Advent anticipates a time of healing and of joy for those previously excluded from God’s safe highway.
This Sunday in Advent looks toward impending change, as do the other Advent days, but there is a special attention here to healings or other repairs of past damage, as signs of the larger change looked for.
The prophetic reading is a chapter in Isaiah which is almost isolated and unexpected where it is found. It stands as the last word in the writings known as First Isaiah (chapters 1-39), followed only by the historical appendix excerpted from the Book of Kings (Isaiah 36-39). In its message, tone, and vocabulary, however, chapter 35 belongs very much in the ambit of the Second Isaiah collection, the prophecies of the return from Babylonian exile (chapters 40-55).
This chapter shares with Second Isaiah an exalted vision of the return of exiles from distant lands.
- There is a vision of the wilderness bursting into vegetation (35:1-2 and 41:18-19).
- There is a proclamation to strengthen the weak with good news of God’s deliverance (35:3-4 and 40:9-10).
- There is an emphasis on the blind seeing and the deaf hearing (35:5 and 42:18-20).
- There is a vision of the great processional highway on which God appears and the exiles return to Zion (35:8-10 and 40:3-4).
In the context of Advent, the passage proclaims that the scattered and lost will be brought in abundance and safety to their ancient home, the Holy City. The special theme for this Sunday is the healing of the ills of these lost ones.
The eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
(Verses 5-6, NRSV)
In the prophesies of the exile, the “blind” and “deaf” are Israelites who do not comprehend, who have not grasped God’s transcendent and saving character (Isaiah 42:18-20, “Who is blind but my servant, / or deaf like my messenger whom I send?”). This continues the language of the First Isaiah, who heard from God the word of judgment to make the people deaf and blind so they will not repent and be healed (Isaiah 6:9-10). In the Second Isaiah there will again be seeing and hearing because a new revelation of God will be available.
In our passage the divine change is extended to encompass other disabilities that afflict the homeless and lost. The lame and the dumb as well as the blind and deaf will experience health and wholeness. The human-scape as well as the landscape will be marvelously transformed for the return to the Holy place.
The Psalm reading gives us an affirmation of faith, in response to the prophetic vision. The psalmist also declares the power of God to restore the human scene to health—physical, social, and spiritual. The words of the blessing pronounced are powerful, here as given in The New Jerusalem Bible translation.
How blessed is he who has Jacob’s God to help him,
his hope is in Yahweh his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them.
He keeps faith forever,
gives justice to the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry;
Yahweh sets prisoners free.
Yahweh gives sight to the blind,
lifts up those who are bowed down.
Yahweh protects the stranger,
he sustains the orphan and the widow.
Yahweh loves the upright,
but frustrates the wicked.
Yahweh reigns for ever,
your God, Zion, from age to age.
Following the prophecy of healing on the way and the psalmist’s affirmation of such hope, the Epistle reading declares, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (verse 8, NRSV). The message the writer wishes to send is about patience. His hearers are in a waiting mode, and he encourages them to endure and hope.
The model he proposes for patience is the farmer waiting for the crops to ripen (verse 7). This was a much more powerful reference in ancient times than in the modern world of commercial food production. In the ancient eastern Mediterranean it was not unusual that food ran out before the new crops were ready. It became desperately critical to preserve the new growing crop and not begin to grasp its young premature grains. One was sometimes watching a weak family member with too little to eat die while the crop was still growing.
Thus, the initiation of the new crop was a very sacred moment, a religious act declaring that new crop free for human use. The first head of grain was a first-fruit offering to the holy powers that had given the new grain. The first harvest (beginning at Passover-Unleavened Bread time) was one of high emotion and tension, especially in times of famine and drought. That kind of tension, waiting with restraint, is the “patience” the writer tells his audience they must have. The opposite of such patience is “grumbling,” and this the believers must avoid toward each other, as they imitate the endurance of the prophets (verses 9-10).
The Gospel reading deals with John the Baptist and the signs of the coming reign of Heaven. (Matthew uses the phrase Reign or Kingdom of Heaven instead of Mark and Luke’s Reign of God.) In this passage John does not seem to know that Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah). It is an open question for him, and he sends to Jesus to find out.
Jesus’ answer to John is to remind him of the signs that he has heard about, that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and in general the poor have good news brought to them (verses 4-5). This is in fact an answer only if one knows of the prophecies in Isaiah, and especially in chapter 35, which we read above. Jesus’ list of healings exceeds the prophecies, at least those mentioned in Isaiah and the psalm. The Messiah’s work also includes cleansing lepers and raising of the dead. These additional works of mercy were performed by the prophets Elijah and Elisha (I Kings 17:17-24 and II Kings 5:1-19), and thus also belong to God’s works for the faithful. It is by reference to the prophets that one learns when the right time has come, what the signs are that God’s salvation has begun to secretly invade the world, otherwise so full of wickedness and misery.
Jesus does not say, Yes, I am the Anointed One. Instead he points to the works and lets John draw his own conclusion. The Gospel writer refrains from painting for us what John might have said. John was already in prison and would soon die at the command of Herod Antipas.
Our passage contains further words of Jesus about John’s significance in the history of salvation. John appeared out in the wilderness. People had to “go out” to hear him. It was not a setting of comfortable pews or air conditioned conference rooms. Why would people “go out” in spite of hardships and discomforts? Because they intuited that a prophet had come, and the coming of a prophet implies great changes in the human order. In John’s case, Jesus says, it was in fact the fore-runner of God’s own coming, as prophesied in Malachi, here quoted by Jesus (in verse 10). John the Baptist is the Fore-runner, the Elijah, preparing the way for the Lord, the Son of God, born in the City of David, as we will hear in the next Gospel readings.