13 Dec 2020
ADVENT 3 (B) S. Margaret’s, Budapest (online service)
The Revd Canon Denis Moss
Readings: Isaiah 61: 1 -4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1: 6 -8, 19-28.
The OT book we know as Isaiah was, the Biblical scholars tell us, written by three (possibly four) prophets at different times. The reading for today is from the third of these, Trito-Isaiah, who was probably a student of Deutero or Second Isaiah. Were they all named Isaiah? We really do not know. Anyway, this writer is telling us about his calling as a prophet. He knows that the Spirit of God is upon him, and he speaks of this as an anointing – a spiritual anointing. In that society only the King and the High Priest were physically anointed with oil as a sign that they were set apart from every-one else in order to perform their holy task under God. So, the prophet is saying that he has been ‘set apart’ for his holy task. And that task is to proclaim liberty to the captives. This is the task for which he believes that he has been sent. His ministry is one of the word: the very act of proclaiming God’s word brings forward God’s work among the people to whom he has been sent – the oppressed, the broken hearted, those who mourn, and so on. This is important. The very act of proclamation of God’s word, the speaking out of the truth of what God is doing, has healing and saving power in itself. The prophet has been sent to bring good news, and by this announce-ment the broken hearted are to be bound up and those who mourn are to be comforted. These are the people who have suffered, probably the innocent sufferers, these are the disadvantaged, and those who realize their own powerlessness and their utter dependence on God. These are the same sorts of people that Jesus speaks of in the Beatitudes. The prophetic voice does raise public awareness of problems by way of preaching – there is healing and power in the word.
Jesus applied the familiar words of the OT passage to himself and his own ministry (Luke4:16ff.). These words express his compassion and hope which his message of Good News brings. For Jesus, the anointing of the Holy Spirit occurs at his baptism by John the Baptist. But this Isaiah passage though is set in the time of the difficulties encountered by the returned exiles in the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah provide a fascinating view of this period. In today’s reading the prophet announces the intervention of God on behalf of the down-trodden etc. who will be the first to be relieved because of their helplessness, their openness, their complete dependence on the love and providence of their Father God. They are set to become enthralled by God’s gifts of peace, justice and salvation.
The words of S. Paul to the Thessalonians in the reading today are a wonderful continuation of the words of praise at the end of the OT passage. His experience of Thessalonica had been less than happy – in fact he had been chased out of town. But later he came to learn of difficulties in the Thessalonican Church. The fact is that all church communities which are truly on a quest to present the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ will experience spiritual warfare. The Church though will always win through if the heart of the church stays close to God in prayer for each other, and in the study of God’s word. St. Margaret’s community has been assaulted in the past, both from inside and from outside – but we overcame these onslaughts of evil. But as Satan departed from attacking Jesus himself only for a time, so we must be ready for further attack. This is the reality of life in the Spirit. The Thessalonian difficulty seems to have centred around people who have come to be known as the ‘Idlers’. These folk rejected work because of the common belief that Christ’s Second Coming (the Parousia) was imminent. They had come to believe that a convenient prophetic insight made it possible for them to live off the earnings of those still working. Quite naturally these latter came to resent this interpretation of the situation. But, in spite of the difficulty S. Paul was able to exhort his readers to: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. He says, ‘in all circumstances’, and certainly he did just that. Remember that it was S. Paul and Silas who sang praises to God while in chains in prison. So, when the car breaks down 40k from the nearest town, and the mobile phone has no charge, that is the time to be praising. This praise and thanksgiving mindset must be for the disciple trying to live ‘in Christ’ in S. Paul’s phrase.
It is sobering to reflect on how often problems arise from within the church itself. These are often more difficult to deal with than those from outside. At Thessalonica the questionable demands of the Idlers, based on prophecy in the Spirit, had led some to reject prophecy. S. Paul warns against this. He sees the Spirit in our lives as like a fire which must not be put out. Our life in Christ depends on the Spirit, even though manipulation is always possible. Prophecy is the proclaimed will of God; it is the act of interpreting and applying Christ’s teaching and insights to the present life situation. The misuse of prophecy sometimes does not make prophecy as a practice invalid. We are meant to test everything. Prophecy must be consistent with the scriptures, it must be consistent with the lived experience of the Christian community, it must be consistent with the over-arching concept of love. And it must not be divisive. The prayer with which S. Paul ends, prays that there should be no divisiveness. There is to be consistency and integrity, a wholeness which reflects the integrity of Jesus Christ. This should be evident in the life of the Christian community, the parish, the Body, as well as in the life of the individual disciple.
John the Baptizer appeared last week in the reading, and again today his name comes up in the Prologue to the Gospel of John. This is natural – he is an historical fix for the incarnation. The Word became flesh at a particular moment in time and in an identifiable physical context. We do not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, but it is clear that he was born. He is not a Greek or Hindu mythological figure. He actually lived. Our faith is placed in a Person, a Person connected with actual events and places. As Isaiah was sent in a previous age so now John is sent to be a witness and with a message to proclaim. At the very spot where Israel had crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, John was baptizing with water, and using a rite of penitence. His purpose was to bring God’s people to repentance and faith. He was so successful in this, so many people were flocking to hear him and were undergoing his baptism, that the Temple authorities sent out a commission of enquiry to find out exactly what all the excitement was about. Who is this person, and what is his significance? That was their brief.
John’s answers must have appeared somewhat less than satisfactory. No, he is not the Christ. No, he is not Elijah. No, he is not the prophet for whom Israel awaits. Well, who are you then? Even a nobody has to be somebody. Well, he is the one who goes before, a mere witness completely dependent on him to whom he witnesses, a voice for the Word of God. As a statement of identity it didn’t really satisfy his questioners. The early Church too found this figure somewhat puzzling: this man so precious in the eyes of Jesus; this one who had been sent to point to the one you do not know, the one who is coming after me. John shows us that the questions, hopes, expectations of the coming Messiah had their fulfilment in Jesus. John’s task of course has to be repeated from generation to generation. Jesus stands among us today, unrecognized in our society. We also are sent to point to him, the thong of whose sandals we are not worthy to untie.