Reflection for the third Sunday after Advent

Reading: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11

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 broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Reflection

During the autumn, I planted quite a few daffodil bulbs – some in my garden and some around the entrance of the cathedral in the expectation of a cheerful display of bright yellow flowers in the spring. Some of the bulbs went in quite late, but even so, I was amazed to find that they are already pushing their green shoots up through the ground even though it is not yet mid-winter. Those green shoots bring the hope of new beginning.

In the last sentence of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, the prophet uses the image of the earth bringing forth shoots “as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up” and tells us that in the same way “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations”.

In other words, God’s people will be an example to all the world because of the way they live (righteously) and worship the one true God. Their faith in God will be expressed in how they live. The prophet has already spelled out what righteousness looks like when he said that God sent him to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, the release of prisoners, and to comfort those who mourn.

This was what God promised to his own people who had returned from exile and captivity. He was now planting them back in the land like oak trees of righteousness. We have made righteousness into a very religious word, but above all it means justice. God desires justice in his world and he requires his people to practice justice.

It is noteworthy that Jesus launched his mission in Galilee quoting those same words from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted” and so on. Today, we would call that his mission statement – this concern for the poor, oppressed and suffering people of the world.

Today, as we lit the third Advent candle, we were reminded of John the Baptist who came to prepare the way for Christ – the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord”. That is how John described himself when questioned by priests who were sent from Jerusalem to find out exactly who was this controversial and radical preacher and baptiser. They interrogated him to find out if he claimed to be the Messiah, or if he was a prophet.

When John denied it, they asked: “Then why are you baptising?” We see baptism through our Christian lens as the initiation into the Christian faith, but that was not how it was practised initially. Non-Jews, or gentiles who converted to Judaism, sometimes underwent baptism as a symbolic cleansing from their previous life. It was controversial for John to baptise Jews. Why would they need baptism, if they were already descendants of Abraham and part of God’s chosen race?

John was dismissive of these hereditary claims and declared that everyone needed to repent and change. He was particularly harsh in his pronouncements about faith that was divorced from ethical living, saying the axe is lying at the root of the trees; “every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down”. He could not have been stronger in his condemnation of an empty form of religion.

John, for all his fiery pronouncements, his uncompromising radical message, and his own very substantial following, did nothing to promote himself, but humbly yielded to “the one coming after” him, of whom he said he was not even worthy to untie his sandal.

As we move through Advent and look forward to celebrating the birth of Christ, the message of John the Baptist and the words of Isaiah challenge us to ask ourselves: how prepared are we to welcome Christ’s coming among us? As the followers of Christ, how in tune are we with his message of the kingdom? Where is our concern with justice in the world, for the most vulnerable, oppressed and rejected people?

I often wonder what a present-day John the Baptist might say to us in our affluent part of the world while so many people around the globe lack the basic necessities of life, while there is homelessness, a world refugee crisis and so much human suffering.

As we approach Christmas and offer our worship and praise to God, may it go hand-in-hand with a desire to see the green shoots of God’s justice bursting out in the world.

Amen.

Collect for Third Sunday of Advent

O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.

Prayers of Intercession

Blessed are you, Lord our God,
for you sent the prophets and John the Baptist
to prepare your way.
You have told us of your coming
and you reveal yourself to us in Jesus.
You come to each of us in power and in love.
Blessed are you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Father, we give thanks for all who tell of your love and who proclaim your coming. We ask your blessing upon your church, in this diocese and for Pat, our bishop. Bless all who are baptised into your presence and power. Lord, we ask forgiveness when your Church misuses the resources you have given it and when we fail to live up to your teaching and love.

Lord, come to us: forgive us and guide us.

We remember in your presence the troubles and sorrows of our world. We pray for all who are caught up in war or violence, all who suffer from the greed and insensitivity of others. May we not misuse or squander the earth’s resources but use them with care and for the benefit of all. We ask your blessing upon all leaders and politicians. We pray for a resolution to the impasse in the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU. We pray also for our health service during the current pandemic And for the successful delivery of a vaccine that will prevent the COVID-19 virus.

Lord, come to us: forgive us and guide us.

We ask your blessing upon all who do not look forward to Christmas. We remember all who will be homeless or lonely and all who are poor or deeply in debt. We pray that our homes may be places of love and peace where you are welcome. May we know that in the coming of others to us, you also come and seek our love.

Lord, come to us: forgive us and guide us.

We remember all who are ill and suffering at this time, those who mourn, all who are distressed and those who are overburdened. May they know your peace and your presence. May all who walk in darkness come to know your light and your love. We pray for all who are ill in hospital or in care at this time.

Lord, come to us: forgive us and guide us.

We remember all our loved ones departed, and we remember all who have died recently. May we come with them to rejoice in the fullness of life and be with you in glory.

Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

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