A new thing

17 December 2017
Third Sunday of Advent
Advent 3B (RCL)

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

The last part of the book of Isaiah (Chapters 40-65) has often been treated as a work entirely separate from the first part in time, location and occasion. Sometimes, it is even broken down into two parts of its own: DeuteroIsaiah (40-55) and TritoIsaiah (56-66). While it is clear that Chapters 1-39 deal with circumstances before the fall of Jerusalem in 539 BCE, and the last half deals with circumstances during Exile and after the return, yet it also seems clear that Chapters 40-66 have always circulated with the rest of the book, and in fact serve as a reflection on and interpretation of the prophecies of the first half viewed in new circumstances.

The first half predicts a terrible judgment upon Jerusalem. Chapter 40 opens with a beautiful poem stating that the judgment is over, and a new thing has begun. Much of the material in the second half seeks to reinterpret the idea of covenant to include the righteous from all the nations. Apparently, the prophetic school suffered some persecution from the Ezra/Nehemiah school, and this is reflected in the Servant Songs. This new covenant might involve Israel’s suffering for the sake of the world.

The passage before us this Sunday echoes some of the Servant Songs of Deutero-Isaiah, except in this case, the servant speaks in his own voice (Behold, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me). Now, the descendants (of the Servant) will be known among the nations, fulfilling the universalist vision of the prophet in Chapters 40-55. It is easy to see how early Christians fastened on these verses as a prophetic foretelling of the mission of the disciples of Jesus. Here, the wandering prophets announced a new covenant open to all, suffered persecution, and yet came to be known across the Mediterranean basin. It wouldn’t take much intellectual effort to reinterpret this aspect of Israel’s epic to apply to the Christian movement.

The language of clothing in wedding garments fits seamlessly into reflection on baptism as being clothed with Christ. This reinterpretation of Israel’s scriptures, however, places the onus of a divine vocation on the emerging Christian movement. They are to announce a new covenant to the whole world, and perhaps accept the suffering that comes with that announcement.

When priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem to question John about his baptism, he confessed (John tells us three times) that he was not the Christ. But he doesn’t fit in any other category, either. He is not Elijah, nor the Prophet (like Moses), and so his interlocutors don’t how to understand his baptism. He is instead the voice of one crying in the wilderness, a figure who stands at the beginning of this whole section of Isaiah under consideration. He is announcing this new thing, this new universalist covenant. Among them stands the one who is to come (presumably along the road prepared in the wilderness). On this one, the spirit will rest, to initiate this new covenant. John (the Evangelist) is pointing us to a whole new understanding of baptism. On us rests the spirit that rests on the Servant!

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