The Third Sunday of Advent (Year A), 15 December 2019
December 15, 2019 | by Ron Allen
|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|
The Advent wreath typically has four candles — three purple candles and one pink candle. The purple candles hearken to a time when repentance was a dominating theme in Advent as a means for preparing to honor the first Advent (the birth of Jesus to signal that the transition from the old age to the Realm of God is underway) and to prepare for the second Advent (the return of Jesus for the full and final manifestation of the Realm of God). The solemn dark purple color gives visual expression to this motif. The purple candles are lit on the First, Second and Fourth Sundays.
The pink candle is lit on the Third Sunday of Advent which is often called “Joy Sunday.” The bright, luminescent pink and the theme of joy break the solemnity of the Advent emphasis on repentance. Typically, the hymns and other aspects of the service are more upbeat, and the sermon focuses on aspects of the joy that comes in anticipating both the memorial of the first Advent (Christmas) and especially the second Advent (the second coming).
The Scripture lessons for the First and Second Sundays of Advent continue to emphasize being prepared for the first and second comings through repentance and other means. Truth to tell, the Scripture lessons for today do not directly mention joy in the Advent vein. But, the preacher who feels compelled to light a pink candle not only on the Advent Wreath but through the content of the sermon might connect the texts assigned for today to Advent joy by pointing out that each text claims something about God’s work through Jesus (the Gospel and Epistle) or God’s work more generally (the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, and the Psalm) that is occasion for joy.
In Matthew 4:12, we learn that John was arrested. Matthew does not directly state the reason for the arrest, but one can imagine that Roman authorities were threatened by John’s claim that “the Realm of Heaven has come near” (Matt 3:2) as they could perceive the Realm of Heaven as an empire intended to replace Roman rule. Matthew’s remark that John is imprisoned in Matthew clarifies the identity, values, and mode of operation of the Roman Empire, and calls attention to the qualitative differences in purpose and action between the dominating behavior of the Realm of Rome and the liberating perspective of the Realm of Heaven, between institutions of the old age and the community of the coming Realm. The Realm of Heaven births prophets. Rome imprisons them.
John asks a question that was also a question for others in Matthew’s world, including some folk in Matthew’s congregation. It is also a question that preacher and congregation might ask today. Is Jesus the one through whom God is effecting the renewal of the world or should we look for someone else? A preacher could use this line as a theme line in the sermon.
As we noted in the Introduction to this series (published in concurrence with the First Sunday of Advent) Matthew’s community was at the vortex of tensions which led some to question whether the Jesus movement was really an authentic expression of the purposes of God and to consider dropping out. In a way, they were asking a question similar to the question that some people in the church ask today, “Why should we stick around?” An increasing number of people in North American culture are asking, “Why should we bother with organized religion . . . or with religious life more broadly?” This question might be a point of connection between the sermon and many in the contemporary world.
Matthew, of course, wants to assure the listening community that they have made a trustworthy decision by believing that Jesus is the instrument through whom God is bringing the Realm.
While Matthew focuses the question on one person — Jesus — I would ask the question in a broader way since I believe that God was and is at work not only through Jesus and through things associated with the Jewish and Christian movements but through multiple manifestations. From this perspective the question is not only about Jesus but the criteria that preacher and congregation can use to identify how God is offering the possibility of the Realm in every situation in life. A rough form of the question might be, “Is this situation — or particular qualities within it — moving in the direction of the Realm?”
The Matthean Jesus answers this question in Matthew 11:4-5 by turning to experience that is interpreted in light of the reading from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings for today. The evidence that God is indeed working through Jesus is the experience of those who cannot see receiving sight, those who cannot walk beginning to move about, those who have leprosy being cleansed, the ears of those who cannot hear are unstopped, the dead coming back to life, and the poor receiving good news. I take the ancient content of “the poor receiving good news” to be the news that God is about to replace the old world with its economic inequity, creating poverty, with the new world with structures that provide abundance for all. While the negative traits of life in this collage are broader than life under empire, the Roman empire exacerbated the negative effects of many of these things.
