3rd Sunday of Advent, Dec. 17, 2017
(Isaiah 61:1-2a,10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John1:6-8, 19-28)
Isaiah speaks in glowing terms about the end of the Babylonian Exile in the first reading. The end of exile means “glad tidings” for the poor, healing for the brokenhearted, liberty for captives and release for prisoners. All of this happens during a “year of favor” from the Lord. This “jubilee year” stems from Leviticus 25:10, which is supposed to occur every fiftieth year. It coincides here with the fiftieth year (roughly) since the exile had begun. It began in 586 BC and Cyrus declared the exile at an end in 538 BC. Naturally, the prophet recounts all that is to be expected during this jubilee.
Luke cited these first two verses at the opening of Jesus’ public ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4:18-19. After that, Luke’s Jesus said: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” We should note that Isaiah was quite comfortable with the idea that the words he wrote were being fulfilled in his own day. Luke chose to interpret them as applying to Jesus. It is important to realize that contemporary Jews of Isaiah’s day were every bit as overjoyed at the prospect of the exile ending, as Luke was in understanding these words being fulfilled in Jesus.
During a jubilee year, nothing was to be planted and nothing harvested. “You may only eat what the field yields of itself (Lev. 25:12).” This explains the latter half of the reading: “As the earth brings forth its plants and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.”
The Gospel reading from chapter one of John’s Gospel is busy with the identity of John (the Baptist) from early on in this Gospel. His role is much less as a baptizer, and much more as a witness to the light, so that all might believe “through him.” John the evangelist understands the testimony of John as the key by whom all will come to believe the light, to which John testifies. John was not the light, but came to testify to the light.
Sunday’s reading jumps to verse 19, which spells out what John’s testimony was, as it introduces Jerusalem authorities, including priests and Levites, to inquire about John: “Who are you?” It is a stunning question really. How would we answer the question? Do we start telling our life history, or do we state our name, our gender, our occupation? How do we answer?
John answers negatively: “I am not the Christ.” The questioners ask: “What then? Elijah?...The Prophet? …Who are you so we can tell those who sent us?” John’s answer quotes Isaiah (40:3): “I am the voice of one crying in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” In verse 17 John had said that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” That was the first mention of Christ in John, suggesting that John in his preaching likely mentioned Christ and was aware of the expectation that the Messiah (or Christ) was near. The official came to John because of his many followers, which is why he immediately denies that he is the Messiah.
Everything points to the one who is coming after him. When the Pharisees join in, asking him why he is baptizing if he is not the Messiah nor any of the others, John answers that there is one among them now but they do not recognize him. He is the one whose sandal strap John is unworthy to untie. “Bethany across the Jordan,” where John was baptizing is a place unknown.
The scene is set for Jesus to arrive, which will unfold shortly during the Christmas celebration to follow, while Paul reminds us to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing and to test everything while retaining the good.
Fr. Lawrence L. Hummer email@example.com