Sunday, December 18, 2016 The Fourth Sunday of Advent
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
The days of Advent are variable. At it’s shortest Christmas comes the day after the Fourth Sunday of Advent, a Monday, so that Advent IV and Christmas Eve are the same day. That would make for an Advent season of 22 days, or, in most people’s minds, 21-1/2 days. This year Advent is at its longest, as Christmas falls on a Sunday, meaning that there is a full week between the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day, making an Advent season of 28 days.
The people behind the Daily Office Lectionary dealt with this by creating two sets of telescoping readings. The outer barrel of the telescope are the readings for the last seven days before Christmas, and are set according to the date, from December 18 on to December 24. The inner barrel is a week’s worth of readings for the week of the Third Sunday of Advent, Sunday through Saturday. These readings are preempted once December 18 comes, so that in most years only a few of the daily readings are used. This year was unusual in that we used all of them. It’s a clever system, and works well.
We continue to read from Isaiah, only we jump from the first twelve chapters of Isaiah into what was earlier described as Second Isaiah, poetry written several generations after the historical Isaiah by disciples working within his tradition. The message shifts from warning and condemnation to one of hope and renewal: “Sing to the Lord a new song!” The sea and the desert and all their inhabitants from oases and coastlands join together to sing for joy. The cause of this joy is the return of God’s people from exile to Jerusalem and Judea.
Israel is given a new role. The first of the Servant Songs appears in the reading today. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The movement of Yahweh from a tribal god to the sole deity with a claim on all peoples results in a universal mission of the the people of Israel, here personified as a servant. Israel has a mission to all the nations, not in an arrogant or showy way but in persistence and steady moving forward. It is a mission of liberation and justice, as befits a people that traces its origin in freedom from slavery in Egypt, and exile to Babylon: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” It is a time for transformation, hope, and joy, and of moving one: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”
Jesus of Nazareth saw himself as the servant of God, and probably understood these verses to apply to himself. This is not to negate the previous understanding of the Servant Songs as describing the new role for Israel at the dawn of the fifth century BC, but to underline the ability of prophecy to be recycled to apply to new situations. The Gospel according to Luke definitely understood Jesus as that servant; in chapter 2 Jesus as an infant is brought to the Temple by his parents, and Simeon sees him and recognises him as the Messiah. He sings,
νῦν ἀπολύεις τὸν δοῦλόν σου, δέσποτα, κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου ἐν εἰρήνῃ·
ὅτι εἶδον οἱ ὀφθαλμοί μου τὸ σωτήριόν σου,
ὃ ἡτοίμασας κατὰ πρόσωπον πάντων τῶν λαῶν,
φῶς εἰς αποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν καὶ δόξαν λαοῦ σου Ἰσραήλ.
or, in English, as is commonly sung in the words of the Book of Common Prayer:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
This theme of light is picked up in the Gospel according to John, both in the prologue in chapter one and again in today’s reading from chapter 3. Jesus is the light of God which has come into the world. The light is a means of truth and salvation. Rejecting it brings condemnation upon oneself, as it means that one rejects truth, servanthood, justice, and God’s grace. As Paul puts it in Ephesians, the forces of evil that lead to condemnation are cosmic, deeper than ordinary human will: “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Again, this goes back to Paul’s understanding of idolatry as the source of all evil. Get involved in having idols, of having and worshiping gods other than Yahweh, and you will probably be corrupted and destroyed. Paul advises us to put on truth, righteousness, readiness to proclaim the gospel, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and the Word of God.
As Christians we inherit the mantle of being the servant of the Lord. We, too, are called to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” We are called to challenge the idols of this age, all that brings us to stumble in the darkness, that which causes moral blindness, that which imprisons people in narrow, and to release folks from violent and fearful prisons of the mind. More literally we are to help those most affected by conflict and oppression – people today in Syria and Iraq, Yemen and Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Ukraine and Georgia, and for peace between Israelis and Palestinians; indigenous peoples suffering five centuries of disease, war, genocide, and colonization; the 65 million refugees around the world; the 1.3 billion people still in extreme poverty; and the legacy of slavery throughout the world. While Christians can take pride in their country, they should always be somewhat critical as well, knowing that all states fall short of the kingdom of God. Thus, no Christian can be a true nationalist, as Galatians 3. 16 states: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is not to obliterate difference, but it is not the essential or most important thing.
So let us draw to the one who is the light of the world, that we might shine reflected glory, and join in the chorus as we sing a new song to the Lord, and act to bring justice to the earth, and teaching to the coastlands.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,
the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’