Many of these images come from Isaiah 35:5-6, about which more will be said below. For now, it is enough to note that from an end-time point of view, the human conditions of inability to see, walk, hear and other things mentioned and Matthew 11:4-6 and Isaiah 35:5-6 are characteristic of life in the old age. Some contemporary disability theologians may disagree, but from Matthew’s perspective such things limit people’s ability to participate fully in community.
Restoration of sight, walking, health, hearing, life, and access to enough material goods for a secure life mean that people are fully available to contribute to mutual support in community and are fully available to receive support. These things bespeak the movement towards the Realm of God. The emphasis is not on their distinctive characteristics. Rather, they form a collage that depicts renewed life in the Realm. The collage becomes a criterion for ascertaining the presence or absence of movement towards (or away from) qualities of life characteristic of the Realm.
This latter perspective is my answer to the question, “Is this situation — or particular qualities within it — moving in the direction of the Realm?” We see movement towards the Realm when we see qualities that promise greater participation in mutually supportive community.
At one level, the opening of eyes, the unstopping of ears, and all the rest point of material dimensions of life. The Realm of God seeks to improve the physical circumstances of people and the mutuality of humankind and nature.
At another level, while Matthew may not have intended this perception, the traits in the text — the opening of the eyes, the unstopping of the ears, and all the rest — have symbolic import. When operating under the aegis of the dawning Realm of God, our eyes are opened, that is, we see clearly the brokenness of the Roman empire and the other aspects of old age for what they are. And we hear “the story behind the story,” so to speak, with respect to the false promises that empire makes. This text gives the congregation a lens with which to look at the world.
From the standpoint of the First Gospel, Matthew 11:7-11 reinforces the interpretation of the relationship of John and Jesus as set out in Matthew 3:11-12 and implied in Matthew 11:2-6: John is an important prophetic figure, but John is not as important as Jesus.
As in Matthew 11:3, the gospel writer uses questions that be suggestive for preaching. The introductory question assumes that people are looking. In Matthew’s context, people were searching for something to make sense of life experience and to offer hope. Amidst the collapse of traditional Jewish structures of life after the Romans destroyed the temple and in the midst of the tensions in the Matthean community: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” The preacher might help the congregation recognize that many people in our world — perhaps many in the congregation itself — are asking this question, too.
In Greek, questions are often phrased in such a way as to presuppose a negative or positive answer. The next two questions — which part of the answer to the question in Matthew 11 are:7a — are in the form of questions presupposing a negative answer. “You did not go out to see a reed shaken by the wind, did you? What then, you did not go out to see someone dressed in soft robes, did you?” (Matt 11:7b-8a). The reference to a reed is probably to the government of Herod Antipas who minted a coin with an image of Herod holding a reed. The reference to soft robes and those who live in palaces (Matt 118b) is apparently to the ruling elite who were in company with Herod—and in stark contrast to John who is wearing camel’s hair. These questions function rhetorically to ask the listener a question: “Do you think the way forward from this season of chaos to the Realm of God is through old-world mechanisms such as the Roman Empire and deputies, represented here by Herod and the elite whose comfort comes at the expense of those whom they exploit?”
The question in Matthew 11:9 gives Matthew the opportunity to (again) identify John. John is a prophet in the manner of Elijah (Note similarities between the symbolism of the lifestyles of Elijah and John as described in Matt 3:4 and 2 Kgs 1:8). The prophet is a kind of ombudsperson who calls attention to disparities between God’s purposes and the attitudes and actions of the life of the community.
For Matthew, however, John is more than your everyday prophet. in the interpretive tradition of Malachi 3:1 and 4:5, some end-time thinking anticipated that the great prophet Elijah would return as a key part of the movement from the old world to the new. Elijah could return because the prophet did not die but was bodily translated to heaven (2 Kgs 2:1-12) Indeed, in Matthew 11:10, the Matthean author quotes Malachi 3:1, making the correlation between Malachi’s “messenger” and John.
