This Sunday - the Third Sunday of Advent - continues the narrative of John the Baptist, and his role in preparing for and elucidating the role of Jesus as the Messiah. Here is the gospel text from Matthew:
"John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”
Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen-- the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,
‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way before you.’
“I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is!
Go back and tell what you have heard and seen. This is the essense of Christian witnessing: giving testimony. Telling what we have heard and seen God do, in our lives and in the lives of others. Have you seen people miraciously healed, perhaps physically, emotionally, spiritually? Tell others. Have you experienced the grace of God in a tangible way? Tell others. Have you seen relationships restored, demonic activity broken, people who were enslaved to addiction set free? Tell others. Embody a life of testimony.
We have begun our Advent journey. While it is a journey that leads us into the mystery and reality of the Incarnation, it also requires that we keep an eye to the Second Coming, to the promise of God's fulfilled, complete reign. This past Sunday, we were reminded that even when our journeys come upon places of despair, grief, tragedy, and uncertainty, Jesus still offers hope, and this hope must be a key component of our life's navigation.
This Sunday, we hear from the prophet Isaiah once again. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with Isaiah 11:1-10. This Old Testament prophet is essential in grasping the themes of Advent and the promise of the Messiah.
Our gospel reading for Sunday is Matthew 3:1-12:
John the Baptist Prepares the WayIn those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near. The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.” (New Living Translation)
One of the themes of Advent is urgency, and that is certainly one of John the Baptist's emphases. REPENT! TURN! PREPARE THE WAY! CLEAR THE ROAD! It is clear that John the Baptist has something time-sensitive to communicate. Here are a couple of my initial takeaways:
The imminent arrival of Jesus should cause us to repent. Repentance is something that has fallen out of fashion with many mainline Christians, and there seems to be confusion about what repentance is. Repentance isn't really about being sorry, or about feeling guilty for certain things. Repentance is adopting a mindset and a worldview that seeks total realignment with God's will as expressed in Jesus Christ. There is something so holy, so utterly world-changing about Jesus, John the Baptist tells us that the proper response is repentance.
God's "in-breaking" into the world in the Incarnation brings about a fundamental break from the past and the way things have always been.
There is no more "business as usual." Nothing can ever be the same. All has been shaken. However, there is good news here: God’s judgment and God’s promises are inextricably linked, for while the old has passed away, the new has come — the Kingdom of Heaven and all that it entails. Here, repentance comes into play once again: in Advent, we turn from what was, to what will be in Jesus Christ. We orient ourselves to a new way of living. We no longer swear allegiance to the kingdoms of this world, but find our residency in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thoughts? Comment below!
Well, we have concluded another liturgical year, and Sunday, November 27 begins the cycle of the Christian calendar anew once again. We begin with Advent, and Advent begins with looking forward - to the second coming of Christ and the full realization of God's reign. We look ahead to that event and then we look back to the first coming, the incarnation of the son of God which we celebrate at Christmas.
Many of us are familiar with the themes of advent - hope, joy, peace, love - but even more than that are some common ties among our Scripture readings, emphasizing waiting, journeying, traveling, the tension of heading toward a destination that isn't quite wholly revealed. Consider this Scripture for 11/27 from the prophet Isaiah:
The Lord’s Future ReignThis is a vision that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be the highest of all--
the most important place on earth.
It will be raised above the other hills,
and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.
People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.”
For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion;
his word will go out from Jerusalem.
The Lord will mediate between nations
and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!
Isaiah prophecies of that day when war will cease; when nations will live peaceably; when God's reign will encompass the earth and all will be at peace. What does it look like to wait for this day and yet to continue to journey on, to travel the road of faith? How does this text give hope when the world around us continues to lean toward violence and war? Will you choose to walk in the light now, even when darkness seems overwhelming? Let's continue to explore these themes of Advent together.
Here are initial thoughts on one of the upcoming lectionary readings for this Sunday:
"When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."
I've been thinking lately about waiting. Maybe it's because the Cubs just won the World Series after waiting for 108 years! A concept closely tied to waiting is endurance. Both waiting and endurance are Biblical concepts; in the letter to the Philippians, St. Paul talks about the spiritual life as a race one must run with "endurance." We are about to enter the Christian season of Advent, where "waiting" is a concept heavily emphasized: waiting for the return of Christ and waiting for the birth of Jesus.
In the lesson from Luke, endurance here is understood in a particular context: it is about enduring difficult times, times of political and social uncertainty, times of chaos and discord. Sound familiar? It is interesting to me that Jesus does not answer the disciples' question of when these times will be; instead, he provides them ways on how to live during such times. Perhaps that is a lesson to us: as we, too, live in times of uncertainty and dysfunction, maybe we also need focus on how to live during them, instead of how to get out of them.
This is the first of a weekly installment of "first" thoughts on the upcoming Sunday's lectionary readings. Every Monday, I'll post my initial thoughts, ideas, reactions, etc., and I would greatly value your feedback in the comments section; I'd love for this to serve as a medium where we engage in conversation over what God is saying to us through the Scriptures.
Luke 20: 27-38 (New Living Translation)
Then Jesus was approached by some Sadducees—religious leaders who say there is no resurrection from the dead. They posed this question: “Teacher, Moses gave us a law that if a man dies, leaving a wife but no children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child who will carry on the brother’s name. Well, suppose there were seven brothers. The oldest one married and then died without children. So the second brother married the widow, but he also died. Then the third brother married her. This continued with all seven of them, who died without children. Finally, the woman also died. So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her!” Jesus replied, “Marriage is for people here on earth. But in the age to come, those worthy of being raised from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage. And they will never die again. In this respect they will be like angels. They are children of God and children of the resurrection.
“But now, as to whether the dead will be raised—even Moses proved this when he wrote about the burning bush. Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, he referred to the Lord as ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So he is the God of the living, not the dead, for they are all alive to him.”
In this Scripture lesson from Luke, some Sadducees approach Jesus and pose to him a peculiar hypothetical question. Sadducees were a sect of Judaism prominent during the Second Temple period* who denied the notion of a bodily resurrection. They only recognized the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of our Old Testament) as authoritative, and believed that there was no doctrine of resurrection therein. In Luke 20, the Sadducees attempted to back Jesus into a corner and expose the belief in bodily resurrection as a foolish doctrine. Jesus responded by pointing back to their religious heritage - to Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob - and indicated that yes! Their witness points to their life in God's eternal realm. Here are a couple of my initial take-a-ways from this Gospel lesson:
We need to be willing to live into the mystery of God's eternal activity. The Sadducees couldn't imagine beyond the earthly realm. But thankfully, God is not bound by what humanity knows and understands. He is ultimately mystery. And in a world in which our lives are marked by death, God is about something more; He is about eternal life. We can't limit God; God will do what God will do. But are we letting our limited knowledge and understanding hold us back from being more deeply engaged in a relationship with God?
We don't need to fully understand in order to trust in God's promise. I can't fathom what the final resurrection will look like. I am not sure how God will raise people up into the reality of the fully realized Kingdom. Remember - "My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts," says the LORD. "And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine." (Isaiah 55:8, NLT). But I believe it will happen. Faith moves us beyond the reasonable and into a place of trust that God will accomplish the unbelievable.
What would you add? Comment below!
*This was a period of roughly 600 years (from about 530 BC to 70AD). It began with the return from Babylonian captivity when the second temple was built, and concluded with the Roman destruction of the temple around 70 AD.