Reading Ramblings – December 13, 2020

Date: Third Sunday in Advent, December 13, 2020

Texts:Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Context: John the Baptist and his prophetic voice enters more into the spotlight this week. Isaiah’s words might seem very appropriate for John the Baptist to utter, but only insofar as we clearly understand his words not to be pointed towards himself, but rather towards the true Messiah. John the Baptist had a job to do as the Church does today – proclaiming the Word of God and pointing to the deliverance of God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. It’s only in the Messiah that our hope lies. Were John the Baptist to have misunderstood his role or misapplied his message would have been disastrous. Likewise, for the Church to misunderstand her role or her message today is disastrous, leading people ultimately away from Christ and the forgiveness and grace alone available in him to self-made plans of social justice and the establishment of heaven on earth. Writing to a later audience, St. John tries to clarify John the Baptists’ proper place and role as the one who points to the messiah, rather than as the messiah himself.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – It’s easy to disassociate this language from ourself. This is just the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel in the early 7th century before Christ. Or this is just John the Baptist preaching the Holy Spirit of God to the people of God 2000 years ago. But this is also the voice of the Holy Spirit to the people of God today, spoken through faithful servants in pulpits in churches around the world. These words are not merely historical but rather remain prophetic as we await their total and eternal fulfillment in our Lord’s return. Only then will restoration and reconciliation be complete. This prophetic voice also calls us to look for precurors, sneak previews, partial fulfillments here and now. We as the people of God should be different because of our Lord’s incarnate work, his faithful obedience, his willing death on our behalf, his vindication in his resurrection, his promise to return as He ascended. Among his people particularly we should expect not only a shared anticipation of what is to come but a current thanksgiving for what already has and is and will be received here and now.

Psalm 126 – One of the psalms of ascent (Psalms 120-134), presumably recited en route to Jerusalem by the people of God on pilgrimages for the three major festivals each year. The phrase translated in the ESV as restore(d) the/our fortunes in verses 1 and 4 is a very difficult Hebrew phrase, and more literally means when the Lord turned again the returning of Zion. It’s a phrase used also in some of the prophetic writings to indicate a dramatic change of God’s attitude towards his people, moving from righteous anger and discipline to loving kindness and mercy. Some scholars view this phrase as a post-exilic phrase, meaning the psalm was composed after God’s people returned to Jerusalem under the auspices of the Persian Empire after their exile to Babylon. But it could also refer to other instances where the people of God experienced God’s grace and forgiveness after a time of his chastening and discipline. Regardless of what the author had in mind, the basic prayer is that as the Lord restored his people in the past, may He restore them now. Suffering is present, and deliverance is both a thing of the past and an anticipated hope for the future. The author is confident the Lord will not only hear but respond to this prayer, and we would be quick to say the answer is grounded in the empty tomb of our resurrected and ascended Lord along with his promised return.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – In rapid fire succession St. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians for their life in Christ. Rejoice. Pray. Give thanks. All positive exhortations – appropriate to those who follow Christ, the very Christ who will come to collect his people at the perfect time as Paul has just finished discussing at the end of Chapter 4 and the beginning of Chapter 5. There are things Christians should not do as well – do not frustrate or snuff out or quench the Holy Spirit’s work among and in them. Do not despise prophesies, either those in the Old Testament, or those of Christ and his return, and potentially even the ongoing revelations of God the Holy Spirit. But also be wise to test such prophesies and ensure they are of God and not of some other, unholy source. What is good should be clung to. Evil should be spurned. By these actions the God of peace will continue the sanctification – the making holy – of his people, just as his justification of our faith through Jeusus Christ will render us blameless in his sight when our Lord returns. Lest we think this is something in our hands, Paul reminds us it is not. God himself will do this. We simply trust him to do what He promises to.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 – St. John is the last to compose a Gospel, thought by some to have wrote it shortly before 70 AD (no mention is made of the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple), though other scholars consider the date of writing after this. He writes firsthand as a disciple, as Matthew does. And he writes first and foremost to affirm the identiy and purpose of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God. As part of this he writes to address what was possibly a problem – that some of John the Baptist’s disciples still felt that John the Baptist was the important figure, perhaps even the Messiah, rather than Jesus. St. John uses the words of John the Baptist himself to emphasize this was not the case. John the Baptist had an important role in salvation history as the precursor to the Messiah, speaking with the power and the authority of Elijah as prophecied by Malachi (4:5-6). But to understand and see the Messiah for who and what He was and is requires that John the Baptist be understood in the proper context to the Messiah.

Likewise the Church today must remain clear in her mission. It is not the Church who saves, but the Church who points people to the Son of God who alone has the power to save, and through whom alone forgiveness must be received. It is not participation in worship but faith in Christ alone that saves. The messengers of God today must keep that message clear and relevant week after week after week, because the saints of God are always prone to being led away into false understandings and beliefs not simply by the wiles of Satan but the persistence of the world around them and their own brokenness. Christ crucified and resurrected for us must remain the central messag of the Church.

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