Reading Ramblings – December 11, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday in Advent, December 11, 2016

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-11; Matthew 11:2-15

Context: The third Sunday in Advent is historically known as Gaudete Sunday, from the traditional Latin mass that begins with this word which means rejoice. When the season of Advent was treated as more of a penitential season, similar to Lent, Gaudete Sunday was a time to celebrate in the midst of the somberness of the season, the halfway point to Christmas. Today’s readings highlight the blessed state of affairs that will ensue with the arrival of the King of Kings, exhorting us to steadfast faithfulness in the meantime while cautioning us against putting our faith in other authorities.

Isaiah 35:1-10 – The reading from Isaiah this week focuses less on the person of the King, and more on the effects to be expected upon his arrival. The first emphasis (vs. 1-2) is on the transformation of creation itself, which will be restored to the fertility and exuberance it probably displayed prior to the Fall. Next (vs.3-4) directions are given to strengthen and uphold those who have grown weak in waiting, who are feeble and fearful, likely from suffering and persecution. God will come to save them. That saving will be physical (vs. 5-6a), extending beyond protection from persecution to the reversal of flaws and defects of the body such as blindness, deafness, and lameness. Creation is then drawn back into the description. The blessings of the King will be for all of creation, including but not limited to humanity (vs. 6a-7). Finally, we are promised safety and protection from predators both human and animal. God’s people will travel in safety to arrive in the City of the King, Zion, where they will live forever in blessedness. Certainly, we must remember as we wait for the coming of the King that his coming means good things for all of creation!

Psalm 146 – But because we wait, we are tempted to put our faith and hope elsewhere – something we are keenly aware of in this post-election season. Human rulers may be necessary and a gift from God (Romans 13), but they are also fallible and limited in what they can and will do. The psalm begins and ends in praise of God who, unlike humans, is not mortal and therefore does not weaken or grow old or feeble, and is constantly able to enforce his will. Verses 2-4 do not condemn human rulers outright, but simply point out their limitations, for which reason no praise is given to them, but only to God (v.5). God’s praiseworthy qualities are then enumerated – He is the creator, He is the source of all justice, He sustains the poor, He frees the imprisoned, He eliminates physical handicaps, He strengthens those who are overloaded, He loves his people, but extends his protection and care to all peoples in all conditions while foiling those who plan evil. For these reasons we give thanks to God, trusting that regardless of our current condition, we are under his care and dominion.

James 5:7-11 – James exhorts his readers to patient waiting for the Lord’s return. This follows his admonitions against those who abuse their wealth and position to exploit others, so that his words in vs. 7-11 are reasonably addressed to the victims of such exploitative practices, though not limited to just people in that situation. A farmer knows how to sow seed. He knows that when he sows seed, it is just a matter of time and the proper conditions before the seed sprouts and begins to grow. There is no doubt about the seed, only uncertainty about whether the proper conditions will prevail in terms of rain (since sunlight is not in short supply in the Middle East!). The power is in the seed, not the farmer, and Christians should similarly expect that the Word of God will be fulfilled. If Christ promised to return, He will. We can’t fully know and certainly less dictate and control the proper timing and conditions for his return, but his return itself should never be in doubt. Our attitudes should reflect this. We should not grow irritable as we wait, impatient with God and one another. James then goes on to cite the prophets and Job as inspirations. Anyone familiar with Job and the lives of the prophets recognizes that these are examples of suffering, rather than comfortable living. God does not promise us ease and comfort in this world because we and everyone else in it is sinful and selfish. But we are exhorted to remain faithful and trusting in God. All too often we extol the saints and those who suffered for the faith, but we don’t wish under any circumstances to go through what they did! While we don’t have to desire suffering, we certainly shouldn’t be surprised by it, and should seek to emulate the faithfulness of those who have gone before us in the faith.

Matthew 11:2-15 – John the Baptist is having second thoughts. He knows the Scriptural promises concerning the Messiah, including passages such Psalm 146 above, with specific references to prisoners being freed. Yet here, John the Baptist, who fulfilled the role of Elijah in preparing people for the Lord’s Servant appearance sits in jail. Should not he, of all people, expect to receive some of the blessings of the Lord’s servant’s arrival? Jesus’ response is pointed: look and listen to what is happening. Does it match prophecy? More specifically, does it match what Isaiah says the Messiah will do? Yet Jesus doesn’t include anything in his response about prisoners being set free though Isaiah includes this in both chapter 51 and 61. Jesus will set a captive free in his ministry – the woman caught in adultery in John 8. But John the Baptist will not be set free. Does this mean that Jesus is failing to fulfill prophesy? No. But it demonstrates that confusion over the role of the Messiah is not limited to Jesus’ opponents. His own followers were confused more often than not, as Peter’s lecture to Jesus in Mark 8 demonstrates.

Jesus’ followers today are not immune from this confusion. Preachers and teachers are led into false theology by assuming that the blessings of the Messiah are material, and that a strong enough faith will result in a life free of suffering and need. How ironic, that we who follow an itinerant preacher and teacher who was persecuted to the point of execution should somehow expect that our lives will be free of suffering! How ironic that so many Christians ignore Jesus’ difficult words to his followers in John 15-16 about how they will be hated and rejected not just by the world, but even by people who know them! Christianity is hardly an antidote to worldly suffering. More accurately, those in faith should expect suffering because that is what our Lord told us would come to us.

It is our reaction to and in and through suffering where our faith is most evident. A comfortable, untested faith may be real, but it is in suffering that we learn the fuller value and importance of our faith. It is in suffering that we learn the fuller value and importance of the Christian community American and European Christians seem to treat so lightly so often. It is in and through suffering that our cries of “Come Lord Jesus, Come!” take on new urgency.

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