Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28.
Those who mourn shall be comforted—by the coming of the Anointed One.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.
In the Prophetic reading God’s Anointed One speaks.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; … (verses 1-2, NRSV).
This amazing announcement is the most compelling expression in the Old Covenant of the mission taken up by Jesus the Christ, the mission of the One Anointed by the Holy Spirit. For early Jesus followers who heard this prophetic passage, the speaker can only be Jesus himself, and so it is affirmed in Luke 4:16-21.
The Anointed One (in Hebrew “the Messiah”; in Greek “the Christ”), empowered by God’s Spirit, proclaims to the oppressed poor a time of great change, a healing, a “release” (with echoes of Jubilee), most of all a comforting to the mourners. (The beatitudes in Matt. 5:3-5 are about these people.)
Our reading is the central portion of a block of prophecy, chapters 60-62, that ecstatically proclaims the restoration of Zion as the glorified center of the nations. The City of God and the Anointed One of God are the dual foci of the transcendent reality that will be the reign of God among the nations.
The NRSV translation includes “the day of vengeance of our God” (verse 2). “Vengeance” has the wrong associations. (The TANAK version is, “a day of vindication by our God.”) God is not getting even; God is setting things right! This is a time when the falsely or unjustly accused are vindicated by God’s judgment! The Anointed One comes as God’s vindication of the wrongfully oppressed, of those suffering unjustly from the ways of the world.
The vindicated people, however, are not only comforted, they will become active. The recovered people will restore the devastated places: “they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (verse 4). The newly liberated and comforted people are the means of transforming the habitations of humankind.
And as the passage moves toward its conclusion, the Anointed One anticipates a time of his own glorification as a blessing to the nations:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations. (verses 10-11)
Into the dark world in which so many people were mourning came the proclamation of the Anointed One who would bring comfort – and rejoicing.
The Psalm reading takes us ahead, to the time when in vision the prophecy was fulfilled:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion
… then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy (verses 1-2, NRSV).
The liberated and comforted people exult in their new blessing:
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced. (Verse 3.)
However, the restored world still exists in the cycle of the seasons, the alternations between anxiety and joy. In the dry time of the year, anxiety sets in about whether the grain crops will be sufficient for the coming year. A prayer for abundant grain harvests parallels the great change of fortunes for Zion. The dry land of late autumn, when the sowing time approaches, is like Zion’s old condition. The fruitful land of early spring, when the harvest is brought in “with shouts of joy,” is like Zion’s new joyful time.
The emotional tension of the harvest expressed in the Hebrew poetry is caught particularly well by the New Jerusalem Bible translation of verse 6:
He went off, went off weeping,
carrying the seed.
He comes back, comes back singing,
bringing in his sheaves.
I Thessalonians 5:16-24.
The selection from the Epistle also regards the time of mourning as past. The new believers now live in a condition in which there is only the imperative,
“Rejoice always …”
This is one of a chain of short commands, given as a pastoral closing to the epistle, calling on the new believers in Thessalonica to show in their lives the effects of the great change brought about by faith in Jesus the Christ.
These people have just recently experienced the beginning of the Great Transformation that the prophetic and psalm passages describe, for the gospel came to them “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5, NRSV).
As a consequence they should be empowered to
· live joyfully,
· open to the Spirit and the words of prophecy,
· advocating the good, and avoiding the evil,
all of which things the apostle urges upon them in quasi-commands (verses16-22).
Paul then pronounces a benediction on them, emphasizing that the sanctification from God transforms the whole person (spirit, soul, and body) and prepares for the coming (parousia) of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But the mini-series of commandments begins with: Rejoice always!
John 1:6-8, 19-28.
The Old Covenant declared that the mourners would be comforted by the coming of the Anointed One. The Gospel reading speaks about who that Anointed One is—and is not!
Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, and in year B the lectionary uses John’s Gospel to supplement and complement the readings from Mark. Thus here the Gospel selection re-tells the witness of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Anointed One, now as given in the Fourth Gospel.
A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light. (Verses 6-8, Common English Bible translation.)
John the Baptist is here introduced in a larger theological context than in Mark (last week’s reading): his mission here is “to testify concerning the light,” that aspect of the divine being which was the first word and act of creation (Genesis 1:3). That first-creation-light will assume a bodily form and become the light of the world. (That is, of course, simply another way of expressing the Incarnation – God became human, the Logos became flesh.)
John’s mission is to “testify” to that light. Here John testifies to the religious authorities who are sanctioned from the holy city itself.
In the long dialog with the authorities (verses 19-28) a certain delight is taken in drawing out the questions about just who this John is. A series of possible identities is posed and each one denied. The most important identity is addressed first: “He confessed... ‘I am not the Christ [Anointed One]’.” Not only is he not the Anointed One, he is not Elijah returned, nor is he “the prophet” (the prophet like Moses in Deut. 18:15).
This increasing suspense about John’s identity leads to his testimony that he is a voice in the wilderness proclaiming the imminent coming of the Lord. John affirms that he is that “voice.”
In this version of John’s testimony, there is great emphasis on the imminence of the Coming One: “Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize” (verse 26, CEB). The bearer of the divine light is still unrecognized, still secret, but very close at hand.
In their midst! The light of the world, the comforter of those who mourn, was present but not yet manifest so peoples’ lives could be turned around.