While Matthew honors John for announcing that the time of the great transformation is at hand, Matthew interprets Jesus is superior, for Jesus is the immediate agent through whom God is beginning the transformation. Matthew identifies John as Elijah as a way of buttressing the claim that the great moment of regeneration was taking place.
This presence of the questions and issues in Matthew 11:7-10 suggests that Matthew may have thought that some in the community were in danger of accommodating too much to the prevailing imperial culture. A preacher might explore ways that this phenomenon is hauntingly familiar in early twenty-first century North America insofar as many people — including many Christian individuals and even many Christian congregations — align themselves with views that are similar to those of Herod and his elite exploiters in the first century. Such folk seek to keep chaos at bay by reinforcing the rigid, dominating structures of the old age, even passing the hand of blessing over it.
By contrast, John and Jesus point to the journey towards the Realm of God — itself fraught with chaos and conflict — as the way towards the kind of community in which mutual support becomes the means to security. John. Indeed, Matthew 11:12-15 indicates that the old-age figures represented by the reed (Herod) and those in soft robes will inflict violence on the witnesses to the new world.
When writing about the Second Sunday of Advent, I noted some points of both difficulty and promise in connection with preaching in conversation with the end-time perspective that permeates the First Gospel and that is again evident in this passage. I also dealt with using Matthew’s hierarchializing of Jesus and John as a way of helping the congregation wrestle with identifying those theological (and other) voices that we might regard as more or less authoritative. These themes would also be appropriate for preaching from the lection for today.
The reading from James is not organically related by literary allusion to the reading from Matthew, but James mentions the suffering of the prophets (James 5:10) in a way that might become a hermeneutical bridge between the two readings.
While there are many uncertainties with respect to the authorship and date of James, I follow the idea that the document was written by an unknown author who used the name “James” to add authority to the letter (a familiar practice in antiquity) to a congregation made up of believers who were largely Hellenistic Jewish followers of Jesus and who were located in an indeterminate location in the Mediterranean basin.
In first century communities influenced by Greek perspectives — including Jewish communities — many people believed that a persistent problem in life was being distracted by lesser possibilities that took individuals and communities away from pursuing higher values and possibilities. Many people, consequently, believed that mastering desire for the lower things (sometimes called self-mastery) was needed so persons and groups would turn away from the lesser and turn towards the greater. James encourages just such moves.
Although we casually refer to this writing as a “letter,” it is really not a letter in the formal sense but is a paraenesis, that is a document that exhorts the community to live up to the best of its values. Writers in antiquity often turned to paraenesis when a community was in danger of drifting away from its core identity. The writer assumes that the community knows they are supposed to be in favor of certain things and appeals to the people to live out who they already believe themselves to be. The writer does not so much need to change their basic thinking as to remind them of the implications of who they are.
The particular issue that gives rise to today’s reading seems to be that the community expected Jesus to return but now people are tempted to give up as the issues discussed in James 1:2-5:6 become ever more disruptive of the community’s life. The community knows that they should be living towards the second coming with anticipation and in ways that embody the values and practices of Realm of God. But the people are losing patience. Indeed, the people are grumbling in the manner of the children of Israel murmuring in the wilderness.
As a preacher, I have come to have considerable patience with such impatience. That is, I understand growing weary and running out of patience when God’s purposes seem slow to come about in ways that would be optimum. For instance, at the risk of alienating some readers, I confess that at the age of 70, I am tired from trying to stand for certain things in the life of the church and in the larger world and having them constantly frustrated. I find myself saying, “What’s the point if things do not really get better?” Some preachers might have similar feelings and might confess them in the sermon.
