It snowed today. It was really heavy and wet, typical early winter snow-not cold enough to give us the powder we normally get. But it's getting close to time to cut a Christmas tree!
Isaiah 61:1-4. This text also comes from the second portion of Isaiah-2nd Isaiah-the part of the prophet's writing which is characterized by hope. The prophet says, "I've come to bring you good news, especially if you're oppressed or broken-hearted, if you're a captive or a prisoner." Chances are that if you're reading this anywhere in Canada or the U.S., you're neither a captive nor a prisoner. Just a couple of things, though. First, Canada's rate of incarceration is 114 per 100,000 of population. That's around one tenth of a percent. In terms of world standards, that's high. We're lower than the U.S., Great Britain, or Australia, but higher than most of Western Europe. That's just so you'll have some context. Is all incarceration just? I can't say, really, but there have been some cases in Canada recently where it definitely was not, so you can imagine what it might feel like to be released.
Second, oppression or broken-heartedness is quite another story. Who among us can say they've never been brokenhearted? As for oppressed, again that's another story. It's not literally like being a prisoner, but there is a sense in which racial oppression or sexual oppression, just to name a couple, are a "prison". It would be a good thing for oppression to stop. It would be a good thing if someone came and put an end to it, if someone saw to it that justice were done. That's the promise of the prophet in today's Isaiah reading. That's hope. That's good news.
When will this happen? Again, we can't say-think of Jesus' answer to similar questions. "We can't say. Just continue to live your life the way you know you should." But certainly, in the Hebrew mind of the time, the topic of the Year of Jubilee would pop up, as covered in Leviticus 25. It's a year every fifty years when land would revert to its original owners if, because of poverty, the owners had had to sell or lease it to pay their debts, and/or people who had had to indenture themselves would be given their freedom. Again, what good news! A reason for hope and for joy!
Psalm 126. Read the whole psalm before you try to understand any of the individual parts of it. It's important to get the whole picture first.
What are you getting? I'm getting joy and laughter. Why are they laughing? I'm getting that it's about the Lord restoring the fortunes of Zion, probably after release from the Babylonian Captivity. For Jews of the time, that would have been a source of incredible joy.
But it's the nature of the joy which really strikes me. It was like joy as you might experience it in a dream. It was so great that even the surrounding peoples would say, "Wow! God has really favoured them!"
Nonetheless, in the middle of the psalm, the other shoe drops. The people are in trouble again. "The Lord has (emphasis mine: JDW) done great things for us, and we rejoiced." But now they're in trouble again, so here's the plea: "Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb," i.e., "You've helped before, please help again."
Well, we get the first part easily; it's like saying, "You've helped us before. Please help us now, again." But what will the help be like? It will be like rain in the Negeb. The Negeb is a desert in the southern half of Israel. It's partly out and out desert and partly semiarid land. In the semiarid part, it does rain occasionally, and the rain is enough to support plant life for a short period. The "watercourses" of the Negeb are wadis, and when it rains, the wadis retain water for a while. Can you imagine what that's like? The land goes from dust to plant life. What a wonderful picture-from death to life, from despair to hope and laughter.
This is also a farming community, so the image of sowing a crop is relevant. At the best of times, when you sow a crop, you never know what you're going to get; it's an act of faith, of hope. You might even sow the seed "in tears". So now imagine that the crop has been bountiful, an amazing success. Imagine the "shouts of joy"! Imagine what it's like to know that God is with you. God has been with us before, and we hope-we know-that God will be with us again.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24. This passage is from near the end of Paul's first letter to the church in Thessalonika. You can tell it's from the end; this is how Paul always ends his letters: a few parting words of wisdom. Here, it's words of encouragement and a blessing.
In other words, it boils down to "keep on doing the things I taught you. Rejoice always, pray always, and give thanks always." Well, if you've ever thought about how richly God blesses us, e.g., at harvest time (as in the psalm), you'll know the bounty of God's blessing, and that's as good a reason as any to be thankful, to laugh as "in a dream".
"Pray without ceasing." Remember, praying isn't just coming to God with a shopping list. It's adoration, it's confession, and it's thanksgiving. But it's also just being there, just listening for God to speak. After all, what's a conversation if the other person doesn't speak too? It's rude not to let the other person speak.
