The Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

December 18, 2017 | by David Grant Smith

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Psalm 126 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 John 1:6-8, 19-28

The verses selected from Isaiah 61 for this week’s first reading resonate deeply with those from last week’s first reading from Isaiah 40. In both contexts the prophetic author is delivering a message about those who are in exile. In this week’s verses, the prophet is issuing a statement from God that the message is about freedom from oppression, heartbreak, captivity, imprisonment, mourning, robbery, and wrongdoings. That’s a long list! But, as is always the case with biblical prophets, the exiles weren’t the only targeted audience of the prophetic speech. Prophetic speechwriting usually has it in mind that there are others who are listening in – those who are in power – and that they need to learn what the truth is of the impact that their actions have on others.

In a process-relational paradigm, we know that all we do and say has an impact on others, for good or ill, and that our actions have widespread ramifications. The flapping of the proverbial butterfly’s wings in one place altering the weather patterns in another place days or weeks later comes to mind; we are all interrelated and interconnected. Because of our inter-connectivity in the great web of life, it would be good for us to examine how our lives are impacting others on a regular basis. The spiritual practice of self-examination is what we do to reflect on whether our inner values and beliefs are being expressed in our outward relations with other people, other beings, and creation itself.

Toward the end of self-examination, this week’s verses from Isaiah 61 can be used to call all of us to consider who (or what) are the vulnerable exiles in our contexts? Who among us in our communities of faith (and communities at large) are praying and longing for freedom from oppression, heartbreak, captivity, imprisonment, mourning, robbery, and wrongdoings? What systems need to be changed to protect the vulnerable among us? Self-examination (at both the individual and communal levels) can help us to see how our actions impact others – be they LGBTQIA people, immigrants, refugees, endangered species, or compromised eco-systems. Identifying the vulnerable members of our cosmic contexts will help us to understand who the exiles are among us, that we might join with the prophet in speaking truth to power.

The lectionary appoints Psalm 126 as a response to Isaiah 61. Composed as a hymn that reflects on the wonder and joy of deliverance from exile in the past tense, it also is a hymn which speaks hope to a current calamity of unknown scope or details. We who are preachers can provide a rhetorical fill-in-the-blank with this psalm by identifying those who, like the exiled ancient Israelites, are presently suffering from exile in our own day and age, whether that exile is literal or metaphoric.

This week’s reading from 1 Thessalonians includes a caution about testing the words of those who claim to be prophets. Discernment is an important part of being a faithful and faith-filled person. We needn’t hesitate from ever asking whether a would-be prophetic proclamation rings true or not. This admonition for discernment can be used alongside the prophetic message of Isaiah. From past experience found in scripture and in the long history of the Judeo-Christian trajectory, we as people of faith have come to understand that the message of prophets is to (as the saying goes) “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” True prophetic utterances ever call for retention of the status quo.

But before Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to test-drive the prophets among them, he offers a series of other admonitions for the spiritual/Spirit-filled life: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.” (NRSV) At the center of this list of spiritual suggestions is the phrase “give thanks in all circumstances.” I’m reminded of when my grandmother was about 95, and was living at my aunt’s home, one day she was home alone, slipped in the kitchen, and fell down hard, breaking her “good” hip (the one that hadn’t been broken 50 years earlier). When I asked her what went through her mind when she realized her situation, she mustered up her biggest Texan accent and replied, “Well, I remembered that the Apostle Paul said ‘In every thing give thanks,’ so I just sat there knowing that I must be thankful for something, but I just couldn’t think of what it was.” Old women with broken hips and strong faith can teach us much! It was that grounding in gratitude when then enabled her to half crawl and half walk to the phone to call for help.

One of the unique dynamics of Advent is how it invites us to live into the tension of what it means to live in between the “already” and the “not yet” – we have already come a long ways in terms of fill-in-the-blank situation, but we have farther to go, or we have so many other things that we haven’t started in on yet. This grounding in gratitude can assist us in our self-examination with regard to those who live in physical, geographic, spiritual, political, emotional, or any other kind of exile. We are grateful that things aren’t as bad as they were for Rosa Parks; but we are not far enough along because not everyone in our country believes and acts like Black Lives Matter. We no longer have police paddy-wagons backing up to bars and hauling LGBT people off to jail for being who they are; but we still know that LGBT discrimination is alive and well in many workplaces. We may have reduced the number of animals that are on the Endangered Species List, but we still have a long way to go toward preserving the fragile eco-systems on our planet. From a process perspective, we eagerly believe that it has been the luring invitation of God lovingly and persuasively inviting us to evolve in these positive directions. To that end, as Paul wrote, “Do not quench the Spirit,” but let the Spirit continue to show us the work that still needs to be done, all the while giving thanks for the Spirit heightening our awareness along the way.

This week’s reading from the Gospel of John is a story about living in that tension between God’s “already” and the Spirit’s “not-yet.” John the Baptizer was “a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe…” Both John the Baptizer and those who were questioning him were acknowledging the work of the prophets who had come before him. But John, whose discernment had taught him to keep his focus on the open future, and always anticipating that God would lead him and everyone else into even greater possibilities, held up the prophetic message of leaning in towards the “not yet” with faith that new hope, new possibilities, and new life would lead to greater concrescences than ever before imagined. John the Baptizer, Jesus of Nazareth, the Pharisees, and their contemporaries all lived in a state of exile-like oppression under Roman occupation. The “not-yet” to which Jesus called them, in the power of God’s Spirit, wasn’t to overthrow the empire, but to live and stand over and against it. How will the prophetic tension of Advent ground us to live in the “already” in a spirit of thanksgiving, all the while empowering and challenging us to anticipate and work for the “not-yet” of the open future to which the Spirit is calling us today?

The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is presently pursuing the D.Min. degree at Claremont School of Theology, focusing his studies on process theology as a resource for parish ministry and spiritual care. While at CST, David is thrilled to be currently working as the student assistant for Process & Faith. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional, serving as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, tea, wine, and spending time with family & friends.