, appears to be a diminishment of John the Baptist – “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” I believe that this should be read as similar in tone to John 14:12, when Jesus asserts that those who follow him will be able to do greater things than he. Jesus is affirming our role in the realm of God. We are to be agents in God’s realm of healing. We are God’s creative partners in healing the earth. We are to claim our own energy and power in relationship to God’s loving vision. Open to God’s vision, we can do great things that heal the world.
Advent presents us with an invitation to partnership, grounded in a holy unrest. God’s aims for history and our personal lives are always somewhat dissonant with the concreteness of our lives and social structures. Their dissonance invites us to imagine and then embody God’s vision of a new heaven and a new Earth. We are prone to hopelessness, as reflected in our complacency regarding the growing gap of wealthy and poor and the threats to the Earth through global climate change. Still, Advent’s horizon of hope inspires us to join a healing pilgrimage, with no certain destination, but with the companionship of God.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA. on Cape Cod. He is the author of nearly thirty books, including his most recent books, Adventurous Advent: Days of Awe and Wonder and Letters to my Grandson: Gaining Wisdom from a Fresh Perspective. He may be contacted for conversation and engagements at email@example.com.