17th December 2017
The first reading is from Isaiah chapter 61. As Israel’s long history progressed, even from the time of Abraham, leaders kept being chosen and supported by God, and when it came to Kings their appointment was confirmed by anointing. Then when times were difficult for the nation, people began to expect that God would send an anointed one who would bring them to their fullness and their dream of success. The history of the people tells us (Ezra 1:1ff) that their captivity in Babylon ended through the emperor Cyrus, chosen by God to send the people back to their homeland. Our first reading for today comprises two stanzas from a poem in the book of Isaiah from about this time (530 BC). The first could well be the voice of such a chosen liberator, though we might see it as also being appropriate to be expressed by Christ Himself. The word Christ means anointed and the Spirit of God is with the anointed one. This chosen one (whether we think it is Cyrus, or proleptically Christ) has good news to deliver – the word Gospel literally means good news. It is to announce the day everything will be put right, a vindication that is sometimes translated as vengeance (for the Jews would likely have thought of retribution on their enemies). The next stanza that we read is probably the thoughts of Jerusalem personified for the inhabitants of the city and its surrounds; it sings of rejoicing in the restored glory of the building and of their society in themselves and in relation to their enemies. This stanza can remind us that we should rejoice at the things that God has done for us in Christ.
In the second reading Paul write to the Thessalonians from Corinth and has received news from Timothy that the Christians in Thessalonica, which he had to leave hastily, are doing well. He writes to give them some advice and to praise their success. Our reading is almost the end of this letter, dated about 50 AD. Christ wants His followers to be upbeat, to pray for things they want and anyway to always thank God for all His blessings. The community there seems to have quite a few ‘prophets;’ They are people, male or female, who feel moved by the Spirit to make pronouncements and public prayers. Some in the community dislike this activity, but Paul says you need to judge what they say and accept what you know to be right and good and reject the rest. He ends by praying for them – its good for people to know when they are being prayed for! May you be entirely blameless, he prays using the phrase ‘body, soul and spirit.’ Be ready for the advent of Christ, he prays, which the early Christians thought might be quite soon.
The gospel is from John, a Gospel written much later than the other three and which had to address issues that were developing in the church at the time. One of these was an exaggerated adulation of John the Baptist by some supposed Christians. After all John had been a very impressive character, attracting crowds out into the desert to recommit themselves to God in a ceremony of baptism similar to ones for people taking on an entirely new religious belief and practice. In many ways his extravagantly ascetic life and dramatic death at the hands of Herod, were more impressive than the generally compassionate preaching and lifestyle of Jesus. So at the beginning of this Gospel the position of John in Christian belief is clarified in the reading we have today. Positively, John is the one announcing good news as in the other gospels which also quote the passage from Isaiah used in last week’s readings. Here it is quite clear that John is not the one, not the light, but just a servant preparing his way. Even today we can sometimes have an image of our saviour which attracts us, rather than elevates and challenges; we need, perhaps to rethink and recommit ourselves.