Lesson: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 The spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LORD God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Ancient Israel’s history. The writings were compiled from about 700 BCE to about 300 BCE.
Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and are the words of a prophet (one who speaks for YHWH – translated as “LORD” in all capital letters in the NRSV) who called for Jerusalem to repent in the 30 years before Jerusalem came under siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55. In these chapters, a prophet brought hope to the Judeans during the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they had suffered enough and would return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 in which a prophet gave encouragement to the Judeans who had returned to Jerusalem (which was largely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE) after the Exile had ended.
Today’s reading is part of “Third Isaiah.” These verses can be a bit difficult to follow because there are three different “voices” speaking.
In the first four verses, the anonymous prophet described what a prophet is and does. A prophet is one anointed by YHWH/LORD to bring messages that YHWH wanted conveyed to the people – in this case, that the Judeans and Jerusalem will be restored and that they would receive a garland (a symbol of celebration) and display the “glory” of the LORD (v.3).
The liberation of the captives (v.1) and the proclamation of the year of the LORD’s favor (v.2) are derived from Chapter 25 of Leviticus which describes a release of prisoners (particularly enslaved debtors) and forgiveness of debts in a Jubilee Year every 50 years. The prophet applied this notion of the Jubilee Year to the period of the Exile (587-539 BCE) and to all the Judeans who would have their land restored to them.
In the second grouping of verses (vv. 8-9), YHWH was portrayed as speaking directly to the Judeans and promised an everlasting covenant with them (v.8).
In the last two verses in today’s reading, the prophet spoke for the Judeans who rejoiced that they received salvation and righteousness from YHWH (v.10). The people rejoiced that they are like a bridegroom, a bride and the earth in Springtime that brings forth its shoots.
The prophet said that YHWH would cause righteousness to spring up among all the nations (v.11). In the Hebrew Bible, the word that is translated as “the nations” is sometimes – depending on context – translated as “the pagans” or “the Gentiles.”
In what is sometimes called the “Programmatic Statement” in Luke 4:18-19, the author of the Gospel paraphrased portions of Isaiah 61:1-2 (above) and 58:6 to proclaim Jesus’ mission.
Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was Paul’s first letter and was written around 50 CE. Accordingly, it is the oldest writing in the Christian Scriptures.
Thessalonica is a seaport city and was the capital of Macedonia. Even today, Thessaloniki (as it is now called) is a charming city of one million persons, and the cultural center of Greece. The saying there is that “Thessaloniki is to Athens as San Francisco is to Los Angeles.”
The letter encouraged the community to be steadfast in the face of persecution. Today’s reading consists of concluding verses of the letter and follows an exhortation for the Jesus Followers to be at peace among themselves (v.13) and to not repay evil for evil (v.15).
Paul emphasized that God’s call to us is ongoing and he encouraged them to rejoice, pray, and hold fast to that which is good (vv.16-21) in anticipation of the parousia – the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 23).
Paul urged them not to “despise the words of prophets” (v.20). Prophesy in this context meant words spoken, usually during worship, as coming from the Lord to the community through inspired members of the assembly.
In his prayer that their “spirit and soul and body be kept sound (v.23), Paul was not treating these as separate parts of a human person, but as three vantage points for viewing persons, each of which is important.
Gospel: John 1:6-8,19-28
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.