Isaiah 35:1-10+Canticle 15+James 5:7-10+Matthew 11:2-11
For those of us worshipping twice this morning, we will likely find it a rather disjointed experience. Here we are, once again, with John the Baptist who is now in jail, awaiting his execution by Herod, yet in a little while, our children will be telling the story of the birth of Jesus. Everything we hear this morning, from Isaiah to Mary’s Magnificat to James is all pointing to the questions that John asks: is this the one? Is Jesus the one?
What do you see? What do you hear? “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” (Matthew 11:5).
In the canticle we recited a few moments ago, Jesus’s mother, Mary, utters prophetic words upon learning that she would bear this child. She spoke not of what God’s reign will be, but of what it already is. As it says in the traditional language
…he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away (BCP, 50).
Before the birth, before anyone else even knows about this, God’s purposes are being fulfilled.
At this time of year, we read a lot from the prophet Isaiah. It is perhaps one of the best known of the books of the prophets, thanks at least in part to Handel’s Messiah. Many of the most familiar choruses and solos are taken from this work, from Comfort ye (40:1-5) to O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (40:9) to my personal favorite, All we like sheep have gone astray (53:3-6). I have said many times here that prophecy is not about telling the future, so why do we look back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ and use those texts to talk about it?
Prophets like Isaiah stand between God and people, communicating the will of each to the other. Scholars believe that this particular book is divided into either two or three parts, depending on whom you believe, with two or three or even more authors spanning a couple of hundred years. I happen to be in the three-part camp with God only knows how many contributors.
It seems pretty clear, to me and those whose work I have embraced, that the first 39 chapters of what we know as First Isaiah deal with Isaiah’s call to serve as a prophet of God and the run-up to the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. The second part, chapters 40-55, shifts to the time of the Babylonian exile more than a century later, and Third Isaiah, the final ten chapters, is a collection of writings pointing toward the restoration of the people.
It is from the first section, before the invasion, that our reading this morning comes: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom,” (35:1) “and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (35:10). Even in the face of impending disaster, the prophet tells the people that God has not abandoned them.
Then the eyes of the
blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then 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… (35:5-6).
Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos point toward a time when God’s will for humankind will be fulfilled, and Mary the Prophet is claiming it. It is here. The time has come.
And yet. And yet. If we look around us, the world is not as God would have it. The poor are still poor, the hungry are not filled with good things, the rich are not sent away empty but only get richer. What are we to make of this?
The epistle from James this morning might provide a clue.
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… As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord (James 5:7-8, 10).
The prophets did not live to see salvation. John the Baptizer who sent his followers to question Jesus did not live to see it. The disciples and martyrs did not. Will we?
Advent is an odd in-between time. We live in the joy of resurrection and the expectation of Christ’s coming again, and we look around and see a deeply troubled world. Rather than giving up, losing hope, deciding that’s it’s all a big fairy tale, look around you.
The hungry are being fed. The poor are being cared for. People are being cured from once-incurable diseases. Perhaps when the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night, it will only be because we didn’t look around to see the signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign all around us.
The tragic violence that unfolded in Jersey City this week would seem to put the lie to any expectation of goodness or hope for the Greenville neighborhood of Jersey City. Yet, in this area where tensions have been on the rise between the long-term residents and the newly-arrived Hasidic Jews, there has been nothing but support and promises of help for those who lost their lives and their families. Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, the store employee who had just returned from vacation, gave his life so that a customer, the cousin of one of the victims, could escape.
Amidst tragedy, there is hope. Goodness springs from the hard winter ground like a crocus peeking through the snow. Our job is to tend those tender shoots, those fragile beginnings of something new, to breathe on embers of faith until they burst into flame.
This is what we do in the in-between time. We live as if God’s reign has come, and we do our part in making that real, until Christ comes again.