15Dec 15 Dec. Thursday of the 3rd Week of Advent

Isaiah 54:1ff. The future reversal, when the abandoned will find God’s special favour; for “the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer.”

Luke 7:24ff. Jesus praises John the Baptist: “A prophet, yes, and more than a prophet.”

John’s Austerity

What monumental efforts God sets in motion in order to come to us and to attract us to himself. At times, as in Isaiah, God’s word is heard in tones of intimate love. At other times as in the reading from Luke, God speaks through a stern and uncompromising prophet like John the Baptist. If we are to find God, we must allow ourselves to be found by him. By faith we recognize that God speaks in a way corresponding to our needs and personality: at times with severity, at other times with tenderness. We must guard against the disposition of many of the Pharisees and lawyers who could not tolerate the swift, clean way by which John the Baptist cut through religious formality to basic human needs and expectations. We need to meditate on these various ways of God, so that our own response will be quick, obedient and effective.

God can come to us in tender, affectionate ways. The selection from Isaiah consists of a long poem whose each new stanza ends with a crescendo of divine love: says the Lord, says your God, says the Lord your Redeemer, says the Lord who has mercy on you. The simple yet majestic title of Yahweh or Lord, Israel’s specially revealed name for God, becomes all the more a part of Israel’s life in the phrase, your God. The author of this poem, usually called Second Isaiah (see the meditation for Tuesday, Second Week of Advent) seldom uses the generic word “God,” but almost always draws God into the circle of Israel’s family. The next title, Lord your Redeemer, unites Yahweh within Israel’s blood relationship; the Hebrew word for Redeemer means kin or relative and the consequent obligations, as in Lev 25:24,30,36,41. United by blood, the Lord is one who has mercy on you, as we read in the final line of the poem, yet in a most intimate way. “Mercy” here is drawn from a word in the Hebrew language, meaning “womb.” God’slove surrounds us as a child in its mother’s womb.

God, on the contrary, at times will not treat us delicately as an unborn infant but sternly as a responsible adult. Such was certainly the case when he spoke through his prophet John the Baptist. John was a no-person. He lived in the desert wilderness of Judah, was clothed in camel’s hair and leather belt, ate grasshoppers and wild honey (Mark 1:6) and cried out: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come? Give some evidence that you mean to reform. . .. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).

John cut through rank, privilege and wealth and proposed a common sense morality of basic right and wrong, uncompromised by moral casuistry or religious sophistication. In a few quick strokes, Jesus drew John’s portrait: “What did you go out to see in the desert? – a reed swayed by the wind? … someone dressed luxuriously eating in splendor? … a prophet? He is that, I assure you, and something more.”

According to the blunt talk of John the Baptist, we must accept God on God’s own terms. Today’s readings show that God can speak tenderly … or harshly! It is a fearful and scary moment when we allow God the liberty of approaching us in any way that God judges best for us. He may reach out to us tenderly or severely. His “Advent” may involve a long preparation, the way that Second Isaiah drew upon centuries’ old traditions and carefully composed an elaborate, doctrinal poem. Or God may burst upon us like those prophets who come into our lives without even a conventional how-do-you-do? In this latter case we think of the sudden appearance of Elijah in 1 Kings 17 or of John the Baptist particularly in Mark 1:1-4, “Here begins the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In Isaiah the prophet it is written, “I send my messenger before you …” Thus it was that John the Baptist appeared. God may act “democratically” or “philosophically” and permit us a stretch of time to think it over. Or God may demand an immediate “Yes!” In the latter case we cannot protest, “But God, did you not give us a mind for thinking it over?” In the former case, however, we are obliged to meditate through many hours of silence.

First Reading: Isaiah 54:1-10

Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labour! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord. Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.

Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.

This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Gospel: Luke 7:24-30

When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

(And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)