ISAIAH 61:1-4, 8-11

THE BACKGROUND

This is a dialogue between the people of Israel in exile (through the prophet Isaiah) and God.  It comes at a time when they are returning home from captivity in Babylon. Their homes and the temple will be in shambles, and will need to be rebuilt.  There will be a lot of hard work ahead of them.  This passage offers words of encouragement for them, as they are for us during this pandemic.

THE DETAILS

This passage can be broken into three parts; 1) the prophet speaks, 2) God answers, and 3) the prophet and people speak again.

  • In verse one, the prophet says something like “boy, have I got good news for you!”
  • In the last part of verse one through four, he gives the details.  Proclaiming liberty to the captives, comfort to those who mourn, etc.
  • He gets to the heart of things in verse 4.  “Oh!  By the way! You’ve gotta build up some ancient ruins and repair ruined cities.”  They were all built with large, heavy stones, so there would be a lot of heavy lifting. They will definitely need to be “oaks of righteousness” for all the stone work that lies ahead.
  • God speaks in verses 8 & 9.  He says that because he loves justice, he will faithfully give them their “recompense”.  So, what is that?  I looked it up.  Recompense means a payback or compensation for their trouble.  So, what does it mean for God to do something “faithfully”?  It means that we can trust God to be dependable. We can be sure that He will compensate them for their trouble.    The compensation doesn’t come in the form of a stimulus check.  Better than that, they will become famous.  Their reputation will be known far and wide.
  • The remaining verses read a lot like psalm or praise-prayer.  They have reason to pray-sing this prayer, because God has delivered them, is bringing them home again, and promises them fame.

THE TAKEAWAY

Many of our Old Testament readings come from the time surrounding their Babylonian captivity.  This was a profound time in the history of Israel.  Israel would never be the same again.

We are currently suffering through a prolonged pandemic.  Since March of 2020, our lives have changed dramatically.  We will never be the same again.  We have not seen loved ones.  We have not worshiped with others.  We can’t eat in our favorite restaurants.  We are suffering from our own form of captivity.  We long for release.  We wait and hope for the saving vaccine. 

This is Advent!  We wait and hope for our salvation from this nasty, deadly virus. We are waiting to be released from our captivity, so we can live life again.  But we also wait for our Savior, who comes to us on Christmas Day.  He will release us from our captivity to sin and death.  Praise be to God!

 

 

1 THESSALONIANS 5:16-24

THE BACKGROUND

These are the closing lines of Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica.  When you close a long letter to a dear friend, you want to leave them with something special—a special pearl of wisdom or piece of advice.  This is what Paul says to them.

THE DETAILS

  • The first paragraph gives us a bunch of “do’s” and “don’t’s”.
  • Verses 16-18 tell us to continuously rejoice, pray, and give thanks, because this is the will of God.  I’d like to raise my hand right now, and ask “do we get a lunch break?”  I’m sure we are not to take this literally, but rather that this should be one of our primary focuses in life.  Even so, that’s a lot of praying, thanking, and rejoicing. I’m gonna work on that!
  • Verses 19 through 22 are just as difficult. They speak for themselves.  In “Food for Thought”, I will share a story.
  • The last paragraph is a blessing from Paul to this church.  It is right for us to “hitch a ride” on this blessing as well.  Paul asks that God will sanctify us—make us holy.  Our entire being—spirit, body, and soul—will be kept sound and blameless!  (I don’t know about you, but I could use a little help in that department.)  And this is how we should be until Jesus comes again.
  • The last sentence talks about that “faithful God” again.  We can depend on Him to do this for us.

THE TAKEAWAY

During my days as an employee of a large corporation, we would set goals and objectives for the upcoming year.  We were required to include one “stretch goal”—a goal that was impossible to achieve, but would be great to strive for.  I believe that is what Paul is asking of the church and us—that rejoicing, praying and giving thanks without end be our stretch goal. We know that we cannot possibly achieve this, but a lot of good will come from trying.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Verse 19 states that we should not “quench the Spirit”. It brought to mind an experience I had about 45 years ago.  I attended a worship service in the loft of a barn.  It was a Pentecostal service.  There were folding chairs, electric guitars, a drum set, and hay, of course.  They started singing a song which was basically the first two verses of today’s psalm, Psalm 126.  They sang it over and over.  The Holy Spirit showed up, and affected the congregants in a variety of ways. I was in shock and awe, but there she was—the Holy Spirit.  Alive and well, and not “quenched” in the slightest amount.

Over the years, my spiritual life has been guided by about a half dozen pastors.  Each in his or her own way has contributed greatly to my spiritual growth.  Some took great pains to ensure that there was order to the worship service and to all the inner workings of the church. Others let the Spirit loose, at least with regard to church administration. 

We sometimes place demands on our churches and our faith relationship that can “quench the Spirit”.  This is not a good thing. 

How might we cut the Holy Spirit loose in our lives?  Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
 

 

JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28

THE BACKGROUND

The Gospels were written by individual disciples, in various places, for various groups.  Most early churches read from only one Gospel.  It wasn’t until later, that they were all gathered up to form the beginning of the New Testament.  If today’s reading sounds familiar, it is because we read Mark’s version of this event last week.  This week, we get John’s. 

THE DETAILS

  • Verses 6-8 are a sort of introduction to John the Baptist.  Keep in mind that in the first five verses of John’s Gospel, he refers to Jesus as “the word” and “the light”.  So, when you see “the light” here, John is talking about Jesus. The gospel writer makes it clear that John the Baptist is not “the light”, but is a forerunner, testifying to the light.
  • While the basic story is the same as last week’s passage from Mark 1, this story gives us a peek at the tension that will develop between both John & Jesus and the established religious authorities.  In verse 19 we learn that “the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to…” find out what was going on out there near Bethany.  In verse 24, we learn that they had been sent from the Pharisees.  More questions ensue.  This is the beginning of a conflict that will end in Jesus’ crucifixion.
  • John does his best to disarm the situation.  “Hey, I’m only baptizing with water.”  But then he adds “but the one coming after me…”.  He’s telling everyone, even those who hold the power positions in the big offices “It’s not about me.  I’m just the forerunner; the herald.  And then he says in verse 27 “You have no idea what’s headed your way!”  [My personal paraphrase.]

THE TAKEAWAY

John comes to help us prepare for the Messiah.  He urges us to repent.  That word “repent” is an odd old word to me.  It conjures up images of some weirdo carrying a sign that says “repent”.   The word repent, then, has become almost a joke to many.  But this is no joke.  We all fall short.  We all need to reexamine our lives.  Jesus is coming this Christmas, and we are not ready.  Let’s cleanse our hearts, and make them ready for the Savior!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had it all figured out.  They had answers for every question.  Then, along come John the Baptist and Jesus, who upset the apple cart.  It makes me wonder about our churches, especially when we claim to have all the answers.  I have a pretty good feeling that we are in for quite a few surprises, when Jesus returns.