Old Testament Lectionary December 14th Advent 3 Isaiah 61:1-11

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit confused about Advent themes. In the good old days it was all about death, judgement, heaven and hell, but there’s also that stuff about prophets, patriarchs and the rest. The ASB helpfully gave us weekly themes, and Bible Sunday used to be around here somewhere too, but then in reaction to the ASB themes Common Worship is a bit shy and prefers us to see what we hear as we meditate on the readings, rather than telling us what we’ve got to find in them. Confused …? However, from the gospel for today we’re apparently supposed to be thinking about John the Baptist, so what does Isaiah have to say about that?

 

The first thing which strikes one is the similarity of this passage to the ‘Servant Songs’ from the middle chapters of the book. The Spirit of God had anointed someone or other (discuss!) to bring redemption to Israel through sacrificial suffering. Indeed the nation had suffered in exile, but now they are back in their homeland and have the task of rebuilding not just the physical city but also the national life. So now a new ‘servant’ is being called and anointed, like the previous one unidentified, but probably in this case the prophet himself. His message is one of hope, new life, restoration and redemption, and he speaks to a people whom one might imagine literally standing in the ruins of the city, among the broken and scattered stones of the once great buildings, hearing his good news of a new start. It’s not difficult to see how the ministry of John was foreshadowed in this passage.

 

But what is interesting is the hints we get here about the foundations of this renewed community. In v 8 we get a glimpse of God’s values, the things which are important to him: he loves justice, and he hates robbery and wrongdoing. And then again in v 11 God promises to make righteousness and praise spring up. This, I think, helps us to deal with the question prompted by all the lovely stuff in this chapter ‘Well where is it then?’ The ongoing history of Israel after the return from exile was anything but as rosy as this text paints it. We’re still waiting today for the glorious future of Israel as they fight within their own land and as a mosque occupies pride of place in Jerusalem.

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Righteousness and praise, robbery and wrongdoing. We know clearly what God likes and doesn’t like, but, as with the people in the time of John the Baptist, we have a choice as to how we live. Choose the right things and we choose life, hope and a future. Choose the other way, and there is no certainly of God’s best will becoming reality. God never forces his blessings on us, and the story of the Bible as a whole is the story of God’s plans for blessing and prosperity being thwarted again and again by twisted human rebellion. There is hope, there is a future, but as a human race we need to hear again, more urgently than ever, John’s cry to repent.

What ‘s Church for? Church as Bride

Having looked at the Greek and Hebrew words which refer to ‘church’ we move this week to look at another term in common usage: church as the ‘Bride of Christ’. How useful is this in the self-identification of a church community? And how biblical is it actually?

The references (and they are not very explicit) come only in the Gospels and at the end of Revelation. Nowhere is Paul’s clear statement that ‘you are the body of Christ’ made of us as bride. In the Gospels the emphasis is much more on Jesus as the bridegroom: this picks up on much Jewish imagery about the new age of the coming Messiah being described as a wedding. There are two key motifs here: waiting and urgency. ‘Why aren’t your disciples miserable like us?’ ask the Pharisees of Jesus. The answer is that at the moment the bridegroom is here: this is no time for fasting and mourning. But he is about to go, and ultimately come back. In the meantime we wait, but we wait with a sense of urgency, because he might come back literally at any moment, and we need to be ready. This is the thrust of several gospel passages.

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There are two isolated references in the epistles: in 2 Cor 11 Paul fears that the Christians to whom he is writing might have lost the plot. He promised them to Christ as a pure virginal bride, but they have instead ‘committed adultery’ by adopting false doctrine. This picks up an OT prophetic image of false religion as adulterous. And then in Ephesians 5 the point is made that wives are under the authority of their husbands as the church is to Christ. This idea may seem to us as quaint as the idea that brides are virgins, but we’ll tiptoe past that one.

But most of the references are from Revelation, and only really from chapter 19 when the battles have been fought and won, and God’s people are ready to enter the new creation. But if we look carefully the church is never here described as the ‘Bride of Christ’ – that title is reserved for the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. As is his wont John is setting up a contrast between the tarty woman of Rev 17, dressed up to the nines in all her seductive gaudiness, and the pure bride dressed in white linen. The prostitute, we discover, is the archetypal evil city, manifested at different times as Babel, Babylon and now Rome, so her purified counterpart is the new Jerusalem.

What does this mean for a church which thinks of itself as the Bride of Christ? It is both a call and a promise, with a bit of waiting in between. The call is basically to live with purity, not perversion. The promise is of a renewed creation, when all blemishes and wrinkles will be removed. And in the meantime we wait, living faithfully in a love relationship with Jesus.

The Bride is not the predominant model of church, and it certainly isn’t a very blokey one (we’ll be remedying that later in the series). But it does present us with that challenge and that promise. Next time we’ll go for a less sitting-and-waiting model as we consider church as pilgrimage.