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Introduction To The Scripture For The Third Sunday of Advent - Year A
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
alt - Luke 1:47-55

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Third Sunday of Advent - Year A


ISAIAH 35:1-10      This is another passage which envisions the Shalom of
God, God's reign of peace, justice and love.  To a people who had suffered
frequently from invasion, subjugation and exile, this imaginative prophecy
would have brought great comfort.  More recent visions of Utopian societies
draw much from Old Testament passages like this.


PSALM 146:5-10      This brief excerpt from one of the psalms of praise
that end the Psalter celebrates the hopes of Israel in God's desire for
freedom and justice.  


LUKE 1:47-55        (Alternate)  Mary's song, known as The Magnificat, from
its first Latin word, is actually a psalm of praise echoing and possibly
derived from the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2.  It celebrates the promised
birth of the Messiah announced to Mary by the angel Gabriel as yet another
act of God bringing to Israel the Shalom of justice and peace.  But this
will also involve a social and economic revolution.  We often overlook this
facet of our faith in this materialistic age when Christmas becomes crowded 
with feasting, gifts and frivolity.


JAMES 5:7-10        Waiting for the Lord to come again soon was a prominent
theme in many New Testament letters.  Here James, believed to be the
brother of Jesus, urges patience at a time when the faithfulness of the
church was being tested.  Only very reluctantly did the church realize that
the Second Coming of Christ was not so imminent as first believed.
           

MATTHEW 11:2-11     Jesus did not appear to be the kind of Messiah even
John the Baptist expected.  Perhaps John had hoped that if Jesus was indeed
the Messiah, he would free John from prison as Isaiah 61:1 had promised. 
In reply to John's question, communicated through his disciples, Jesus told
them to report back to John the facts about his ministry.  Jesus did not
deny the role that John had played in preparing the way for him.  Yet
something more than John's message of repentance was needed.  The Shalom of
God comes to those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ.  

                                               
================

ISAIAH 35:1-10   According to my OT professor, the late Dr.  R.B.Y.  Scott,
Isaiah 34 and 35 belong together and "probably appeared together at the
beginning of the great postexilic composite prophecy, chs. 40-66."
("Interpreter's Bible," vol. 5, pp.354-361. Abingdon Press, 1956.)  The
whole poem of judgement and promise is a symphony of great beauty in two
parts.  This latter segment (ch. 35) envisions God's people rescued from
exile and returned to their fruitful homeland along a holy way joyfully
singing of God's new creation.
 
The description of the new creation contrasts the dry wilderness and
burning desert with the luxuriance of Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon.  In
modern Israel as in the 6th century BCE when the poet wrote these lines,
these areas are the most productive because they have the most abundant
rainfall and natural water supply.  The majestic peak and foothills of
Mount Lebanon, the coastal ridge of Mount Carmel and the seaside plain of
Sharon catch virtually all the rainfall borne in on winter storms from the
north and west.  The rest of Israel is very dry and productive only through
constant irrigation from deep wells, the Jordan River and the Sea of
Galilee.  

On a recent television broadcast, an Israeli government official boasted 
how Israel had made the desert bloom as vs. 1 of this passage prophesied. 
It has been said, simplistically, that the current Palestinian-Israeli
conflict could be resolved quickly if an agreement could be negotiated for
a fair division of the water resources available.  If this were so, this
would indeed become the fulfillment of the prophetic vision that the water
supply is divinely appointed means for the salvation of Israel.  This poet
repeats this vision again and again (vss.1, 6,7).  Sadly, this may not be
so easy now that open warfare has again broken out as Palestinians struggle
for freedom from occupation and Israelis struggle for freedom from
terrorism.  Or, in the faint hope awakened by the death of Palestinian
President Arafat in late 2004, Second Isaiah's promise of a new time of
prosperity and peace does have some currency.
     
The poem has a definite messianic tone to it.  One hears echoes of this
again in 61:1 and in Matthew 11:5.  The safe highway for the homeward
journey of vs.8 compares with Isa. 40:3.  The ransomed exiles will return
to Zion singing joyful praises because the sorrows and sighing of Psalm 137
have vanished. (Cf.  Revelation 7:17; 21:4)  While the poem gives voice to
a deep faith, it leaves salvation entirely in the hands of the transcendent
God who is beyond creation.  It lacks a definition of how the ransomed
exiles are to exercise stewardship of the gift of abundance they would
receive in returning home.
     
For Christians living in this environmentally challenged age, the promise
has been fulfilled in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.  As Paul
said, Jesus is the beginning of the new creation through whom God provides
the means for recreation of the whole universe (2 Cor. 5:16-21; Col. 1:15-
20).  From Isaiah 35 we learn that God loves and longs to restore all of
creation.  To implement this love becomes our responsibility as those who
believe in and follow Jesus, the Messiah/Christ.  This is especially true
now that we hear direct broadcasts from the ruined cities of Afghanistan 
and Iraq following the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center in
New York City, while also hearing news of the rapidly melting glaciers of
the Arctic and Antarctic regions of our planet.


