This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we focus on a time just beforeJesus’ first advent, namely, the angelic annunciation to Joseph.
But before addressing that Gospel story, let me say something about the first reading from Isaiah. We get this story about a prophecy to King Ahaz for one reason, and one reason only: it serves as a proof-text in the Gospel of Matthew. The original context of this prophecy is the Syro-Ephraimite War. King Ahaz is besieged by his neighbors and fears that Jerusalem will fall. At God’s behest, Isaiah comes to reassure him with a prophetic sign that Jerusalem will not fall, at least not yet. King Ahaz, feigning piety, refuses to accept a sign—he is afraid that God’s intervention might limit his political options. Well, Ahaz gets a sign anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” He promises that, by the time the child is weaned, the threat to Jerusalem will be gone. There is no mention of a virgin birth, no hint that the child will be the Messiah.
Jumping ahead to the Gospel reading, we get another prophesied birth, that of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Joseph and Mary were engaged, which in Jewish law was as binding as marriage. And according to Jewish custom, the engaged couple were not to have physical relations before marriage. Somehow, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. As a righteous man, it is his duty to publicly denounce Mary for adultery. But Joseph defies the demands of the Law; instead, he decides to spare her from shame and to divorce her quietly. Before he can proceed with his plan, Joseph is visited in a dream by an angel. He is told that the unborn child is from the Holy Spirit and that he should proceed with the marriage. The angel goes on to say that the child will be a boy and that his name should be Jesus (which means “The Lord is salvation”), because he is destined to save his people from their sins.
The world needs some consolation right about now! Babies are being starved to death in Yemen by our nation’s allies. A journalist was murdered and his body dismembered by those same allies. College students are massacred in a California nightclub for no apparent reason. Hurricanes have decimated city after city. The ironically named town of Paradise has burned to the ground. And the air is so polluted that we are being advised not to breath it! And so, we find ourselves asking, “When will it end? And where is God?” Regrettably, the answers are not apparent.
Now, as bad as things are today, things were no better in Jesus’ day. And his disciples undoubtedly had the very same questions that we have. They looked around them and saw the oppression and cruelty of the Roman Empire, and every so often they must have despaired. Believe it or not, Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the end of the age was meant to provide encouragement. For reasons beyond my understanding, the editors of the lectionary have included only the start of Mark, chapter 13, only the bits about doom and gloom. What Jesus says provides us hope only when understood in a larger context. So, I will do my best to fill in the gaps and provide that context.
It’s already the second Sunday of Advent—how time flies! For many of us, this season is a frenzied time of Christmas shopping for friends and family. But there is more to this season than that. It is a time to pause and to consider the two advents of Christ: the first in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago and the second, when Christ will come again in power and great glory. And as we consider, we also prepare.
Like our ancestors in the faith, Christians today look to prophecy to guide us in our preparation, to point us in the right direction. And like our predecessors, we find that God’s oracles can speak different messages in different times. Today, we heard an excerpt from Isaiah chapter 40 and an echo of that same scripture in the Gospel reading from Mark.
Isaiah spoke of a voice crying out to prepare a highway in the desert for our God. The ravines are to be filled in. The hills are to be leveled. And when this roadwork is done, God’s glory will be revealed to all. (It sounds a bit like a press release for Caltrans!) When these words were originally prophesied, the Jews were living in exile in Babylon, pining for the day they could return home. With this oracle, Isaiah prophesied the eventual vindication of the Jews. A highway would be made through the desert separating Babylon and Jerusalem, and God would lead his people home in glory. (Interestingly, Isaiah doesn’t make it clear who exactly was supposed to build this divine highway, whether God’s angelic minions or the Jews themselves.) This prophecy would seem to have been fulfilled with the Jews’ return from exile and with their rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But then again, maybe not!
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice. This Sunday’s readings are noticeably less gloomy than the readings for the other Sundays of Advent. And some parishes mark the semi-festive tone of the day by using rose-colored vestments and paraments, instead of violet ones. (But in my humble opinion, rose is just a fancy way of saying pink, and I refuse to wear pink!) But as you are probably not terribly interested in my color preferences, let’s just move on and take a look-see at those “less gloomy” readings.
Isaiah by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel
The first reading from Isaiah really has no hints of gloom at all. It prophesies the return of the people to Zion in the midst of a sweeping transformation almost beyond imagining. Isaiah prophesies that those who are marginalized due to disabilities will be healed and reincorporated into society. And not only will the people be transformed, even the wilderness through which they pass will become a luxuriant garden. Finally, we are told, that “they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” What a fitting reading for Rejoice Sunday!
The context of the original prophecy was the Babylonian Exile, which was to last some 70 years. The prophet wrote this inspired poem to give hope to a captive people as they awaited the day of their return. And return they did, but the blind and the lame and the deaf and the mute were not restored to wholeness, and the wilderness was not transformed into a new Eden. The prophecy was fulfilled only in part, it seems. Christian scripture hints that there is another, deeper fulfilment of this prophecy yet to occur. We find references to this in the Gospel reading from Matthew. It implies that the complete fulfillment of this prophecy will come only at the consummation of the Kingdom of God, which began to break into this world with the first coming of the Messiah and will reach its fullness only at his second coming.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
The readings today are thematically disjoint, as is often the case during the liturgical green seasons. So, perhaps the best approach to today’s readings is to look at each, one by one, to see what they have to say to us here today.
The reading from Deuteronomy is simple, and its meaning is straightforward: After the death of Moses, God will continue to guide his people by sending them prophets. But as the reading makes clear, there is a problem: some self-proclaimed prophets will, in fact, be false prophets. How then are we to tell the difference between the true and the false? Well, one criterion is given in the reading itself, namely, that a true prophet will speak only in the name of the one true God. The next two verses in Deuteronomy give another criterion, and it’s a shame that the lectionary doesn’t include them in today’s lesson. The second criterion is that what the prophet predicts should prove true. Consequently, this means that a prophet can only be known to be a true prophet after the fact. Any new prophet would be a sort of probationer, until he or she had developed a good track record. Despite this second criterion concerning the accuracy of predictions, we should keep in mind that the main purpose of the prophet was not to predict the future, but to provide divine guidance when the people had strayed. A prophet’s predictions were merely demonstrations of the prophet’s divine authority.