The Magnificat

Third Isaiah is a text that deals with disappointment, of a restoration gone wrong, of a reality that does not match up with the image that hope had inspired in the minds of the people. They thought the future was here, but now realize it will take much longer to realize the vision. So, we are forced to admit, with disappointment and frustration, that the future is still not here, yet! We are also facing doubt and division over the way forward, and finding that our vision for the future does not match that of others. The future is much cloudier than we thought. Things are not going well, and we are struggling to figure out who is responsible for failing to implement the dream. We are coming to realize that bringing the dream into reality is far harder than we we ever imagined.

Janvier_2014__La_Visitation_de_Champaign_4ce186db1bThis week we will be celebrating the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday.  Tradition tells us it is “…a day to be joyful even in the midst of long waiting and keen awareness of suffering.”   

Advent begins with a focus on the future: “The reign of God is coming. Prepare!”  And ends a little over a week from now with a focus on the past: “The Messiah is about to be born in Bethlehem. Rejoice!”  Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is named using a Latin word meaning “to rejoice” in the imperative – meaning we are commanded to rejoice.

Last week’s reading from Isaiah 40:1-11 was the Second Isaiah’s comforting of Jerusalem because the restoration from exile of both God and the people was at hand.  That morning’s sermon focused on the need to prepare in anticipation of that return, to reflect upon our own failings and sin, and admit to ourselves that we needed God to heal (or fill) the gaps and holes in our own lives.

This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from the third set of prophesies in the Hebrew Testament’s book of Isaiah: prophesies that mainly concern themselves with the situation in Jerusalem after the exiles have returned from the Babylonian exile.  Just as the second set (chapters 40-54) are referred to as “Second Isaiah,” scholars refer to these writings (chapters 55 through 66) as “Third Isaiah.”  Like the second set, those who compiled the Book of Isaiah felt it important to include the prophesies of “Third Isaiah,” along with those of “Second Isaiah” to follow the complete (three generation long) narrative arc of exile of Judah to Babylon: from the First Isaiah’s prophesies of future doom and destruction for Judah’s distancing itself from God; to Second Isaiah’s call for compassion and redemption in the present as the seemingly impossible dream of restoration comes to pass; to Third Isaiah’s focus on the disappointment, discord and disillusionment that followed the return of the exiles to Jerusalem a generation earlier.

The story of Advent follows a similar arc: our emphasis on the future declines as our emphasis on the past increases.  Our readings for Advent begin with a mature Jesus teaching us about the reign of God, and they close with the unborn Christ Child in Mary’s womb.

This movement reflects our Christian understanding that the sacred story, to be understood fully and correctly, has to be told backwards.  The birth and ministry of Jesus are incomprehensible until we know of his death and resurrection.  To put it another way, our understanding of the past is muddled and incomplete until we grasp the nature of the future and purpose of History.  Christianity sees History as having a definite start, a definite end, and that it reflects the plan and purpose of God, reaching its crescendo in Christ.  In other words, while we have (incomplete) knowledge of the past and present, we cannot make sense of what we know of them until we know the whole story, including the end.

Continue reading “The Magnificat”

Waiting…

John the Baptist in prison

Presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC in Brattleboro, VT
December 15, 2013  (Advent, Week 3)

Scriptures: 

Luke 1:47-55 (The Magnificat)
James 5:7-10 (“Be Patient … Strengthen your hearts”)
Matthew 11:2-11 (“Are you the One who is to come?”)

This is Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent; and tradition tells us it is “…a day to be joyful even in the midst of long waiting and keen awareness of suffering.”   

Our Advent readings started two weeks ago with a focus on the future: “The reign of God is coming. Prepare!” They end next week with a focus on the past: “The Messiah is about to be born in Bethlehem. Rejoice!”  And, as I said earlier, the word Gaudete is a Latin word meaning “to rejoice” in the imperative – meaning we are commanded to rejoice.

As Advent progresses, our emphasis on the future declines as our emphasis on the past increases.  Our readings for Advent begin with a mature Jesus teaching us about the reign of God, and they close with the unborn Christ Child in Mary’s womb.

This movement reflects our Christian understanding that the sacred story, to be understood fully and correctly, has to be told backwards.  The birth and ministry of Jesus are incomprehensible until we know of his death and resurrection.  To put it another way, our understanding of the past is muddled and incomplete until we grasp the nature of the future and purpose of History.  Christianity sees History as having a definite start, a definite end, and that it reflects the plan and purpose of God, reaching its crescendo in Christ.

Advent binds the future and past together.  It reminds us that there is a tension between them, and that this tension is where our faith is centered – the conviction that there is a known end to the road we are called to follow through History, and that God is continuously involved, even though the path that our feet tread at the moment is never clear to us.  You see this tension in each of our scriptures for today.

In the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke (much of which we sang as our first hymn this morning) Mary begins by saying “My soul rejoices in God my saviour!” and she ends with “He has helped his servant Israel … according to the promise he made to our ancestors …”  Mary is linking past, present, and future – naming the promise made to Abraham long ago; and rejoicing because the long wait for its coming fulfillment is over.

In our first reading, in his Epistle to a Church that wonders why the Messiah has not returned, and why the suffering continues, James tells us to be patient and take comfort, in the same way that a farmer waits for the crop to mature, and warns us that the Judge is standing at the doors.  In other words, the time is at hand, and God is waiting to see the results of the work of the Messiah.

All of this comes to a head in this morning’s Gospel reading, where the Baptist’s disciples confront Jesus.  But first, let’s consider the setting of the story.

Continue reading “Waiting…”