James exhorts, “Be patient.” This patience (makrōthumia) is not passively sitting while life passes. This patience involves persistence. To be patient is to recognize that the desire for lesser things is deeply rooted in many individuals and in many communities and systems. It can take a long time for change to occur. Life is not a constant series of steps towards progress. Patience asks us to recognize that we often take steps back even while persisting in looking for opportunities to respond to invitations that can help us with self-mastery as individuals and communities.
Patience does not mean sitting idly by while behaviors like those described in James 1:2—5:6 run rampant. It means recognizing that working against those behaviors and working for genuine community requires persistence. Encountering resistance is not cause for stopping. Encounering resistance to the witness to God’s purposes calls for the patience to persevere.
Indeed, John invokes the persistence of the prophets even in the face of suffering as examples of patience. John the Baptist is an example of a prophet who stood up against the lesser desires, like those represented in Herod. Interpreting John from the world-view of James, we could say that John the Baptist called Herod to self-mastery over his lust for Salome, but Herod put him to death (Matthew 14:1-9). Yet, the promise of the Realm is that life in the Realm of God awaits those are faithful in the manner of John.
In the best growing seasons, “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains: (James 5:7). From this perspective, the movement towards the fulfillment of God’s purposes is powered by a force as relentless as the life-force that powers the growth of the crop. At the same time, to be honest, many growing seasons are not optimum. Too much rain. Not enough rain. Diseases. Insects. Early freeze. Poor farming techniques. Any number of things can diminish a crop. Indeed, a crop sometimes fails. A farmer needs patience not only for a season, but for a lifetime of seasons.
James implies that the community can get this patience by remembering that God will stand in judgment at the end of time. Indeed, “the Judge is standing at the doors,” that is, God is already taking account of present behavior with an eye towards the final judgment. When the document says, that the community should not grumble “so that you may not be judged” (James 5:9) it means that the community should not grumble so that they will not be condemned.”
At one level, the aforementioned reason for being patient has something to say for it, even for those who do not believe God will sponsor a great final judgment. When we resist God’s higher purposes for community, lesser desires set in motion attitudes and behaviors that lead to community decay, and, eventually to destruction.
At another level, I wish that James sought to motivate the community towards patience by inviting us to look afresh for God’s empowering presence. I do respond well to threat (per God as final judge). But I respond more deeply, with a better heart, and with more energy, to a positive lure. A preacher might ask, “To what invitations does the congregation respond with the greatest depth, commitment, and energy?”
On the one hand, the admonition to be patient applies to both believers who expect a second coming and to those who do not anticipate a second coming but who do believe that God is always inviting the world towards deeper connection, deeper mutuality, and deeper love according to what is possible in particular situations. Communities expecting Jesus on the clouds just need to keep waiting. Communities that do not anticipate Jesus on the clouds need to be patient with life process while being persistent in responding to divine initiatives.
Incidentally, here is a case of overlooking the obvious yet eventually coming to awareness in a fruitful way. Perhaps this report will stimulate other preachers to see some connection with Scripture that might be obvious but that they have overlooked. My middle name is James. I have been studying the Gospels and Letters in a technical way since 1968. Yet, I never made a connection between this letter and myself. Indeed, I paid just enough attention to James in Introduction to Gospels and Letters not embarrass myself when speaking about it. Only in the last few months has it occurred to me to look at this letter in conversation with myself as a “James.” Honestly, I sense no deep, mystical connection or influence. However, I can still imagine a sermon on James 5:7-10 in which the James of old invites the impatient James of College Avenue to consider ways in which I could develop patience as invoked in this letter. For part of the sermon, at least, I could use appropriate aspects of my autobiography as a case study. Too bad the Bible does not contain books named “Ronald” and “Allen.” But wait, according to a popular etymology “Ronald” means “kingly ruler” which is not so far from “1 and 2 Kings.”
Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55
The lectionary gives the worship planning team the choice between Psalm 146:5-10 and Luke 1:46b-55. For these reasons I recommend turning to the psalm. The Torah, Prophets, and Writings are disadvantaged in the lectionary and often have a relatively small place in Christian consciousness, or even a distorted place (when heard through the lenses of anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism). Advent in Year A is a Year of Matthew with respect to the gospel readings. The congregation has an opportunity to live in the Matthean theological-literary world for the sake not only of Advent but of introducing Matthew’s theological-literary world for the whole of Year A. Taking up Luke would distract from these opportunities.
A connection with the joy of Joy Sunday is immediate in the first words of this psalm and the rest of the hymns in the Book of Psalms. Psalms 146-150 are often called the “hallel psalms” because they begin with the Hebrew “Halleluhyah” which means “Praise the Lord.” These psalms are electric with praise for who God is and for how God acts in behalf of the world with a particular eye on God providing for all in the world community, including the disadvantaged. This situation is cause for joy.
Psalm 146:2-4 urges the congregation not to put its trust in monarchial leaders who are mortal. Monarchs do not last. Not only that, but in the history of Israel, many — not all — monarchs drifted away from their vocation of seeing that justice took place throughout the community (e.g. Psa 72) and used their place of rule to fatten themselves and their buddies in the upper class at the expense of others in the community.
Psalm 146:2-4 implicitly invites the community to exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion with respect to those in positions of power. In the early twenty-first century in the United States, especially in 2019-2020, a preacher can hardly overuse the hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to national leadership.
Psalm 146:5-6 uses the form of a beatitude, “Happy is . . . ,” to invite the congregation to put its trust in God. One aspect of reason for this trust is immediately evident: God created all and “keeps faith forever.” That is, God is utterly trustworthy. Monarchs come and go, some more and less faithful, but God is relentlessly reliable. God has integrity. Another aspect of reason for this trust is less obvious but as compelling. By referring to the deity as “God of Jacob,” the psalm reminds listeners that God was faithful to Jacob despite Jacob’s checkered history, especially as a young person violating Esau, Isaac, and Laban. Even when the community is disobedient, God has provided means for repentance and return to obedience and blessing. The psalm reinforces these themes in its concluding lines in Psalm 145:10.
“Happy” in this context does not mean feeling bubbly all the time. Rather, it is to know that one is secure in the purposes of God, even when trusting in those purposes can lead individuals and communities into tensions with others who trust in monarchy and other systems of power that can become corrupt and abusive.
Several times I have been asked versions of this question: “What does it mean to ‘trust God.’ That sounds pretty abstract. In everyday life, how do I trust God?” From the standpoint of antiquity, a key part of the answer is, “You trust God by trusting in the covenantal ways of God. You live according to the principles of covenant, even when those principles bring you into tension with individuals and communities and systems that operate according to values that are self-serving, exploitative, and violent.”
Psalm 146:7-9 connects thematically to both Matthew 11:2-4 and to Isaiah 34:4-5 in emphasizing that God’s faithfulness is especially apparent in God’s efforts in behalf of persons who are represented here by those who are oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, unable to see, bowed down, strangers, and who are orphaned and widowed. People in each of these groups experience diminished quality of life. Some can be so preoccupied by survival or pain or limitation that they are unable to participate fully in the mutual support of covenantal life.
God typically acts in behalf of such folk in two ways. God has provided the covenant as a guide for living in community so that all — especially those on the margins — have access to the things that make for a secure life, such things as food and clothing, fair economic practices, and providing safe space for strangers. God also acts through forces in history to liberate communities from oppression, as God worked through Cyrus the Persian to liberate the exile.
The last line is sobering. “But the way of the wicked, [God] brings to ruin.” The wicked are those who pursue injustice, who allow hunger, who imprison, who allow the conditions for blindness to flourish, who cause others to be bowed down, who harass strangers, and who fail to provide for the orphan and widow. The wicked usually engage in these behaviors in order maintain their own power by controlling, even exploiting, others, especially the vulnerable.
