Third Sunday of Advent; 13 December 2020; Advent 3B (RCL); Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28.
A good friend of mine spent six months in Lui, South Sudan as a missioner for the Diocese of Missouri. She was there during the long, dry season, when people stood in line for hours at the water hole to get a little water for the day. She watched the store of grain begin to dwindle, while the people waited anxiously for the rainy season.
One day, during prayer at the cathedral (which had a metal roof), the rain began to fall, the sound drowning out the preacher, so all just sat listening with smiles on their faces. After a few days of rain, the women took out their secret stores of seed grain, which they kept separate from the food, and went into the fields and planted it in the ground. My friend said she had never really understood faith, until she watched those women take that grain, which could have filled the bellies of their children, and place it in the ground, trusting that the rains would make it grow.
The psalm captures this faith: those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy; those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
The passage from Isaiah speaks of the remnant of the people rebuilding Jerusalem, restoring the devastation. The earth will bring forth its shoots, and a garden will bring forth what is sown in it. Even so, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s righteousness is connected to the plenty of the land. When God is just, and when the people respond with justice in the community, then the earth brings forth its plenty and the land is glad.
The passage from Isaiah opens with the announcement of God’s servant. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the oppressed, release to the captive, and to announce the year of the Lord’s good favor. This is the passage Jesus read at his first sermon in the synagogue at Capernaum, according to Luke’s Gospel. After reading the passage, he sat down and said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He announced that the year of Jubilee had arrived. No wonder the crowd wanted to throw him over the brow of the hill. Their whole economy would come to a screeching halt in order to bring about God’s justice.
In the passage from John’s Gospel, we hear the testimony of John the Baptist (a title the evangelist never uses) to Jesus. It fascinates me that all he says about Jesus is that among us stands one we do not know. Inserted into the prologue of the Gospel, with its emphasis on the preexistence of the Word and the Word’s incarnation, this implies that the Word stands among us. I have always understood John’s use of the word Word (whether logos or rhema) to be a bit ironic. Jesus is incarnate in the discourse of the community. Among us stands a Word we have not yet heard.
If God’s righteousness is connected with the fruitfulness of the earth, and involves the freedom of those captive and the forgiveness of crippling debt, then we are saved all together, or not at all. American Christianity focuses almost exclusively on a future, otherworldly, individual salvation. The Bible won’t let us read it that way. God’s salvation is about restoring devastated cities, and the fruit of the garden. And the Word that speaks of that salvation stands yet unrecognized among us. When it speaks, we will be uncomfortable. Our hope is an eschatological, not an otherworldly, hope.