THEME OF THE DAY
This column is on the Christian way to celebrate Christmas. This is an examination of the implications of Christmas for daily life (Sanctification) and community engagement (Social Ethics). The coming of the Lord and Christmas gives us a sense that a new era is dawning (Eschatology).
This is part of a hymn of praise (the genre that dominates Book V of the Psalms of which this hymn is a part) asking God for help in the midst of human inadequacy. Like the last five Psalms, this song begins and ends with the Hebrew term haleluyah [Praise the Lord]. This joyful tone is reflected at the outset of the lesson, as we are reminded (just as it is said at the outset of the book of Psalms) how praising the Lord leads to happiness [ashere] (an insight borne out by much modern neurobiology). We are reminded how this Lord is the Creator; faithful to his creation; and cares for the poor, the hungry, the widow, and the orphan. This is a God to be trusted; not even the most powerful of all human beings can carry out matters like the Lord who reigns forever.
Application: The Psalm invites making contrasts between the transience of our own sinful condition (vv. 3-4) and the awesome God who reigns forever. Such insights have significant implications for how we live (Sanctification) — leading to joy, confidence, and a sense of worship (aware that all the good in creation is God’s). Social Ethics is also a legitimate concern in such sermons, as the Psalm reminds us that our God and his Son’s birth is about the business of caring for the poor, rather than acquiring new trinkets.
This is the famed hymn of praise attributed to Mary called the Magnificat. Though the book is the most Gentile oriented of all the gospels (along with Acts aiming to justify Paul’s outreach to the Gentiles), this song, unique to Luke’s gospel, is based on Hannah’s song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 for God giving her Samuel as a son. The song praises God for his love and mercy (vv. 48, 50). Reminiscent of the preferential option for the poor of Liberation Theology, he is said to scatter the proud, but lifts up the poor and feeds the hungry (vv. 51, 53).
Application: The text invites sermons praising God’s love and kindness (Justification by Grace) and his special concern for the poor (Social Ethics).
The text is part of a book that is an editorial compilation of two or three distinct historical strands of prophecy. Although appearing in a section devoted to the prophecy of the historical Isaiah, an eighth-century BC prophet to Judah (the Southern Kingdom) after Israel (the Northern Kingdom) had been annexed by Syria, it is more likely that this oracle was probably written by one of Isaiah’s disciples at the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity in 539 BC, belonging to chapters 40-66 and then moved to its present location in the section devoted to the historical prophet. The prophecy promises the restoration of Zion (a hill in southwest Jerusalem that is probably the oldest and highest part of the city, a section associated with David). In response to the new reality, the prophet sings that wilderness and dry land will be glad and rejoice. The text’s reference to Carmel is to a well-wooded region in Canaan twelve miles from the Mediterranean Sea, and its reference to Sharon is to another region of rich pastures northwest of Jerusalem near the Mediterranean. All creation sees the glory of Yahweh (vv. 1-2). There is no need for weak hands and feeble knees, for Elohim comes to save (vv. 3-4). The blind see, the deaf hear, and the speechless sing for joy (vv. 5-6). This seems to be a reference to the pending correction of the redeemed’s spiritual disabilities. A highway through the wilderness that none can miss will be made plain (perhaps we might construe this as a messianic prophecy). Clear reference is made to the returning home of the exiles.
Application: The text proclaims hope for restoration of those who have been exiled (fallen on tough times) (Justification by Grace through Faith). The reference to the highway interpreted messianically opens the way to sermons on the difference the coming Christ and so Christmas can make in our lives….click here for the full installment
The primary theme of the texts for the Third Sunday of Advent for this year is that the Lord is coming and has come to relieve the suffering of those who are suffering political, economic, social, and religious oppression and those who are disadvantaged by a variety of afflictions.
In this psalm the inadequacy of all human rulers is contrasted to the total adequacy of the Lord. It is the Lord, not any human figure, who is to be praised for all creation, for mercy and release from suffering for all who are weak, oppressed, and limited by afflictions.
In this text, which is in many ways the most outstanding of the four texts chosen for this occasion, the ancient Israelite poet’s imagination is given free rein. There are no restraints. Physical disadvantages and all of our usual limitations are removed. “Your God will come to save you!” in Matthew 11:2-11 is an echo of this and of other similar Israelite apocalyptic texts. The Matthean tradition affirms that when Jesus comes to act in God’s behalf the current physical restraints and limitations are cast away, the fullness of life is restored, and the gospel is proclaimed to the oppressed.
In order to highlight the beauty of this Isaiah 35 text, it would be appropriate to have two or more members of the congregation accompany the reading of this text with an interpretative dance coordinated to an expressive reading of the text. A free spirit in the reading and appropriate imagination on the part of the interpretative dancers will make this a memorable occasion. A second possibility would be that the Psalm would be memorized by someone and presented vividly in the storytelling mode that is becoming increasingly popular in the Church, as this recaptures in many ways the enthusiasm and exuberance of the ancient Israelite poets. We too can be inspired, just as were the psalmists and poets of the Isaiah tradition. Each of the worship services on these four Sundays of Advent should be a unique and memorable experience.
A glance at the Aktionsart (kind of action) of the Greek verbs in this text indicates that the writer of the Epistle of James was addressing a situation with much more urgency than is apparent in our typical translations into English. The “kind of action” is much more pronounced in the imperative verb forms in Greek than in the Greek indicative. We see, therefore, that the speaker/writer was urging the people of the community being addressed to “begin to be patient” (using the Greek aorist active imperative word makrothumesate) where the progressive active imperative word, had it been used, would have encouraged them to “continue to be patient.” The people of the community are urged to “begin to show some fortitude” (aorist active imperative steritzate) where the progressive active imperative, had it been chosen, would have encouraged them to “continue to hang in there.” When the negative command was used at the beginning of 5:9, the writer switched to the progressive active imperative me stenazete to admonish them to stop grumbling against each other; had the aorist active subjunctive form been used, it would have advised them not to start grumbling. If we prepare our own translations with an awareness of the Aktionsart factor of progressive forms for continuous or repeated action and aorist forms for simple action, the life-situation addressed in this text will be related much more closely to our life-situation today.
Regardless of whether this text and its Lukan parallel represent incidents that occurred during the activities of the Jesus of history, the more significant consideration for us is “What is the principal theological message of this text?” “What is the gospel in this text that we can proclaim next Sunday?”
The gospel is most pronounced in the final verse of this text (and in the Luke 7:28 parallel), “Truly I say to you that there has not been raised up among those born from women anyone greater than John the Baptist. But the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is!” The principal theological value of this text as an Advent text for us lies in the anticipation in Matthew 11:11 of an impending glorious, joyous future. This is the point of contact cited above to the beautiful Isaiah 35:1-10 text. With these two texts we look forward with a “Joy to the World” motif to the time when all disadvantages, limitations, and impediments will be removed from us. Within this limited world of time and space each of us is suffering impediments in many ways, but the gospel here is that God will remove our limitations in a new and better life both here and in the life to come, in spite of everything….click here for the full installment