By the Rev. Louise N. Johnson*
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
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December 4, 2022
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. -Isaiah 35:1
Looking at the mess our world is in, have you ever wondered where is God? Wondered at what seems to you like deafening silence after your prayer for peace, for justice, for healing?
These questions are especially appropriate for Advent – the church season of waiting, anticipating, and hoping. Advent is just four weeks long, but so many of us feel as if we are living in a long, protracted Advent season – looking for hope in a world that is bleak, lonely, violent, oppressive, despairing – and wondering where on earth God is.
Today’s lectionary readings bear witness to the waiting, the long seasons of suffering of God’s people, and the not-yet-realized promises of God. And within each reading lies an invitation to be a steward of hope; to wait with longing and expectation for what is to come.
Isaiah speaks to a people who have lived in captivity for generations, cut off from their homeland, traditions, and place of worship. Isaiah gives a word of hope that must have sounded aspirational at best and delusional at worst. In circumstances that appeared hopeless – no potential of regime change, no miracle cure, no army coming to their rescue – what were they to make of Isaiah’s words of abundance, beauty, healing? Implicit in this vision is an invitation to hope; to wait with expectation for the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt to deliver them again.
In Luke, we see Mary, pregnant with hope, singing of a new day, one where the powerful and wealthy are brought low and the poor and lowly are lifted up. With the birth of her son, the way of all will be made straight, even, plain, and in this the glory of the Lord shall be revealed (Isaiah 40:4-5; Luke 3:5). But Mary is an unwed, pregnant teenager with a less-than-certain partner. Implicit in her song is the invitation to hope – to wait with expectation for the God who promises to come, redeeming us in the intimacy of the incarnation.
James addresses the acute suffering of the believer in a time of persecution. Earlier in his letter he says it this way: “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). Redemption is not only a promise of life after death but also a spiritual maturity that gives us a deep sense of purpose and peace, even amid terrible circumstances. James invites us to be patient, to resist the temptation to turn on one another, to hope as we wait for the coming of God.
Finally, in Matthew, John the Baptist asks, “Are you the one or are we to wait for another?” John expects Jesus to come with fire, with a winnowing fork to separate wheat from chaff and to burn the chaff with “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12). Jesus’ response challenges John’s expectations with a list of different priorities: “… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” It’s an invitation to hope in the one who defies our expectations and delivers on something even more miraculous and life changing.
A steward of hope waits in expectation, even while grieving at the world all around, even when there are no visible signs or rationale for hope. The steward of hope looks back, remembers what God has done, and looks forward to what God will do. The steward of hope knows that the one for whom we wait has long since come before. And will come again.
Consider hymns of expressing hope, such as: “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #596); “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” (ELW #254); or “Canticle of the Turning (ELW, #723).
A visual may help convey the theme. To give voice to the suffering in the world, perhaps a barren tree lit with white lights that give voice to the coming of Jesus Christ, the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.
Consider prayers that:
- Name the reality around us: oppression, war, loneliness, addiction, broken relationships, climate change
- Name the hope that is ours in Jesus: the lowly shall be raised up, peace, healing, reconciliation
- Ask for the strength to endure and be witnesses to the hope we have in Jesus for a world that so desperately needs to know that there is hope
Young people search for purpose. In the Luke reading, Mary declares that it is because of her low estate/lowliness that God calls her to the awesome task of bearing Jesus. Young people live in a world that gauges their worth by their talents and their looks. But as God did with Mary, God looks at our lowliness (weakness), invites each of us into a life of service, then gives us what we need to accomplish the mission.
Invite young people to reflect on God’s call on their lives. For starters, you might review the promises we acknowledge in the rite of Affirmation of Baptism (ELW p. 236). How they have experienced God’s call? What difficulty or challenge does that bring (as it did for Mary)? How can they lean in, count on God, support one another, and live into the calling and purpose that God has for their lives? Pray over each of them individually that they would hear and follow God’s call on their lives.
With younger children, tell the story of the exile, of how God’s people were captured and taken a long way away from home, from anything familiar. And how the prophet Isaiah tells them of a time when they will get to go home, and that home will be better than they imagined it (this is an especially important point for children for whom home is not a safe or good place). Tell them how the people held on to that story when things were especially difficult and how it helped them get through tough times. Like the Israelites, they also can hold onto God’s promise to love them when things are difficult for them. Pray with them.
*The Rev. Louise N. Johnson is Executive for Administration for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a member of the board of directors for the Stewardship of Life Institute.