PSALM 146:5-10   The prophetic theme of hope of restoration sounds through
the latter part of this song of praise, one of five psalms that end the
Psalter.  It sings the praise of Yahweh as creator and redeemer, especially
of those who are powerless and marginalized.  

Vss. 7b-9 repeats the name of Yahweh five times, as always translated "the
Lord."  One can imagine those familiar with the words joining their voices
to the cantor in a jubilant crescendo as the divine tetragrammaton YHWH is
recited in whatever way this sacred name was used.  Then in the closing
benediction proclaiming the eternal sovereignty of Yahweh, the congregation
responds with a final outburst of praise.


LUKE 1:47-55   (Alternate) The Magnificat is an alternate reading for this
third Sunday of Advent.  So named for the first words in Jerome's Latin
Vulgate, it is itself a psalm modelled after Hannah's song in 1 Samuel 2:1-
10.  To quote Professor George Caird: "As in many of the OT psalms, the
psalmist passes quite naturally from his individual concerns to those of
the nation for which he is the spokesman, so here Mary sings of her own
exaltation from lowliness to greatness as typical of the new order which is
to open out of for the whole people of God through the coming of her
son....  God has already taken decisive action in the promised sending of
his Son, and she sees as an accomplished fact the results that will follow
in his mission." ("St. Luke" The Pelican New Testament Commentaries, 1963.) 
  
Mary's role in the life of Jesus has been a controversial subject for many
centuries, not the least because of the Lukan narratives about the
annunciation and the virgin birth.  Two new  and widely varying views of
her role have come to attention.  The more radical is that of Bruce Chilton
in his *Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography* (Doubleday, 2000) He portrays
her almost as a teenage victim of an extra-marital affair with the older,
itinerant carpenter, Joseph, from Bethlehem in Galilee.  Later, left with
his older children and a *mamzer* son of her own who is despised and
excluded from his Nazareth community, she remains anxious about him
throughout his life and finally mourns his death at the foot of the cross.

John Main, a Benedictine monk, who founded a monastery of contemplatives in
Montreal in 1977, soon after delivered a lecture to a group of Roman
Catholic religious entitled "The Other-Centredness of Mary."  It was later
published in a collection of Main's shorter writings, *Community of Love.*
(Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990).  Main regarded Mary's special place as
one of the chief devotional symbols of the Roman Catholic tradition and the
exemplary of contemplative devotion.  Here is a key paragraph:

"In the rich tradition of Christian devotion, the figure of Mary stands out
among all the 'devotions' of the Church as one of the richest and most
personally identifiable signs of the real possibility of human harmony. 
All the aspects of the human spirit and its relationship with the corporeal
dimension of our life find their fusion and perfect balance in Mary: her
purity, her fertility and motherhood, her strength and humility.  It is
just this balance, this inner harmony of our human spirit and our human
faculties that is the condition for prayer - and, in a real sense, too, the
condition of prayer.  It is this condition of prayer which leads to that
full and undistorted awareness of our union with the Spirit of Jesus that
the early Church Fathers knew and called the 'real knowledge of God' -
conversion, the enlightenment of the eye of the heart'."

A popular review of the status of Marian studies appeared in the Toronto
Star on Saturday, December 8, 2001.  Despite papal suppression of the
opening of new approaches to Marianology by Vatican II, the issue remains
alive and has now reached into ecumenical circles.  Even Jews and Moslems
are beginning to recognize the special role of Mary in the Christian Bible
and in relation to their own scriptures.  The journalist ended by asking
somewhat flippantly, "Who can predict where this new focus on Miriam/Mary
will lead? Should someone sound the alarm?"

Nearly a century ago, the American evangelist E.  Stanley Jones said, "The
Magnificat is the most revolutionary document in the world."  It was so
then and is still so now.  Ralph Milton, author and former joint owner of
Wood Lake Books, tells how in the mid 1900's, a missionary somewhere in
South America was arrested after reading Mary's Magnificat in a radio
broadcast.  This song, therefore, should greatly disturb our
materialistically oriented world as we approach yet another commercially
saturated celebration of Christ's birth.  We hear the blatant cacophony to
spend, spend, spend from commercial and political interests, especially
during times of recession so that the failing economy may be revived.  
     
Consider these alternatives, however: A New England Puritan Christmas where
little or no recognition was given to the birth of the Messiah.  A Scottish
Christmas of yesteryear where, as one man described it, the stores were
open and everyone busied themselves preparing for Hogmanay and its
subsequent drunken stupor.  A poor urban family's Christmas as Dicken's
"Christmas Carol" describes it and as the homeless in many modern cities
experience it.  Would we all not prefer the lights, the singing, the gifts,
the feasting, the joyful gathering of families and loved ones who believe
that he came that we might know these blessings?


