There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
1st Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Our first reading dates from the time of Israel’s restoration after the exile in Babylon—the rebuilding of “Zion.” Isaiah foresees this as a time of the flowering of justice, a time of “Jubilee” (“the year of the Lord’s favor,” see Leviticus 25). This establishment of liberty will not be just for Israel’s sake but for all people (the omitted verses 5-7 make this especially clear). Zion herself responds with unfettered joy. She is clothed with new garments and, indeed the world with new life.
61:1 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 Song of Mary (BCP, Canticle 15): Luke 1:46-55
Mary’s song is sung after she has arrived at her cousin Elizabeth’s home. Elizabeth greets her with “Blessed are you among women…” and Mary responds with a song that has its roots in her ancestor Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. The song begins with Mary’s joy at what God has done for her, but quickly moves to proclaim the God who turns the world upside down. This is not the “meek and mild” Mary of tradition, but a strong woman of bold faith. We often call this song “The Magnificat” for its opening word in Latin. This translation is from The Book of Common Prayer.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Psalm 126 is one of the “Songs of Ascents,” songs pilgrims sang on their way to the Temple for any of the major Jewish feasts. As a whole, they comprise Psalms 120 through 134. They date from the post-exilic period. Psalm 126 is a song of continued trust, remembering how God restored them to their land and turned their tears into joy.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
5 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Our short passage from Paul’s earliest letter (and, therefore, the oldest Christian writing we have) is an exhortation to what we are to do while we wait for Christ to come again. The instructions are simple. Profoundly important is the closing sentence—it is God who will work these things in us.
5:16 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.
Gospel Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28
In this “Year of Mark” we will occasionally hear from John’s Gospel, since Mark is the shortest of the Gospels. Our reading this morning is the gospel writer’s account of John the Baptist. First come words from the “prologue” (the opening poem of the Gospel), placing John in the context of the Word becoming flesh. John the Baptist is then portrayed as a witness, attesting to the truth of what he has seen (a very important theme in John). Note the use of the word “Jews” in verse 19, the first of many times John will use this term. Usually John uses it as shorthand for the religious and cultural authorities. It rarely refers to all the people. Remember Jesus and his followers were all Jews themselves.
1:6 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.
The Scripture quotations (except for the canticle and the psalm) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved. The Psalm and the Canticle translations are from The Book of Common Prayer. Commentaries are by Epiphany ESources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY 14843, www.epiphanyesources.com , copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. Permission is given to copy for congregational use, with attribution.