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DECEMBER 11, 2011: THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Readings: 

Isaiah 61: l-2a, 10-11
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Presuming Jesus is God, it's difficult for us to conceive of him having models for his earthly ministry. Yet in chapter 4 of his gospel, Luke doesn't hesitate to have Jesus make the first part of today's Third-Isaiah reading an outline of what he plans to accomplish during his ministry.

Reflecting on his call, the prophet confidently proclaims, "The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from Yahweh and a day of vindication by our God."

The historical Jesus obviously sees his own ministry as overlapping Third-Isaiah's ministry. Like this late sixth century prophet, the carpenter from Capernaum is convinced Yahweh has also sent him to liberate the oppressed. Through his ministry the beaten-down of this world will finally be lifted up, and because of the reference to "a year of favor from Yahweh," they'll be given the opportunity to start their lives all over again. According to Jewish law, every 50th year was earmarked a jubilee year: a year when all debts were canceled, all property returned to its original owners - sort of like F. D. R.'s Depression-era promise of a "New Deal." Everyone from this moment will begin with a clean slate.

But there's a price to pay for this new beginning. Third-Isaiah expects those recently-freed from exile to leave the relative security which 50 years of living in that rather plush foreign environment has provided. They're to return to a Jerusalem in ruins, committed to rebuilding it and its temple.

In a parallel way, the gospel Jesus expects his liberated followers to commit themselves to spending their lives imitating his dying and rising.

In today's I Corinthians passage, Paul tries to concretize that imitation. "Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus." But there's also an obligation to constantly be open to God's will in their lives. "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil."

The warning about despising prophetic utterances is especially important. Biblical people normally surfaced God's will in their lives by surfacing the prophets in their communities. Through these inspired men and women God showed how the liberation of the down-trodden was to take place.

This early Christian insistence on the importance of prophecy also seems to play a role in the evangelist's insistence that it was a prophet - John the Baptizer - who first points out the significance of Jesus.

Like all true prophets, the Baptizer continually turns the spotlight away from himself. John the gospel writer perfectly sums up the Baptizer's prophetic ministry: "He was not the light, but came to testify to the light."

Experts on John's gospel frequently point to one of the evangelist's main themes: though Jesus is the Word and Son of God among us, most people never discover his presence. That's why the Baptizer is quoted as saying. ". . . There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."

Perhaps the most liberating message the prophets in our midst proclaim revolves around surfacing the "unrecognized" around us. Just as people once failed to recognize God in an itinerant preacher from Galilee, so today many fail to recognize the risen Jesus in the world's outcasts. Prophets continually point out that presence. Recognizing and listening to our prophets is the first step in achieving God's liberating plan.