The Third Sunday of Advent –(December 11, 2016)

November 18, 2016 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 35:1-10 Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55 James 5:7-10 Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah speaks of celebration and renewal. Exiles will return, the fearful will be comforted, the oppressed uplifted, and all creation will share in God’s glory. As I have said earlier Advent posts, the Advent readings present a vision of impossibilities – the realm of God among us and a new orientation for all whose lives have been broken by political or personal trauma. Yet, are these impossibilities? Many things we have deemed impossible have come to pass through patient attending to God’s vision for history. Many things, of course, still seem beyond our grasp – and indeed appear to be moving away from our grasp – that still lure us toward personal and corporate transformation. History is ambiguous. Yet, we can live with hope when we take our place as God’s partners in healing the world.

The vision of Isaiah 35 suggests a synchronicity between humankind and the non-human world. The new order that God imagines and seeks to bring forth includes flora and fauna as well as humanity and its institutions. Long before the environmental movement or the Paris Accords, Isaiah discovered a continuity between humanity and the non-human world. Healthy humanity and an appropriate ordering of human affairs are connected with health in the non-human environment. Heaven, nature, and humanity sing when we align ourselves with God’s vision of Shalom. In light of the realities of global climate change, we have come to experience what happens when we turn away from Shalom and our responsibility to future generations – drought, species destruction, and anomalous weather conditions. We may be near the tipping point in terms of planetary well-being and both prudence and faithfulness challenge us to live more simply and to enact policies that protect the Earth.

God is near. We no longer to fear the future, but our joy in the present moment is a challenge, once again, to live as if God’s reign guides our personal and national values.

Psalm 146 connects personal, community, and planetary healing. God’s ethical and creative vision is reflected in the orderly movements of the heavens, the seasons of the earth, and the liberation of the oppressed. The alternative reading, Mary’s hymn of praise, recorded in Luke’s Gospel, portrays a reversal of values in which the poor and vulnerable move to center stage, receiving the bounties of the Earth, while the wealthy and powerful move to the sidelines and now depend on the generosity of those whom they once neglected.

The short verses from James speak of the relationship of divine nearness and personal behavior. God’s revealing inspires us to new behaviors. We are to cultivate patience and positive relationships. Rather than grumbling, we are to relate to one another with kindness and mercy. God’s fulfillment is coming. With that promise, we can live with grace and patience – but not passivity – in our present circumstances. We can act now as if God’s realm is already here in its fullness. (For more on James, see Bruce Epperly, Holistic Spirituality: Life-transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James, Energion Publications.)

The Gospel reading, Matthew 11:2-11, involves a curious interchange between Jesus and John. Is John the Baptist having second thoughts about Jesus’ ministry? Is he wondering if his close relative is the one whose ministry he had heralded? I suspect this story is a construct intended to highlight the focus of Jesus’ ministry as well as to witness to the fullness of Jesus’ mission. John is the forerunner; Jesus is the promised one. John is central to the story of salvation, but wholeness has come now, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus movement that is emerging.

Jesus’ ministry involves acts as well as words: “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.” The new order Jesus is ushering in involves personal and social healing. Those who have been left out due to health and economics will experience healing and wholeness. Those who were hopeless of any change occurring in their lives will experience God’s transforming power. Now is the time of salvation.

Two thousand years later, history is still ambiguous. The non-human world is in jeopardy, sickness and death abound, the poor are with us, and the powerful are becoming more entrenched in their power. Are these words pure fantasy – the dreams of Isaiah and the affirmations of Jesus – or is there a Gentle Providence that is moving history forward, providing glimpses of healing in the lives of individuals and communities? Clearly, history shows us that we can’t expect God to act unilaterally to change our circumstances. Often God’s ways of love seem powerless as we witness millions of refugees fleeing for their lives, elections determined by social media falsehoods rather than facts, leaders bound and determined to deny our precarious environmental situation for the sake of short-term profit, not to mention the rise of contemporary illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and opioid abuse. Still, God is quietly and persistently working to bring healing to our world. We need healing at every level, but in this Advent season we need to commit ourselves to be healers ourselves and to speak for those who can’t speak and to stand with those who are frightened, hopeless, and dispossessed. There will be no Advent here on Earth without us and our decision to join Jesus’ movement in our time!

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Centerville, MA.( and member of the doctoral faculty of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of forty books, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed;and A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care. He may be contacted for conversation and speaking engagements and retreats at