This psalm could make an excellent contribution to the overarching theme of Advent as a season of preparation for honoring the first Advent and for preparing for the second Advent, or what I have in earlier weeks thought of as being prepared to be part of the continuous Advent, for responding to God’s continuous lures towards the kind of world associated with covenant and with the Realm of God. For the psalm provides the preacher with the opportunity to reflect on the degree to which the life of the congregation and the lives of broader communities — including nation and world — resemble the purposes of God as described in Psalm 145:7-9.
To the degree that the qualities of covenantal life are manifest in congregation and world, joy is appropriate. The preacher might help the congregation reinforce its participation in the things that help manifest such life. To the degree that those qualities are absent (and replaced by such things as injustice, allowing hunger, etc.), the preacher lament the lack of joy among those affected and can point towards repentance and renewed commitment to justice, food for the hungry and other things as appropriate to the season.
As noted earlier, Matthew 11:3-5 directly alludes to Isaiah 35:5-6. If the congregation usually reads only the Gospel in the service of worship, this would be a good day to read both Matthew 11:2-12 and Isaiah 35:1-10 so the congregation can hear the interplay between the two texts.
On Joy Sunday, a preacher can connect directly to this text which foresees the time when “the tongues of the speechless sing for joy” (Isa 35:6b).
Since I have made a lot of the end-time theology of the Gospel of Matthew, it is worth locating this passage in relationship to that thinking. Many critical scholars believe that Second Isaiah (the author of Isaiah 40-55 who spoke during the exist) interjected Isaiah 34-35 into the work of the First Isaiah (who spoke Isaiah 1-39 during the circumstances leading to the exile). Second Isaiah is what we might call proto-proto-end time theology. Third Isaiah (who spoke Isaiah 56-66 after the exile) begins to articulate the replacement of the present earth with a new world and is thus proto-end-time theology (e.g. Isa 64:1-9). Second Isaiah does not go as far as Third Isaiah but does move in a direction that Third Isaiah expands into proto-end-time thinking
Isaiah 34 is an oracle of judgment. Isaiah 35 is an oracle of salvation pointing towards a renewed world. By placing Isaiah 34-35 in the midst of First Isaiah, the editors of the Book of Isaiah place the punishment and promise of Isaiah 1-39 in the proto-apocalyptic framework.
Because Isaiah 34-35 presumes a knowledge of the geographical relationship of Babylon, Edom, and Judah, the congregation that uses a big screen in worship might project a map showing these countries.
In 34:1-4, the nations are called together for punishment. Isaiah 34:4 takes a step towards end-time thinking by claiming that the punishment will include the de-creation of the cosmos. Indeed, “the skies [will] roll up like a scroll.” Nature itself cooperates the punishment. In Isaiah 34:5-17, the prophet’s spotlight falls on Edom, whose population will fall like animals that are sacrificed. Like a corpse in the wilderness, Edom will be turned over to the birds. Why this focus on Edom? Because the Edom cooperated with Babylon in capturing Jerusalem, destroying the temple, and sending the leaders of Israel into exile. Edom now receives the consequences.
Destroying Edom makes it possible for the exiles to have a passageway across that land to return to Jerusalem. It also makes it possible for the exiles to have access to the land in the south of Judah that was especially fertile, including adequate water supply.
I do not believe God actively seeks pain of the kind envisioned for the nations and Edom on any person or community. At the same time, the passage does remind us that idolatry and cooperation with powers that dominate and exploit and wrongfully exile set in motion forces within community that ultimately lead to collapse. God does not do these things to us. We do them to ourselves.
The passage offers another dimension of meaning. Sometimes, in order for the possibility of blessing to take place, things do have to be rearranged or even cleared away. This can be quite painful, even when an individual or community has an eye on renewal.
Isaiah 35 points beyond punishment and exile to a season of renewal. The purpose of this chapter is revealed in Isaiah 34:3-4. The prophet seeks to strengthen the diminished community — represented by weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts so they can “Be strong” and move forward without fear. The prophet aims to infuse listeners with the capacity to endure the present and to live in hope as they come to see what God is doing.