JAMES 5:7-10   This passage from James seems out of place in the Advent
season.  Perhaps not, however, since we are still waiting for the
fulfilment of the promise of Mary's song and the prophetic vision of Isaiah
35.  So James' encouragement to endure life's trials patiently when
Christ's coming seems long delayed may not be so out of place after all. 
In fact, James counselled that the prophets and Job give the best examples
of patience under duress.  

Here we have the traditional apostolic hope of the early return of Christ
(vss.7-8).  James  then repeated a familiar saying about judgement (vs.9)
which Matthew included in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1).  This must
have been one of the remembered sayings of Jesus circulating in the
apostolic community soon after the resurrection.  James used it here to
encourage a church under discriminatory pressure, but not yet persecuted. 
His reassurance that the faithful endure knowing that divine judgement will
vindicate them is one of the major themes of the letter along with wisdom
and wealth.  
     
Some scholars have questioned whether James was the author of this letter
or even a believer in Jesus as the Messiah since he used the traditional
phrase "Lord Jesus Christ" only twice in the whole letter (1:1; 2:1).  B.S. 
Easton stated that no book in the NT tells us so little about Christ. 
However, the frequent repetition of the Greek "kurios" (Lord) as a synonym
for "Christ," would refute that claim.  Others have argued that the Greek
of the letter is remarkably good for a Galilean whose mother tongue was
Aramaic.  Thus could it not be from the Lord's brother, but a pseudonymous
letter from the end of the lst century CE attributed to James who was
highly regarded by some parts of the church during that later period? 

A further scholarly argument questions why the letter shows total ignorance
of the Pauline doctrine of justification (2:14-26 cf. Romans 6) and the
relation of faith and works.  Yet another recent analysis of the letter,
quite contrary to the norm of scholarly opinion, claims that this is the
one NT letter composed by James the Just, aka the Righteous Teacher, leader
of the Judaist faction in the early church and of the Qumran Community
responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Robert Eisenmann *The Dead Sea
Scrolls and the First Christians* Castle Books, 2004) Perhaps the best
conclusion is that we have in this letter a collection of sermon snippets
and sayings from James which were edited into a composite whole by a later
hand eager to retain these memories for the church after James' martyrdom
in 61 CE.


MATTHEW 11:2-11   The names we have given to the two parts of our Christian
Bible, Old and New Testaments, recognized both the continuity and
discontinuity of Christianity and Judaism.  John the Baptist represented
the transition between the two.  John, expecting judgment, not healing,
sent his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the Messiah?" Jesus pointed to
actions that Isaiah anticipated for the Coming One and asked people to tell
John what they see and hear.  
     
If the current scholarly consensus is correct, Matthew's Gospel was written
for a community which included both Jews and Gentiles.  They experienced
tension regarding their mission to the whole world as well as being
harassed by Roman authorities.  In the 80s CE, Jewish Christians had been
banished from their synagogues dominated by Pharisaic Judaism.  The
Matthean community was by no means destitute and even had some struggles
about the sharing of resources.  As J.D.  Kingsbury, of Union Theological
Seminary, Richmond, VA describes them, they were a "multiracial,
prosperous, yet divided and persecuted church." ("The Oxford Companion to
the Bible." New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. p.503)
     
Apparently one of their conflicts concerned the character of the Messiah. 
Just as there are those in our modern congregations who question whether
and how Jesus could  be "Christ, the Son of God, Saviour" so also there
were then.  In this passage John the Baptist and his disciples represent
that element who struggle to believe.  Then as now, actions rather than
words carry conviction.
     
The apology offered to native peoples by the General Council of The United
Church of Canada in 1986 was received with skepticism.  "You have said the
words, now what are you going to do about it," the native chiefs told us. 
Walking the walk, we now see, is far more difficult than talking the talk 
The frightful abuses of residential schools have now surfaced in costly
claims for justice, compensation and healing.  It is not enough to repent,
as the Baptist commanded; the healing of the Messiah/Christ calls for far
more costly sacrifice.

If we are reading a direct recollection from Jesus' ministry, there could
be another possible situation behind John's question put by his disciples. 
John may well have expected Jesus to free him from prison if he was indeed
the long expected Messiah.  Isaiah 61:1 as interpreted by the Apostolic
Church included the promise that captives would be given their liberty when
the Messiah came (Luke 4:18).  Jesus' response seems rather equivocal
unless one regards it as an appeal to faith.  Seeing the things that were
actually happening as a result of Jesus' ministry would require each
individual observer to make up his or her own mind about Jesus.  Is it not
still the same today? 

At the same time, Jesus took the opportunity arising from this exchange
with John's disciples to differentiate his ministry from that of John.  He
was not denigrating what John had done in calling Israel to repentance. 
Rather he used his ambiguous statement that John was the greatest man who
ever lived yet least in the kingdom of Heaven to point out that it was he,
Jesus of Nazareth, who had come to inaugurate that kingdom.  As those who
have experienced it known all too well, repentance and forgiveness only
begin the process of living fully under the reign of God's redeeming love
in Jesus Christ.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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