The Third Sunday of Advent – 15 December 2019
Lectionary Readings: Isa. 35:1-6a, 10; Ps. 146:6-10; Jas. 5:7-10; Mt. 11:2-11
Theme: Following the Prophets
In this Advent season we stand in the gap between the now and not yet and hold the tension of inaugurated fulfillment. We prepare ourselves to celebrate Christ’s incarnation and birth, while also recognizing the darkness and despair do not get the final word. Christ’s final fulfillment will bring today’s “not yet” realities of injustice, pain, sickness, oppression, hunger and wickedness to ruin. James also lived in that tension, and in writing his letter, he implores believers to be patient and strengthen their hearts. He challenges the persecuted, struggling, and frustrated believers to follow the example of the prophets noting, “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (Jas. 5:10). I imagine his words might have been a bit unsettling. His audience could recite gruesome tales of prophets who had patiently suffered. Yet, James’ words redirect our attention to this week’s lectionary readings from Isaiah and Matthew. If we are, as James suggests, to follow the example of the prophets, let us briefly consider not just their words, but their actions.
Isaiah speaks forth God’s message to the people, and even though his proclamations are not often popular or easy, he does not shrink back. He notices and highlights injustice, evil, sickness, brokenness and pain. He even points to ways his people are complicit in tolerating, causing, or perpetuating these sins. He reminds his audience of their high calling to live as God’s chosen people, enacting and protecting God’s core values of justice and righteousness. He calls them out and calls them back. Yet Isaiah also declares the hope of God’s healing and abundance, and he shows them the way forward. He does not deteriorate into a calloused, passive, uncaring or withdrawn leader. He presses forward, setting the vision for what can be. He imagines joyfully rejoicing over God’s glory and majesty that will save, heal, restore, strengthen, and renew. In the midst of suffering, and with great patience, we too can engage our world as Isaiah did – with humility, strength, and courageous boldness. Noticing and articulating what is not of the Lord, but also casting vision for God’s Kingdom alternative.
Consider also John the Baptist about whom Jesus praised, “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11). (His statement is particularly interesting when one recalls Jesus was also born of a woman!) We see John serving in the wilderness, and are reminded that our callings and places of service may not always be under the spotlights or in the headlines. They may seem obscure, unimportant, and unnoticed; they may even be in the wilderness – geographically, socially, or emotionally. The expansiveness of God’s love and the enormity of God’s work not only knows no bounds, it also eschews prioritizing the powerful over the commoner. John’s work was to prepare hearts, create inroads for transformation and to proclaim Jesus’ truth. Can there be any greater work? If hearts are closed and roads are blocked, Jesus’ truth goes unheard. We might consider John as the Great Preparer – the epitome of an Advent worshiper. We prepare our hearts, and the hearts of those around us. We clear the roads. We reject the world’s pressures to jump into celebration, and follow John into the wilderness – and as he did – we also wait.
For Reflection and Discussion:  Considering Isaiah’s career as a prophet, which aspect of his work is most difficult for you to take on? Do you tend to prophetically call out sin and evil, or cast vision for God’s alternative?  In what wilderness has God called you to serve? How are you “preparing the way” and waiting this Advent season?