Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, December 15, 2019 – Advent 3A
Jesus comes to us in our prisons. (Satterlee.) What is imprisoning you?
The wilderness and the dry and shall be glad. The desert will rejoice and blossom… Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong; do not be afraid!” Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped… And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.
Happy are those who hope in the LORD, who sets the prisoners free, who opens the eyes of the blind, who watches over strangers, who upholds the orphan and the widow, who brings the wicked to ruin.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, who has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, who has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord, just as a farmer patiently waits for precious crops from the earth.
John sent word to Jesus by his disciples: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Better Metrics: Hungry Fed, Sick Healed…
Isaiah 35 – The eyes of the blind
The theme that weaves most of this coming week’s texts together is the promise mentioned in this text, and echoed in Psalm 146, Luke 1 and Matthew 11. Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy. In the kingdom of God, those living with disabilities will find healing.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,*
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8 A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,*
but it shall be for God’s people;*
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
9No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
10And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
This is a promise mentioned numerous times in the prophets. It is part of Isaiah’s understanding of his mission. We will hear it again in third Isaiah, in chapter 61:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
The reign of God means good news for the poor.
Psalm 146: The God of Jacob executes justice for the oppressed.
This psalm echoes the promise of Isaiah 35 and other prophetic texts.
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7 who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
9 The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD!
Luke 1:47-55 – The Magnificat
The Magnificat, Mary’s Song, appears every Advent in the Lutheran version of the Revised Common Lectionary. Twice in year B:
In each case, it is an option for the Psalm. In year C, the text is also an option for the extended reading of the gospel: Luke 1:39-45 (46-55).
The Magnificat amplifies the themes from Isaiah 35 and Psalm 146. The gospel is good news for the poor. God gives food to the hungry and justice to the oppressed. The prisoners are set free, and the blind receive their sight. Strangers are welcomed. Orphans and widows are lifted up.
The appointed text begins with verse 47, but it would be absurd to start there. Begin with verse 46:
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
46Καὶ εἶπεν Μαριάμ, Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον,
47καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
48ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αὐτοῦ.
ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί:
49ὅτι ἐποίησένμοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός, καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ,
50καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αὐτόν.
51Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ,
διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν:
52καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς,
53πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν καὶπλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
54ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ, μνησθῆναι ἐλέους,
55καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν,
τῷ Ἀβραὰμ καὶ τῷσπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.
Mary appears in one of the readings for the next three Sundays: Advent 3, Advent 4 and Christmas Eve/Day. If you think that’s a bit excessive, consider that out of the 3,000 names in the Bible, only 180 are women. Of those 180, around 93 actually have recorded words spoken. Of those 93, only 49 have names. The Bible is a patriarchal set of books from patriarchal societies, where women were not considered primary actors. When women do figure prominently, as in the case of Mary, it is refreshing. Don’t miss this opportunity to preach on Mary, on one of the upcoming Sundays. More on Mary next week.
There are many settings of The Magnificat. Marty Haugen’s Magnificat from his setting of Holden Evening Prayer has become extremely popular in many of our congregations. The version of the Magnificat in the evening prayer on pages 314 and 315 is an arrangement by Schultz, in Austin, Texas. There are also arrangements in the hymn section of ELW:
- ELW 234 and 235 are chant.
- ELW 236 is a Taizé version.
- ELW 251, from With One Voice, is set to an English folk tune, arranged by Ralph Vaughn Williams.
- ELW 573 is set to a tune by Heinrich Schütz.
- ELW 723 is the very popular Canticle of the Turning, set to an Irish folk tune.
ELW 882 is a gospel arrangement of Mary’s Song.
Mary is no “anemic white waif” as someone once goaded me. Her song is the powerful voice of justice, reminding us that the arc of history bends toward justice.
For a reflection on the Virgin of Guadalupe, CLICK HERE.
James 5 – Be patient
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
This passage from James 5 does not describe the reign of God as the previous texts do, but it does counsel the faithful to remain patient for the coming of Christ. The reign of God is like a harvest that takes time to ripen. In the meantime, strengthen your hearts. Do not grumble. Follow the prophet’s example of suffering and patience.
Matthew 11 – Faithful Metrics
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The Gospel of Matthew is divided into 5 sections, like the five books of the Pentateuch. Each with a narrative and a discourse. Matthew 11 is the beginning of the third of five narratives in Matthew’s gospel. Here is an Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel.
In his sermon on this gospel text, Martin Luther suggests John the Baptist had no doubt whatsoever that Jesus was the One to come. After all, John heard the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my Beloved Son…” (Matthew 3:17).
The text hints at the same. The NRSV renders it, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples…” But the original text says,
Ὁ δὲ Ἰωάννης ἀκούσας ἐν τῷ δεσμωτηρίῳ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ Χριστοῦ πέμψας
διὰ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ…
This is more literally translated, “Now John, hearing in prison of the works of Christ, sent to him, through his disciples…” John had heard of the works of Christ. He’s just seeking confirmation. We get a glimpse of the bond between the two, at least in the gospel writer’s mind.
Luther says John is doing this for the sake of his disciples, not himself, so that they, John ‘s followers, might now believe in Jesus and follow him instead. “He must increase and I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
In Reading Matthew, Dr. David Garland (Truett Theological Seminary, the seminary’s fourth dean) suggests that John is like Moses, leading the people to the Promised Land, a land that he himself will not be able to see. John knows his ministry and his life are coming to an end. He is allowing his disciples to get a taste of Jesus’ ministry. John points his disciples away from himself.
Faithful leaders always point beyond themselves. Egotistical leaders point to themselves, elevating themselves. Egotistical leaders preach sermons that make people say, “Wow, he is great!” Servant leaders preach sermons that make people say “Wow, God is great!” The egotistical leader inspires people to increase the church for his own glory. The servant leader inspires people to increase God’s kingdom for God’s glory.
