Third Sunday of Advent (Year A)

October 28th, 2013

The Lessons in Précis

While waiting and asking for hope, we are given relentless images of estrangement and parched life turned into deep relief.

Isaiah 35:1-10

Sorrow and need are staples of life, but God makes healing and nurture the Holy Way.

Psalm 146:5-10

The goodness of the Lord is extolled in all the ways that wholeness is created for those who are broken: the oppressed are given justice, the hungry are fed, the ill are healed. All of this is the work of the Lord.

James 5:7-10

We await the coming of the Lord with patience, even as the prophets did: speaking “in the name of the Lord,” the place of strength that enables patience.

Matthew 11:2-11

We look for someone or something, hoping for deliverance, all the while being sustained by the realities of renewal in every quarter.


God sends the One who will provide refuge. All of creation lives with infirmities, uncertainties, and fears. Even the desert sands look for water. Need creates weakness, and danger threatens from all sides. But God’s Holy Way is a sure refuge proclaimed by the prophets, John the Baptizer, and Jesus, who answers those still looking for evidence of healing and hope.


The realm or kingdom of heaven is a key notion on this third Sunday in Advent, marking the midpoint of the season. Historically, it was known as “Gaudete” Sunday, a time set aside for some anticipatory rejoicing. The “kingdom of heaven” (Matt 11:11) is at hand. Matthew’s talk of the “kingdom of heaven” distinguishes him from the other synoptic evangelists, who speak freely of the “kingdom of God.” Speaking of “heaven” instead of “God” respects Jewish Christians who would have been unaccustomed to uttering the name of God aloud.

However, Matthew agrees with the other evangelists that this kingdom turns the world upside down. The texts tell of a series of reversals that the arrival of God’s son will bring. A world turned upside down upsets usual expectations, challenges “the way we usually do things,” and pours out wonderful surprises. Whatever one calls it, God’s kingdom makes all things new.

The first new things are reversals of place. For the prophet Isaiah, the desert “blossom[s]” (35:1) with flowers and trees; wilderness and dry land, usually landscapes that evoke terror, fill with praise. Places of scarcity and danger suddenly become places of rejoicing. Like the psalmist—and all of the Bible’s authors—Isaiah writes from a fierce landscape, a desert. In contrast, images of abundance always involve something lush and green. Had the scriptures been written originally in Ireland, for example, images of scarcity and abundance would have been quite different. Everything around the Irish monks was green on green from endless rains. They longed for a little sun. Indeed, when Irish Christians first read the psalms, the difference between the psalmist’s desert landscape and their own stunned them. If they were reading these sacred texts, then the gospel had surely “reached the ends of the earth.” The eschaton must be at hand!

The second reversal signaled in these Advent texts is a reversal for people, specifically the conditions of people who suffer. And suffering comes in many forms. French philosopher Simone Weil identified three dimensions of suffering: physical, social, and spiritual. In the world turned upside down, each of these dimensions is not only named, but redressed. Physical suffering, so often regarded as a matter of revulsion, receives healing: “. . . the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed . . .”

Social suffering, which segregates people from human community, turns alienation into community: the hungry have food, the oppressed find justice, “the poor have good news proclaimed to them” (Matt 11:5). The psalm singles out three groups of people to whom the Lord pays particular attention: the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. Again and again, the Hebrew scriptures target this triad of social sufferers as particular targets of God’s compassion. This must have been comforting to a people like the Israelites, who were conquered and sent into exile. God had not forgotten them. But once they were restored to their land, they were commanded not to forget the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. God expected them to show to others the compassion they had experienced: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt . . .” (e.g., Deut 5:15, 15:15, 16:12).

Spiritual suffering makes God seem “absent,” as Weil put it, at infinite remove. The ancients reckoned that physical disease and social alienation were far from the perfection of the divine. The incarnation proved the ancients wrong: God became human precisely to participate in the full range of human experience. Christ even experienced the “absence” of God, as his terrifying cry from the cross demonstrates: “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Mark 15:34). When anyone suffering reaches this point of utter abandonment, she knows that someone else has been there: God in God-self, through the suffering of his son Jesus.

A third reversal concerns journey or path, and this stretches the imagination of twenty-first century disciples who have streets and highways that are lit, marked, and patrolled. Biblical “highways” were dangerous places indeed. Nothing was lit up, and travelers were easy marks for thieves—and appetizers for wild animals. People avoided leaving the safety of their homes at night or even during the day. Yet, Isaiah promises that the coming kingdom will change everything: “ Even fools won’t get lost on it; no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. . . . only the redeemed will walk on it” (35:8-9). For Christians, quintessentially a “pilgrim people,” this is good news indeed.

