The readings for this third week in Advent are unified by the expectation and fulfillment of dramatic, circumstance-altering, physical transformations that God enacts and that continue to connect the birth of Jesus to the Hebrew prophets. We are preparing to witness the fulfillment of centuries upon centuries of expectation born out of a culture whose faith in God is based on experience of covenant – promises made and relationships restored by the turning of Israel toward God and God toward Israel. The hope was for another miraculous covenantal act…thunder on the mountains, plagues, or liberation. No one was looking for the for the physical incarnation of God…God’s Son born of a woman.
In the previous week’s reading, John confidently announced the coming of one who would baptize the repentant with fire and the Holy Spirit. As time passed, and as the scrutiny of Pharisees and of Herod intensified, early believers held their breath. They watched and waited. Imagine their mix of emotions as there was no massive political upheaval, no broad sweeping societal shifts. Can you feel the awkward silence? The building doubt?
In our 21st century world, as we await the birth of Jesus, it seems odd to be reading about John the Baptist inquiring from prison about the validity of this teacher he hoped would be the Messiah. The Matthew text this week foreshadows the questions that inevitably rise in our own hearts as we await the birth of this Son of God each year. John is desperate for assurance that his teaching and sacrifices have not been in vain. He sends word…Jesus, are you really “the One?”
In Isaiah, the prophet comforts a people in exile, recently defeated by the Babylonians, accustomed by their history to cycles of success and hardship, by casting a vision of a desert transformed not just with a stream or river, but radically altered to be a swamp teeming with life. The lame will walk and the speechless will sing with joy. These are dramatic and abundant reversals.. And in their longing, the people also recognize that God has delivered them through miracles time and time again.
In Psalm 146, the author praises God for creation and for justice and for changing physical circumstances--feeding the hungry, freeing the imprisoned, opening the eyes of the blind. These wonders have been experienced and are surely reminders of God’s covenant with the descendants of Abraham.
The Luke passage is taken from the Magnificat, The Song of Mary – Mary praises God for the honor of using her body for the birth of the Son of Man. She references the strength of God’s arm and acknowledges that he has fed the hungry, fulfilling real human need. God’s actions through the ages have been a cycle of returning to covenant relations with the people of Israel. She remembers the kings that God has brought down and the lowly that God has lifted to great heights.
The letter from James was probably written to the first generation of Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine. These communities were not far from the experience of Jesus’ teaching, crucifixion and resurrection. They were still expecting the imminent return of their Messiah – still living in a covenant expectation. They were probably victims of great political upheaval preceding the final destruction of the Temple. James encourages these early Christians to have high expectations for altered circumstances. He reminds them that the rain does indeed come in its season to nourish the crops. He draws them back to the tradition of the prophets, and through them to the covenant that has been the underpinning of Jewish society, and encourages them to be patient in their suffering.
Returning to Matthew, Jesus almost echoes the Psalmist in his response to John “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Tell him what you HEAR with your ears and what you SEE with your eyes. This Jesus has altered the physical circumstances of people time and time again. This is no philosophical Messiah…this is not just about theoretical change. This is a man who is physically altering those he touches, those with whom he prays, those to whom he speaks. This is a man among the living with dirt on his feet and the smell of real people on his hands.
Is this what John expected? Is this what the people of the covenant had waited for over the centuries? Their experience historically was one of commandments, fidelity and sanctions. Were they anxiously waiting for a baby that would became a humble carpenter who taught us how to love, to forgive and to be forgiven rather than becoming a superhero, a politician or a king who took the world by force?
In the first week, we pondered our own expectations of how the story will end. In the second week, we considered whose voices might be revealing God’s work among us today. This week’s readings call us to look for the tangible physical signs of God in our lives and in the lives of our whole world; then we, along with John, must decide if we believe this is the Son of God. And then, if we do, we must each what difference that might make in our lives and in our community.
+Who is this Jesus, whose birth we await?
+What do I know about covenant? How does the history of covenant shape me as a Christian?
+Do I really expect Jesus’ presence in my life to bring about radical, physical, circumstance-altering change? If I do, do I share that expectation and faith with those around me?
Oh come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home. The captives from their prison free, and conquer death’s deep misery. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.