Leaders that make a difference point to something bigger than themselves: the mission. John pointed to Jesus. Jesus pointed to God, and God’s Mission: the reign of God.
To what or to whom are you pointing your people? What is the mission of your congregation? Is the mission of your congregation survival, or is the mission bigger than that, the healing of the world?
John invites his disciples to go and see Jesus for themselves.
Jesus responds to John’s disciples:
Tell John what you see:
- blind see
- lame walk
- lepers cleansed
- deaf hear
- dead raised
- good news preached to the poor
These are the signs of Jesus’ ministry alive and active in the world. They might make good metrics for church today, a deeper metric than the nickels and noses we usually count. Nickels and noses are not unimportant. They must not be, however, the measure of Christian ministry.
John’s disciples see Jesus’ public ministry firsthand. No hearsay. This is the real deal.
Garland points out that the “proofs” Jesus mentions here in Matthew are reflective of Isaiah’s messianic predictions:
- Isaiah 29:18 – “the deaf shall hear, the blind shall see”
- Isaiah 35:5-6 – “the eyes of the blind shall be opened; the ears of the deaf will be unstopped; the lame shall leap…”
- Isaiah 42:18 – “listen, dead: look up, blind”
- Isaiah 26:19 – “the dead shall live”
- Isaiah 61:1 – “to bring good news to the oppressed”
These things are also the very activity that Jesus was doing in the second narrative section, chapters 8 and 9.
I find it interesting that when Jesus faces doubts, from none other than John, the one who baptized him, Jesus points to the outcomes. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. “Am I the one? You tell me. What do you see? And how does that line up with your understanding of the reign of God?”
How does that work in your congregation? Can your members say to their curious friends, “Come and see?” What would their friends see? What is the fruit of your ministry? One thing we know about healthy trees from the gospels: they bear fruit.
Is the tree bearing fruit? Is there healing going on? Hope? Are there signs of the kingdom of heaven in your church’s worship, community, ministry? Is there any kind of transformation taking place in people’s lives? Is there joy? Love? (“By this shall all people know you are my disciples: if you love one another.” John 13:35) Is good news being preached to the poor?
Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fruit.” Jesus is about results. Our theology often creeps into cheap grace. I often hear people quote “God doesn’t call us to be successful; God calls us to be faithful.” It’s sometimes attributed to Mother Teresa – ironic given how prolific her ministry was. God may not call us to be successful, but God does call us to be fruitful. Jesus curses the fig tree, a symbol for the religious institutions of his day, for not bearing fruit. What do you do with a tree that doesn’t bear fruit? Cut it down and throw it into the fire. The master wants to do just that. The gardener, however, asks for a stay of execution. Let me dig around it and apply manure for a year, and then we’ll re-evaluate. Sometimes I think we are all in this very situation.
In Renovate or Die: Ten Ways to Focus Your Church on Mission, Methodist bishop Bob Farr says ministry is like renovation. Sometimes we treat it like redecoration. We spruce up the building. Ministry is more like renovation: checking the foundation. You might have to take down and move walls. The plumbing and electricity will need work. Redecoration won’t do.
The same might be said for our lives. We’d like to follow Jesus, as long as it doesn’t require us to change too much. We join a church for spiritual inspiration, but we don’t really want the Spirit to come and start moving walls. We might ask the above question of our lives this Advent. What fruit are our lives bearing? What evidence is there that faith is alive and the Spirit is at work?
Sometimes I think we are so caught up in our theology of grace, we are afraid to do good works, lest we might be accused of trying to earn our salvation. Indeed Luther himself, in his sermon on this text, says things that would bother the purveyors of Lutheran neo-orthodoxy. Luther says,
Here we have stated that where the works are absent, there is also no Christ.
Where there are no works, there is no Christ. Faith without works is dead.
Luther goes on:
Christ is a living, active and fruit-bearing character who does not rest, but works unceasingly wherever he is. Therefore, those bishops and teachers that are not doing the works of Christ, we should avoid and consider as wolves.
John points to Jesus. Jesus points to the mission/the works/the fruit, for signs that God is here, breaking in. Jesus doesn’t even try to spin it, much: “Go tell John what you see…”
Could you do that? “Go tell your friends what you see going on here in this ministry…”
One pastor said to me, “What if, instead of reporting attendance and giving (noses and nickels) we reported outcomes: hungry fed, naked clothed, homeless housed, strangers welcomed, sick cared for, prisoners visited?”
There’s an irony in the last part of Jesus’ comment: “…and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.” Proclaiming the gospel turns out to be the pinnacle of good works. Luther takes this opportunity to do a little teaching on law and gospel. Apparently they gave him more than 10-12 minutes to preach. This sermon looks like an hour or more to me. (But then again, there was no TV back then…)
Why good news to the poor, and not to the rich? Luther says,
But my kingdom, because it seeks not its own advantage, but rather bestows benefits upon others, is sufficient of itself and needs no one’s help; therefore, it cannot bear to be surrounded by such as are already sufficient of themselves, such as are healthy, rich, strong, pure, active, pious, and able in every respect. To such I am of no benefit; they obtain nothing from me.
The gospel is for those who are famished, physically and spiritually.
Good news for the poor encompasses any who are broken in any way. If you think you are not broken – if you have it all together – well, then Christ may be of no use to you. “God cannot fill what is already full,” another Mother Teresa quote. The only prerequisite for being filled with God’s grace is you must be empty. The only prerequisite for being resurrected is you must be dead.
Christ comes, bringing good news to the poor, hope for the hopeless, joy for the sorrowful, healing for the brokenhearted. This is good news for you, and good news for you to carry to others.