This chapter strains the limits of poetic language envisioning the coming world. In doing so, it takes steps like those in Chapter 34 that move in the direction of proto-apocalypticism. Nature itself becomes part of the return and regeneration (Isa 35:1-2, 6b-7, 9). While ancient peoples did not quite regard nature as having all the characteristics of a person, they did regard nature as being responsive and as having a part in covenantal relationships. God, through nature, could bless and curse. The covenantal aspect of the human relationship with nature is quite pertinent today, as we contemplate the possibility of eco-cide. When human communities live in covenant with nature, blessing for both human and natural communities can come about. But when human families violate the covenant with nature, then curse befalls both. In the early twenty-first century, we must come to grips with the possibility that the ultimate curse — ecological failure — looms if the human family does regain a more covenantal relationship with the natural world.
As part of the renewal the eyes of those who cannot see will be opened. The ears of those who cannot hear will be unstopped. Those who cannot walk will be leap like the deer. The tongues of those who cannot speak will sing for joy.
As we commented in connection with an earlier reading, the language related to sight, hearing, walking, and speaking certainly has a physical component. Just as exile involved physical displacement, so restoration involves physical renewal.
At the same time, Second Isaiah uses language with as much symbolic charge as any writer in the Torah, Prophets and Writings. It seems likely to me that these images also represent what happens to perception, witness, and faithfulness in service in the renewed world. Even if Isaiah did not intend these associations, they come to a preacher’s mind in a way that is consistent with Isaiah’s frame of thinking. The opening of the eyes represents coming to see the world as God wants us to see it—through the eyes that see the importance of living together in covenant. The unstopping of the ears means that capacity to hear and understand covenantal guidelines for living. The capacity to leap like a deer calls to mind the physical capacity to act in ways that are faithful to God and to mutually supportive community. The image of the tongue singing for joy bespeaks, to me, interpreting God’s renewing purposes and witnessing to them as in Psalm 146:5-10.
Like some other Christians, I do not believe God can bring about a renewed world like the one described in Isaiah 35 in a singular way. From a preacher’s standpoint, Isaiah 35 may be an invitation to think with the congregation about what it might take to move towards the kind of world envisioned in Isaiah 35. Indeed, a preacher might structure a sermon around the images mentioned in the preceding paragraph. What do our eyes need to see to move towards a renewed cosmos? What do our ears need to hear? What do we need to do with our legs — and our arms and hands and feet and other body parts? What do we need to say to others, that is, how do we need to interpret these things in the church and in the wider world?
Ron Allen taught preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary from 1982 to 2019. Prior to that, he and his spouse, the Reverend Linda McKiernan-Allen, were co-ministers of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Grand Island, Nebraska. He loves leading Bible studies in congregations.
He has published more than 40 books, most recently: I Will Tell You the Mystery: A Commentary on Preaching from the Book of Revelation (2019). Three of his books are widely used in small group studies in congregations: A Faith of Your Own: Naming What You Really Believe, Reading the New Testament for the First Time, and The Life of Jesus for Today. He was an editor for the pioneering Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Commentary on the Lectionary, which comments on every reading in the lectionary and introduces 22 new Holy Days for Justice (e.g. , Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Peace in the Home, Yom haShoa, Gifts of Sexuality and Gender, Sojourner Truth Day). With O. Wesley Allen, Jr., he urges thinking of preaching as conversation, as in Allen and Allen, The Sermon Without End: A Conversational Approach to Preaching.
Allen and his spouse have five young adult children: Canaan, Genesis, Moriah, Barek, and Sabbath, as well as five grandchildren. He and his family spent summers teaching in Zambia and Jamaica. He has also traveled in Israel, India, South Korea, Belize, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Aruba, Canada, the countries surrounding the Baltic, as well as Mexico, Spain, the Canary Islands, Uruguay, Argentina, Greece, Italy, Croatia, and Antarctica.