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Commentary on Isa 41:13-20
We continue reading from ‘The Book of Consolation’. The Jews are coming to the end of their period of exile in Babylon. Today we have a message of encouragement. God is coming to help, to redeem his people. For us during Advent, the message points clearly to Jesus our Redeemer and Saviour. The theme of today’s reading is that God will protect Israel against its enemies and meet its needs in the desert wilderness. Israel’s enemies will vanish, the empire of Babylon will be no more but God’s people will continue under his loving protection.
"Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm, Israel, puny mite." Israel seems so insignificant when seen in comparison with its powerful conquerors. But it is a deceptive weakness; there is a Strength on their side.
The prophet tells the people that God, "the Holy One of Israel" is their ‘redeemer’. The word in Hebrew originally refers to the nearest male relative who will avenge the blood of someone who has been murdered. He is also the one pays off a debt and frees the debtor from prison; his duty also is to protect the defenceless. Leviticus (25:47-55) also speaks of a situation where a person has to sell himself to a foreigner. He can be ‘redeemed’, that is, bought back by a brother, or uncle or cousin or any other relative. (The word ‘redeemer’ comes from the Latin redemptor, meaning ‘someone who buys back’.)
It then comes to refer to God as one who protects the oppressed and who liberates his people. The word is used frequently in this sense in Second Isaiah. The word then was applied to Jesus, who is the Redeemer and Liberator of us all.
Far from being weak, God tell his people, "I turn you into a threshing-sled". Just as the emperor Cyrus reduced his enemies (including the Babylonians) to dust (Is 41:2), so too Israel will deal with its enemies. "You shall thresh and crush the mountains", namely, their powerful enemies.
For the Israelites good times are coming as they leave their place of exile and return to their homeland. This is symbolised in the provision of an abundance of water, the formation of rivers and lakes. It is reminiscent of Moses who produced water from the rock for Israelites during the Exodus. The desert is thus transformed by all kinds of magnificent trees. Some of these trees are named later in connection with the adornment of God’s sanctuary. Acacia wood was used for the tabernacle. In chapter 55 we are told that pine and myrtle replace thorns and briers.
In fact, King Cyrus, who crushed the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, is seen as an instrument doing God’s work. Through all these manifestations, the writer foresees the coming of the Messianic age, "so that all may see and know, observe and understand that the hand of the Lord has done this".
Commenting on this text, the Christian Community Bible rightly comments that now the Israelites, depressed by their exile experience, are being reminded to stop looking back at the ‘good old days’ or their glorious past and to look forward to a promising future. "For centuries the Jews had looked upon their past, always expanding the memory of the wonders worked by God in their departure from Egypt. Now, they must look to the future. This time, a new departure is being prepared from Babylon, and it will be accompanied by wonders greater than those of the first Exodus."
We, too, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas need to remember that our celebration is not just a nostalgic look at the past but a renewal of hope and energy in working for the building of the Kingdom in the year ahead.
Commentary on Matthew 11:11-15
Jesus today has high words of praise for John the Baptist. John had a unique role which sets him apart from all others: he was the one to announce the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah. John is the last in the line of the great Old Testaments prophets, men who spoke in God’s name pointing the way for God’s People, at times denouncing their behaviour and at others pointing to a great destiny ahead. John is an Old Testament figure but he forms a kind of bridge between the Old and the New. He died – in fact, was executed – before the mission of Jesus was completed. The New Testament or Covenant was sealed with Jesus’ blood on the cross. John never saw that; he never was fully a disciple of Jesus.
And so, Jesus says, even the very least in the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus, is in a more privileged position than John. John was not able to share in the abundance of life that was released through the death and resurrection of Jesus as every believing Christian can do.
There are at this point some strange words: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force." The meaning is not immediately clear but it seems to refer to those who are using violence to prevent people from entering the Kingdom and pulling away those who have already entered. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this could apply to those Jews and others who were bitterly opposed to Jesus and his message and who both tried to prevent people entering the Christian community or tried to make those already members to defect. This we know from the letters of Paul was happening in many communities. And it is still happening today, sometimes with violence (e.g. persecution) sometimes in much more subtle ways (it is not ‘PC’ to be Christian).
John, too, is described as "Elijah who is to come". We know that the prophet Elijah did not die a natural death. He was carried off to heaven in a chariot. However, it was a Jewish belief that some day he would return to leave this earth in a normal way and join the dead in Sheol. But the important point was that his return would be the immediate prelude to the arrival of the Messiah. In calling John Elijah, Jesus is clearly pointing to himself as the Messiah. And so Jesus says: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
Those with real insight will know what Jesus is saying. They will listen carefully to his words and recognise Jesus for who he really is and accept him as Lord.
We might conclude by reflecting that the role of John the Baptist is one that each follower of Christ is called to fill. It is up to us to prepare the way for Christ and his vision of the Kingdom to enter the lives of people. In the words of the Benedictus, a hymn said every day in the Church’s Morning Prayer:
As for you, little child,
You shall be called a prophet of God the Most High.
You shall go ahead of the Lord
To prepare his ways before him. (Luke 2:76)