Today in the Spirit: Advent 3A

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In all three years of our Sunday lectionary, Advent 3 is also the Baptist, part 2. After reacquainting us with the character and preaching of John the Baptist in Advent 2, the church assigns a Collect and readings to take us deeper into consideration of the power of biblical prophecy in general and John’s role as herald of the Messiah in particular. Traditionally this Sunday has been called “Joy Sunday,” but what we find in Year A (the Matthew year; Year B is Mark; Year C is Luke), is that, with the exception of the majestic OT reading from Isaiah 35, the words “joy” and “rejoicing” figure not at all in the messaging of the church for the week. The central focus is rather on an authentic response to the advent of God’s new covenant revealed in the Christ. Out of Matthew 11, we will hear Jesus exhorting the Baptist himself to find reassurance in the Messiah’s coming, not from personal conviction which can waver under the strain of difficult circumstances (like being in prison), but on the works of Jesus which fulfill the word of God in prophecy. In the Epistle reading from James 5 comes the exhortation to be patient and to pray in fellowship until the Lord’s coming. And the appointed Psalm 146 calls for the flat-out rejection of full reliance on worldly powers. This is the required preparation for offering renewed allegiance to the One God revealing himself in our midst. Joy is found, but it endures only with the stern determination not to compromise on the word of God revealed.

The Collect

O Lord Jesus Christ, you sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise make ready your way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient toward the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world, we may be found a people acceptable in your sight; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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And a Highway Shall be There (Isaiah 35:1-10)

And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
even if they are fools, they shall not go astray (8).

The reference to a highway here should connect in our minds with Matthew’s quotation from Malachi in the assigned Gospel reading: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you (Mt. 11:10). Notice that, in contrast to the flowers and the springs of nature early in the reading, the highway (the Hebrew word referring to a raised road) stands out as a thing made by humans for humans. Jesus Christ, the God-Man, is the Way of Holiness for men. On the cross he is the builder of the road of salvation for human beings, his body and blood the very material of the road itself. And yet, in keeping with the future orientation of the prophecy, we find the road to glory is very much still under construction–and we humans who make up the body of Christ, continue building it. Every word of testimony, every kind gesture, every personal sacrifice we make in Christ for the gospel is like a brick we hand to our Lord that he might extend the highway of God for generations to come. It is Christ’s work, and we help. He is the builder always deserving of the greater honor (see Hebrews 3:3). Today, under the direction of the Spirit who is in us supervising the work of the Father and the Son, let us see how we can lay down a new piece of heaven’s highway.

The LORD Will Reign Forever (Psalm 146)

The Lord sets the prisoners free;the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;the Lord loves the righteous.The Lord watches over the sojourners;he upholds the widow and the fatherless,but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord! (7-10).

Note the loftiness of language at the beginning and end of the psalm. The psalmist will praise the LORD as long as I live; and the LORD will reign forever. What is inspiring such deep devotion? What is he “seeing” in his mind’s eye to make such extravagant claims? Devotionally, we can easily locate ourselves in the experience of any one of the unfortunate types listed in the body of the poem: the oppressed or the hungry or the sojourners, etc. Nothing wrong with that; but what the psalmist desires is that we run past that to perceive, like he does, the overarching, compassionate sovereignty of YHWH to lift the entire group up and over. Imagine yourself one fine day at the water’s edge on a beach. You look up to see the sun shining in the blue sky, back to see people playing on the sand, out to see huge ships moving effortlessly over the water–and then, under the inspiration of the whole picture, you sigh and say, “What a beautiful day!” That is how the psalmist intends for us to read or say or sing these words. Today, in the Spirit, look with the wide eyes of the psalmist on the majesty of God over all things and all people of all generations and praise the Lord.

Until the Coming of the Lord (James 5:7-20)

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (7-9).

When James writes until the coming of the Lord and the coming of the Lord is at hand, is it necessary for us to restrict his meaning only to Jesus’ final coming? Must we believe his only counsel to the faithful is to grin and bear evil until the great return? Of course, at one level James is talking about the Second Coming in this passage. He is writing very likely the earliest NT book we have, so the anticipation of an early return of Christ would have been in view. But, looking at the whole book, we also find an enthusiastic expectation of the Lord coming into the circumstances of the saints’ lives in the present, in the interim period before the glorious return. Jesus comes presently with every good and perfect gift (1:17); with wisdom that comes from heaven (3:17); with powerful and effective answers to prayer (3:13-16), just to name a few. So, brothers and sisters, the apostle James then as now will urge the faithful to live in anticipation of the coming of the Lord in the present as well as in the future, the one as a deposit of the other. Advent now and later. Today, Holy Spirit, equip me in this season to be watchful for signs of your glory coming anytime.

From John the Baptist Until Now (Matthew 11:2-19)

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear (11-15).

This is a hard passage. (There is a parallel in Luke 7:18-35 with some key differences, but it is never assigned in the three-year Sunday lectionary). In most English bibles there is an alternative reading for the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, something like the kingdom of heaven has been coming violently (as in ESV). Going with the latter, it seems Jesus wants to teach the crowds about a change of eras, a transition between the time of the Prophets and the Law until John and the time of the days of John the Baptist until now: In the first, the reign of heaven on earth has been foretold; in the second, it has come and advances forcefully (by the Spirit’s power unleashed by the saving ministry of the incarnate Jesus). Poor John–notice how his name appears in the description of the two ages–is in the middle: he is at one level sure by what he knows to be the word of God and at another unsure by what he experiences to be separation from the action (in prison). We saints of the church of Jesus Christ are just the same. We are sure of the word concerning the coming age of the fullness of the kingdom, yet “imprisoned” by what in our local circumstances appears to be no change at all. We ourselves can and do ask hesitatingly, Are you the one, Lord? We are grateful for the signs we do receive of the forceful, new life of the Messiah coming out in our lives and those of others. But today, Lord, in this age of the Spirit, we pray for your continued ministry of reassurance through the word, like that you gave to the Baptist.

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

December 5, 2022

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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