The fourth and final reversal handles expectations, particularly our own expectations of the “king” of such a kingdom. The Gospel reading is particularly poignant, because Jesus challenges people’s expectations of John the Baptist—“What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A stalk blowing in the wind? . . . A man dressed up in refined clothes?” (Matt 11:7-8). Jesus chides the people, even as he knows their expectations of him will also be way off base. They want a warrior, some Rambo from the Desert, who will bring military might to bear on the Roman occupying army. They want a prophet, someone whose words—even if they be words of judgment—would reassure them that God still cares about them, for the voice of the prophets had been silent for centuries before Jesus and John arrived on the scene. They want Elijah, because legend led them to believe Elijah would appear in the Temple heights before the Day of Liberation happened. People keep confusing Jesus with Elijah or one of the prophets (Matt 16:18), but here he echoes Isaiah to identify himself: “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them” (Matt 11:5).

Would we recognize Jesus among us today? Advent gives our eyes time to get used to a world turning upside down. Look for the reversals that mark God’s inbreaking reign.


At this time of year people need a refuge from the busyness of this season. By the third week in Advent, the time of the Christmas celebration is ever closer, and the work of preparing for the joyous time presses more keenly. The church may even be engaging in Christmas activities during the Advent season (not every congregation observes Advent), causing pressure on everyone to be ready with what is still being prepared. In many ways, the imposition of Advent (which is not-yet-Christmas) by its very timing is a gift that brings to the fore a lot of complexity that might otherwise be ignored. We feel in our muscles and bones—and certainly in our daily schedules!—what it is to live as people who have been redeemed and yet struggle with all the difficulties of life. We have been forgiven and promised unending life with our Lord, but we consistently fail to do as we intend and stand, therefore, in need of what we already have.

It is a confounding reality to live in this already-not-yet way. It is the Holy Way, in fact, and the pastoral need on this Sunday is to help the assembly stand in the desert—where water is not flowing—while also bathing in baptismal truth.


God sends to us One who provides the refuge that is needed, yet waiting permeates the texts for this day. For those who find their situation intolerable, the delay is only more torment. Isaiah and Matthew (through Jesus’ words) name people who are blind, deaf, lame, terminally ill, and who do not have enough means to live. There are some people in our time who, having come to terms with a “different” ability (blindness and deafness, for instance) have come to speak of their situation as one that contains gifts other persons—those with sight and hearing, especially—cannot understand. They defend their own abilities as adequate, even special. This fact of our time makes the preacher’s task a bit precarious. One cannot speak as if all “differences” are states from which a person is waiting to healed. Yet, death and poverty, oppression of all kinds, uncertainty, fear, pain, and loneliness, to name only a few, are encompassed in the hope that is raised by the prophetic word. That is what must be lifted up.

The sermon might focus, at least in part, on the attention paid to patience in James. The letter names the various gifts in the community that show the shape of waiting. They are common experiences. The farmer awaits crop growth (sure that it will slowly come). Patient people are not burdened by the irritations that arise but, like the prophets who live “in the name of the Lord” see beyond the moment, they work towards what is promised as grace.

The challenge is to speak of patience as a gift already given rather than as a state of mind which has yet to be grasped, and that is a matter of preaching the gospel rather than preaching to insist on behaviors that are very difficult.


The One who comes is the One whom we already know through the crucifixion and resurrection. The good news proclaimed in these texts is all about healing. The scope of the troubles named is broad enough that everyone who hears it can surely imagine being included in the words of Isaiah, “God will come to save you” (35:4). God will make rivers in the desert—bathing our hurts in cool water. But even more than that, implicit in the reason for the healing God desires for us is Jesus’ assertion that the “least” (Matt 11:11) are even greater than the one Jesus holds in highest esteem: John the Baptist. Healing is social as well as physical and spiritual (see the theological discussion above).

The holy scriptures take primary concern for the well-being of the poor and powerless. Who are these “least?” We can readily point to those in greatest need, yet no one escapes the humility of being a creature of dust. “Humus,” after all, is soil. The creation story in Genesis tells us God formed us from earth, and twenty-first century physicists add that we are, in fact (as well as legend!) made of matter from the universe. Not even the brashest, richest, most accomplished person can avoid the least-ness of dust.

The message of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection—poignant for Christians to contemplate as Advent brings the church closer to the Nativity—holds within it, by virtue of Christ’s place in the Holy Trinity, the profound implications of the incarnation: that we, poor creatures, are finally honored above all by the One who created, saves, and sustains all of us.

Melinda A. Quivik, Liturgical and Homiletical Scholar, Houghton, Michigan

Martha E. Stortz, Professor of Historical Theology and Ethics, Pacific Lutheran Theological School


Simone Weil, “The Lore of God and Affliction,” in George A. Panichas (ed.), Simone Weil Reader, 1977.

comments powered by Disqus