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Hearing the Prophets and Becoming One of Them

Commentary
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The First Lesson is the product of two or three distinct literary traditions. The first 39 chapters are the work of the historical prophet who proclaimed a message to Jerusalem and the southern kingdom from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period when the northern kingdom of Israel had been annexed by Assyria. Chapters 40-66 emerged in a later period after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. A hypothesized third section (Chapters 56-66) of the book, perhaps written by second Isaiah or by one of his disciples in view of the close stylistic similarities to Chapters 40 on begins at the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity, is likely written after the restoration of exiled Judah, expressing some disappointment about what had transpired since the exiles return. This lesson is the work of this last section. The speaker is either the prophet or the suffering servant (Messiah of Deutero-Isaiah [especially 50:4-11]). The anointed prophet/servant is sent to bring good news to the oppressed/poor to bind up the brokenhearted and to proclaim freedom/liberty to the captives, planting them as oaks of righteousness (vv.1-3). We should keep in mind here that righteousness in Hebraic thinking is not so much a demand for morality as it is the expectation of being right in relation with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, p.371).

Reference to the building up of the ancient ruins (v.4) is a prophecy of a rebuilding of Jerusalem by the returning exiles. God is said to love justice and to promise to punish the oppressors. (The Hebrew term mishpat used here may connote a sense of comfort to the faithful, not just the threat of punishment. This would link with the subsequent testimony to the Lord’s forgiving nature, and the fact that Yahweh is said to seek fairness in Jacob [in Israel] might suggest the validity of understanding his judgments as pertaining to social interactions [justice].) The nations will change their estimate of Israel as a result of these actions with God (vv.8-9). The prophet (or all of Israel) will be clothed with the garment of salvation/safety [yesha] and righteousness (v.10).

Certainly, the original Hebraic concept of righteousness [tsedeq] with reference to God’s judgment could connote legal, strongly judgmental actions on God’s part or a legalism. Yet as we have already noted, most Old Testament scholars contend that this attribute of God is not in any way punitive but more about relationship. It has to do with God’s loyalty to his covenant in saving us, and even here later in the Old Testament era righteousness is construed as something God bestows on the faithful as it is in v.10 (von Rad, pp.373,376ff). So, whether we continue to employ the judicial metaphor for understanding the concept of righteousness (God declaring us righteous) or regard it as God’s faithfulness to the covenant in restoring his relationship with the faithful, it does not ultimately matter. Either way, righteousness and so justification is a gift of God. If the text is read as words of the suffering servant about himself and is in turn read as referring to Christ, then the text is about the coming child who works righteousness and justice and the good news for the oppressed/poor.

Things are clearly not good in America at the tail end of 2020, no matter who is president in the new year, A July “New York Times” poll found that just one in six Americans is proud of America and two of three are fearful of what comes next. Like our lesson says, we need to “come home” and rebuild the nation. Sermons on this text might make this point, noting that God does not give up on his people but that he is a God concerned about freedom for the poor. We certainly need that word in view of the large numbers of unemployed caused by the pandemic, gaps in our safety nets for those still on the job (underinsurance and lack of paid sick leave), the growing problems of homelessness in America, and the inherent biases in the system against African Americans which the Black Lives Matter Movement has helped reveal. Christians are people whose God cares about those who have gotten the shaft in life. Sermons which offer these prophetic reflections will remind the faithful of our responsibility to get into our communities and do something about them. If the suffering servant is identified with Christ, then we have in the sermon about preparing for his coming at Christmas a reminder that the coming child cares for all those who are trapped in the underside of our economy, promising to restore his people (even this nation) to justice and health.

To avoid the idea that we can do these things on our own just by following Jesus, note the reflections above on the theme of righteousness in the Old Testament, that justice and righteousness are the result of a restored relationship which is a gift of God. Jesus is the one who restores us in relationship with God and so makes possible a better, more just America.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
The Second Lesson is part of an authentic letter by Paul written in the early 50s to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city (the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia) threatened by social pressures and some persecution aiming to return the people to the values of secular culture. In a concluding exhortation, Paul urges the faithful to rejoice always (v.16), never to cease to pray (v.17), give thanks in all circumstances (v.18), not quench the Spirit (v.19), and not despise the words of the prophets (v.20). Also, Paul urges that we test everything, holding fast to what is good and abstaining from evil (vv.21-22). In considering the warning not to despise prophecies (v.20), it is relevant to note that the Greek term for “prophet” [prophetes] literally means “public expounder.” Paul concludes with a benediction by praying with confidence that God would sanctify the recipients of the epistle, expressing that a faithful God will do this (vv.23-24). The reference to spirit, soul, and body in verse 23 is not to suggest he thinks of a person in three parts, but as a unity which may be viewed from three distinct points of view.

Paul warns us not to despise prophecies. American Christians do it all the time. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, over three in five (63%) of us think that that the church should keep out of political matters. For many, religion only belongs to the private sphere. Sermons on this lesson do well to address these dynamics, noting that Paul calls us not to quench the Spirit, and not despise the works of prophets. The church has a role in being “public expounders” (see the definition of prophecy above), not giving in to the social pressures of the day. Among these are the income inequality, unemployment, and poverty (often along racial/ethnic lines) that this year’s pandemic has exacerbated.

John 1:6-8, 19-28
The gospel reading is drawn from the last of the gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. In fact, it is probably based on the earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as in the late first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, p.414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who claimed that the book was written on the basis of the external facts made plain in the gospel and so John is a “spiritual gospel” (presumably based on the eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol.1, p.261). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

The first three verses of the lesson are drawn from the prologue of the gospel. John the Baptist is introduced as one who came to testify to the light while he himself was not the light who is Christ (vv.6-8). The remaining verses are the author’s version of John’s testimony. They echo the prologue’s report of his coming to testify to the light, not to that status for himself. He denies both being the Messiah or Elijah (vv.19-22). Isaiah 40:3 is cited as John’s testimony to prepare the way of the Lord (v.23). Some biblical critics have speculated that John the Baptist’s clear subordination of himself to Jesus is a function of the fact that rivalry between the disciples and John’s followers continued until well into the late first century. Having denied his status as Elijah or the Messiah, John is challenged by the Pharisees for performing baptism (vv.24-25). (None of the parallel synoptic gospel accounts report this dialogue.) He responds again with humility, pointing to the Messiah, for he only baptizes with water (v.26). John claims that he is not worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandal (v.27). There is more focus on what John did than on how he looked, as is typical of the parallel gospel accounts.

Every major mainline Protestant denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, and even the National Association of Evangelicals have claimed to be prophetic, even if a lot of Americans do not want them to play that role (see the polls cited for the Second Lesson)! The story of John the Baptist teaches us how to be prophetic, and to sermons on this lesson should have this aim. Sermons should help the flock recognize that we can learn from John not to proclaim ourselves and our agendas, but always to be pointing to Christ and God’s work of justice. That kind of approach opens the way to dialogue, for when prophecy is about God in Christ and not our own agendas, then we are more likely to seek common areas of agreement, to seek common ground, and get our own private agendas out of the way. Sermons on this theme may go a long way towards muting the sort of the despising of prophecy which sermons on the Second Lesson should also seek to address.

Sermons for this Sunday should be all about repentance, prophesying against our social sins and all the injustices that remain in America. But in calling us to prophesy and to hear the prophetic word, we need to make clear in our preaching that everything depends on God in Christ. We need to be centered on them, or we’ll get so hung up on ourselves and our own private agendas that nothing will get done. When justice happens it is God’s work, and all we’ve done effectively is get out the way ever pointing to his work among us.
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