"Do not quench the Spirit." Quench means 'put an end to; put out'. We can quench thirst, and we can quench fire. Fire can be very dangerous, but it is, under the right circumstances, warming and life-giving. The Spirit is, among other things, fire. The Spirit is what gives the church warmth and life. So, Paul is saying, "Keep the fire of the Spirit going. It's what gives the church its zest and vitality."
Verses 23 and 24 are a blessing. When he prays that God will "sanctify you", he's asking that God continue to set them apart, to keep them on course as an example of God's blessings, as people who try to hear God's will and do it. And "may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." This is, first, a wish for good health for the church, but health in every possible way, including health of the spirit.
And this is, after all, a letter to the Thessalonians. You may remember that the occasion for this letter is to answer questions they had about End Times. We've already spent quite a lot of time talking about the Day of the Lord, the day when the Lord comes to put things right, to judge what's been done right and what's been done wrong, and to restore anything/anyone that's been damaged. So, even in his blessing, Paul makes reference to this.
John 1:6-8, 19-28. Up to this point in the gospel stories we've been reading, John the Baptizer has been a rock-star. He's drawn huge crowds of people who've come to listen to him preach and to be baptized. We've talked about this already. In fact, his draw has been so serious that the authorities in Jerusalem-priests and Levites-finally decide to come out and see for themselves. Clearly, they've talked before coming out. They want to know who John is, and they have some theories. Their questions are very pointed, so you can see what they've been talking about. Their first question is very open-ended: "Who are you?" That's kind of a strange question. John's father is one of them, a priest. Surely, they know!
John sees where they're going with their questioning, so his answer is not about who he is, but who he's not: "I am not the Messiah." You can imagine that theories about who the Messiah is and what he'll do are numerous. We've already talked about what people were expecting from the "Messiah", including his being a warrior king. Clearly, that's not John.
"Well, how about Elijah? Are you Elijah?" From our vantage point, that's a silly question. How could he be Elijah? Elijah lived and died a long time before the time of John. But remember this; people then believed the dead could come back. We'll see that again when Herod believes that Jesus is John the Baptizer come back to life. They believed in reincarnation, apparently, so theirs is a fair question. John's answer is simple and direct: "I am not."
It looks like the priests and Levites are getting close to the end of their list of questions. They have one last one: "Are you the prophet?" So, I hear you asking, "Who is 'the prophet'?" O.K., for this you need to go and read Deuteronomy 18. It's an address by Moses, covering a variety of topics. He talks first about privileges of priests and Levites. Then he goes on to talk about customs of the people of Palestine-the land which the people of Israel are to invade and conquer-customs which include child-sacrifice, divination, and magic. Basically, he's warning them to have nothing to do with these practices. Now, here comes the punchline: "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet." (Deut. 18.15) On the face of it, that looks simple-a way to avoid practices which are idolatrous, evil: "They do evil things, but a prophet will come, a prophet like me. Listen to him." But looking at it from our vantage point, it's the answer to our question: "Who is the prophet?" He's a prophet expected for a long time, a prophet who will steer us straight. "But who?" I hear you asking. That's not specified.
So, you can see that the priests and Levites are looking for the same answer. They exhausted their list; this has to be it. And what does John say? "No." That's it, the priests and Levites are now exasperated! "We've come to the end of all possibilities. If you're none of these, who are you?" And it's almost as if John is saying, "There's one possibility you've left out." And he quotes from that passage from last week, Isaiah 40.3: "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." So he's saying, "I'm that one."
Stop. That's significant. John is saying, "You've been assuming I'm a big deal. I'm not. I'm just a simple herald. I'm the one who prepares the way of the Lord." But the priests and Levites can't quite see it yet. "If you're none of the people on our list, why are you baptizing?" That's kind of strange. I don't remember seeing anywhere who is qualified to baptize. For example, who baptizes proselytes? Is it the priests? The Levites? We've already talked about proselyte baptism. John's answer looks like a foul ball; it doesn't go where you expect. He just goes to the relationship again: "I baptize with water, but the one who is coming is much greater than I. I'm not worthy to even untie his sandals. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit."
Please notice what just happened here. John put himself in the back seat.