Friday, November 25, 2011

Third Sunday of Advent Year B

Third Sunday of Advent Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

After decades of intimidation, war and finally total destruction of Jerusalem and then exile, every aspect of personal and social life is in a shambles. The people of God are demoralized and resigned to their hopeless circumstances. But the preacher feels called by the Lord God to make a startling promise: in short, God will reverse every hopeless aspect of their lives. Re-energized, he continues, the people of God will re-build out of the ruins in which they now live the city of Jerusalem and lesser cities. They will come to be known as "the planting of the Lord." Why will God act this way? "For I the Lord love justice...." As reliably as the the garden returns after a barren season, "the Lord will cause righteousness to spring up...." (The Book of Isaiah is cited in Christian scriptures more than any other book from the First Testament than the Psalms.)

The psalmist invokes that time when Jerusalem will be restored. He uses everyday experiences of people who laugh uncontrollably when their fondest dream has come true and rivers flowing again after draught. As reliably as the cycles of nature, "those who sow in tears/ in glad song will reap."

Rejoice, pray, give thanks, Paul exhorts. Do not restrict the Spirit of God when God disrupts what we have come to accept. Test them.

John's time and context is quite different than the synoptic gospels, therefore his treatment of the important historical figure of John the Baptist is distinctive. Here John the Baptist is presented in such a way to decipher competing claims about his role vis a vis Jesus. John is not the Messiah nor even the prophet expected before the Messiah, Elijah or any of the other prophets. He is "the voice" posited by Isaiah, "crying on the wilderness." His cry is singular: to alert any who will listen that "among you is the Messiah." (The significance of John the Baptizer in all four gospels is reflected by his appearance, directly or indirectly, in the first three Sundays of Advent this year.)

This Sunday of Advent directs our attention not to anticipation to the birth of Jesus but to what John Caputo calls, "Messianic time."

In his self-described "Michelin's guide to Jacques Derrida,"
The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, John Caputo cites "Messiah" or its derivatives on 89 of his 339 pages of text, from page 1 to page 338. "Messianic time," he writes, "is prophetic time, the time to come, that disturbs the present with the call for justice, which calls the present beyond ... itself. For the most unjust thing of all would be to close off the future by saying that justice is present, that the present time is just...." (p. 81) But just before this passage, he makes the same move as Isaiah when he writes, "Justice means doing justice, doing the truth... in order that he might come, in order to bring about messianic time, the epoche of the Messiah." (loc cite) "The Messiah is already among you," John's John the Baptist insists.

Isaiah says that God acts because God "loves justice." And, by daring to announce God's justice precisely in those times when the people have become resigned to the impossibility of justice, the preacher helps make it possible. Her words announce/remind/initiate/allow/permit/incite, all at once.

Caputo concludes, "...justice is precisely unseeable and unforeseeable...." " Justice does not reside high above but settles into the flesh of the least among us, pitching its tent among us. Justice is not above but urgently required here and now, even as it is something you press forward to with passion, with prophetic and messianic fire... with a fiercely burning
ruah, something to come, something impossible, unimaginable, unrepresentable, something with which you must keep faith, the passion of faith.... (p. 338)

Paul warns not to restrict the Spirit. Let it flow where it will. The people of God, moved by "the passion of faith," should expect ferment, change as the norm. Although we never know exactly where or when God's justice will re-assert itself, just as we never know precisely when it will rain, we announce and work for justice as part of our everyday routine, taking for granted that God's justice will return, the parched river bed will once again bubble and gush with water. "Those who sow in tears/ in glad song will reap."