A selection from this week's resources to help you plan and run a Bible study.
Welcome and opening prayer (5 mins)
A gathering prayer
Advent God, who gathers us as your people,
gather us today around this flame.
We acknowledge before you all our doubts and anxieties,
together with the good things you have given us to share.
Call us to hope, O God,
to place our faith in you,
the source of all light.
Read the text (10 mins)
Consider different ways to read the text. For example, sharing parts between several readers, or hearing it more than once using different versions, or using/adapting this suggestion.
Present the Gospel
You will need two readers: a narrator and John the Baptist, and a third person with no speaking part. It will be more effective if ‘John’ can learn the monologue below, and speak from a place of semi-darkness, as if in a prison cell.
Narrator: John the Baptist has been imprisoned by King Herod, who was upset by what John had said to him. Be still for a moment to imagine what it might feel like in that prison and, in particular, how John might be feeling at this moment in his life.
John: I never thought it would come to this. To give so much of myself, and yet to finish up in here. I hate the darkness. How fruitful the desert compared to these few square feet of emptiness.
God, are you there? Do you still care? (pause) My mind plays tricks in here. One minute I believe, the next I don’t know what it’s all about. I was so sure, so assured. Now I pace and pace, wondering what it was all for.
And what of the Messiah? My cousin. My friend. (pause) But is he really the one? Where is his fire? Where is his passion? What have I prepared the way for? He doesn’t seem to be doing what I expected. God, if I could only know for certain. To be sure that it was worth all this. To hold fast to the truth that he really is the one who is to come…or should I tell my disciples to look elsewhere? To look for another...?
The narrator reads the Gospel passage. Then the ‘third person’ brings John a letter (a small scroll), which John opens and reads aloud.
John: ‘My dear cousin, my brother, my friend. Don’t be afraid. I am the one who is to come. Look no further. God loves you; you have served him well. There is room in the kingdom for all who will come to him.’ (pauses, then looks to heaven) Amen.
Explore and respond to the text (30 mins)
Use the Bible notes as a way into Bible study. For example, you could read a section, then allow time for people to discuss issue raised and respond.
Bible notes (Adult & All Age version)
Old Testament: Isaiah 35.1-10
A complacent people responded to Isaiah by becoming deaf and blind to God’s healing (6.8-10). Now, after judgement, they are ready to see, hear and rejoice in the good news of salvation (see also 29.17-19). Seeing God’s glory and feeling its strength, they will walk in God’s way to the Temple (see Psalm 84.5). One biblical tradition sees the wilderness as the archetypal place of true worship (Amos 5.25; Acts 7.44-50), but here the desert’s blossoming signifies God’s renewed presence in Jerusalem. These themes are prominent in Isaiah 40 to 55, where the Babylonian exiles hear good news: ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’ (43.19). In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus points to this prophecy when replying to John’s messengers who ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’
New Testament: James 5.7-10
James draws on a Jewish tradition condemning the oppression of the poor and expecting the vindication of those who suffer unjustly. The corrupt treasure of the rich, particularly of those who exploit the poor by delaying to pay their wages (see Leviticus 19.13), will be evidence against them at the end of this age (5.3-4). James urges his disadvantaged congregation not to take out their frustrations on one another but to be patient in their suffering. There is encouragement in the Scriptures, from the prophets whose suffering was a sign of their closeness to God, and in the harvest that comes after the rain has nurtured growth. Above all, there is strength to be found in recognising that the return of Jesus is near. To any who presume to judge one another, he will return as Judge. But to those who show endurance, ‘The Lord is compassionate and merciful’ (5.11).
Gospel: Matthew 11.2-11
Uniquely in Matthew, both Jesus and John the Baptist proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (3.2; 4.17). Their stories intertwine from their meeting at the Jordan, where John is first characterised as Malachi’s coming Elijah (Malachi 3.1; 4.5-6), the messenger preparing the way by turning people to God and one another in readiness for the day of the Lord. And Jesus is the very presence of the Lord: ‘I am with you’ 28.20; see Exodus 3.14). After John is arrested, Jesus returns to Galilee to begin his ministry (4.12), and Jesus links John’s fate as Elijah to his own suffering as the Son of Man, who will be raised (17.9-13). Recognition is central to this passage. In prison for denouncing the unrepentant (14.1-12), John wonders whether Jesus’ ministry, casting out demons and healing the sick (8.1–9.38), and empowering his disciples to do the same (10.1-42), is really the proper work of ‘the Messiah’. Jesus points to the consistency of what he says with what he does: ‘Tell John what you hear and see’, recalling the Baptist’s message that a tree is known by its fruit (3.8-10), as ‘wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’ (11.19). And Jesus invites John, the biblical voice denouncing present corruption and looking for future justice, to believe that Isaiah’s prophetic words (Isaiah 26.19; 35.5-6; 61.1) are already being fulfilled. The question and response remind us that there are always different expectations of renewal. John’s focus is fasting and judgement and Jesus’ is healing and mercy (9.12-14). But Jesus values John’s work, and appeals to him to accept the blessing of taking ‘no offence at me’. Recognising John as the climactic prophetic voice, ushering in his own messianic ministry, Jesus describes him as the greatest ‘among those born of women’. We are reminded that for John himself being ‘a child of Abraham’ was not about physical descent but about God’s power to give new life (3.9). Jesus is the child from the Holy Spirit (1.20), anointed by the Spirit at his baptism as ‘my Son, the Beloved’ (3.17). To even ‘the least in the kingdom of heaven’, to those he baptizes with the Holy Spirit (3.11), he reveals the Father whose will is to be comprehended by infants (11.25-27).
The links between the lectionary readings
Today’s first reading is one of Isaiah’s prophecies used to describe the deeds that indicate that Jesus is the Messiah. It was only after calamity that the people were ready to hear Isaiah’s good news. Perhaps the Baptist’s own imprisonment for his denunciation of hypocrisy made him ready to hear the good news of healing and liberation. To those who show endurance, says James, ‘the Lord is compassionate and merciful’.
For more discussion ideas, and practical and active ways to explore and respond to the readings, choose from: Sermon ideas; Active worship; Picture pointers; or PostScript
Pray together (10 mins)
Prayers of intercession
Lord, we wait.
We wait for the fulfilment of your promises
and the full and permanent coming of your kingdom.
In our waiting, we remember those grappling with
circumstances outside of their control,
those who feel that life is passing them by,
those who are waiting for hope that never comes.
We pray for those whose faith is wearing thin,
whose patience is strained by the length of their waiting,
for those whose eyes are tired
of watching for the dawn.
We wait for light to break on their horizons,
for your Spirit to work something new,
something bright, something enduring,
deep within those places
that seem the most hopeless.
Lord, lift up those who are bowed down,
those far from home, those estranged and those who are weary,
and encourage the hearts of all those who wait for you.
In the name of Christ.
End the session (5 mins)
A sending out prayer
God, may we carry your light into this world,
bringing hope and encouragement
to everyone around us,
remembering that you are with us,
and that you can do all things.
Live your faith
Find out more about, and consider getting involved in, the work of the Barnabas Fund or the Prison Fellowship.
The ROOTS resources include a range of materials that can be put together to plan and run a Bible study, either leading up to a service based on the reading or in the following week.
The Bible study above is a selection of this week's resources and the timings are based on a Bible study session lasting one hour. This can be printed off and used as it is, or modified to suit your situation.
If you prefer to make your own selection from the weekly materials, please see our guidance on preparing a Bible study. You will also need to include a copyright acknowledgement as follows:
© ROOTS for Churches Ltd. Reproduced with permission. www.rootsontheweb.com