2nd Sunday Advent 12-4-16; Isaiah 11: 1-10, Ps: 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17, Romans 15: 4-9 Gospel: Matt 3: 1-12
Being Jolted at the Jordan
Part of the joy of Advent for me is the scripture passages we read, particularly from Isaiah. Isaiah is a place to go for encouragement and consolation. Today’s reading is ideal for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, since the 2nd candle of Advent is commonly called the peace candle. It is a litany of profound peace. The calf and the lion, the baby and the cobra, no harm or ruin, an earth filled with the knowledge of the Lord- who can read that without a sigh of longing? Artists have painted pictures these images of peace, and we use them in nurseries for infants.
It is easy for those of us who have heard this reading so many times to lose some of the wonder of it. Maybe some background will help. One of the most crushing defeats in Israel’s history was at the hands of the Babylonian army. Many Israelites were as captives to Babylon. During that time some of their religious practices lapsed or changed. Even the script they used to write changed from the ancient Hebrew. After 70 years of captivity, they were allowed to return home. But not everyone chose to return to Israel, and there were other tribes living in their land by then. Naturally, there was enormous sense of loss, of despair, and hopelessness for the future. Isaiah wrote to restore their faith, as well as their hope for the days ahead, and to help them realize that they were still the people of God.
So we read of the restoration of the “Stump of Jesse”, meaning the lineage of King David. We hear of the promise of a Messiah, filled with God’s spirit, bringing wisdom, strength, knowledge, and justice. Also we hear of his power -even his breath can slay the wicked. He would protect the people from their enemies, Isaiah says, and the glorious dwelling of God in Israel will be sought out by other nations. Can you image the tears streaming down the faces of the Israelites as they heard these words? It would be their wildest hopes times a hundred; their deepest longings promised to come true. Our lectionary follows this powerful reading with an elegant Psalm probably about the enthronement of King David. “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon is no more.” That was written some 2500 years ago. Aren’t our hopes and prayers for those same blessings?
I am certain that St. Paul had learned these passages as a boy. I can image Paul thinking of them as he wrote to the church in Rome, “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” My teen-age grandchildren study the problems in the world today, and cannot image a peaceful world, with no violence, no pollution. Their generation needs hope, just as countless generations have throughout the history, since the gate to Eden was closed, really.
Our Gospel reading from Matthew starts with John the Baptist quoting-who else- Isaiah, chapter 40, verse 3. It is our signature cry of Advent: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the desert a pathway for our God!” It is an announcement of God’s coming; it is the relief that our faulty and troubled governments make way for the King of Glory. For us, it is a cry of excitement and expectation.
But the people in John’s day might not have heard what we hear. Matthew says, “All Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and being baptized in the (muddy) Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” John’s camel-hair clothes and diet of locusts and honey linked him to Samson and Samuel and Elijah, and their messages. Those great prophets fought for justice and drastic changes in society. The people of John’s day were fed up with Roman oppression. The Roman taxes often exceeded their income. Then land, which had been in their families for centuries, was taken to pay the taxes, and the people could no longer even feed themselves.
On top of all this, the growing call was for the Last Days, the coming of the Messiah and final judgment. John called out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Desperate for change but also fearful of the future, the people came. Even the elite of Jerusalem came, the Pharisees and Sadducees. It would seem they were they fearful, too, for John says, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” John shames these leaders who are accustomed to being treated with honor and respect. He calls them less than human, the offspring of snakes, evil-doers. He denies their right to claim God as their Father, says they are less worthy than the stones underfoot. He charges them with intent to be baptized without a firm purpose of amendment. He demands “good fruit as evidence of… repentance.” He even threatens them with the horror of the unquenchable fire of God’s judgment. These are strong words.
Luke’s Gospel does not address these words just to the religious leaders – but to all the people. When the Gospel writers ask these questions, they are always putting out a challenge to us, too. It only takes a few minutes of the evening news before I see the pictures of desperate refugees in the Middle East. I see small children who have known nothing but the violence and horrors of war all their lives. I safely sit in my cozy living room, eating too much, and I can offer little defense of my complacency. I too am shamed.
The only response I can muster to John is this: I will not turn my eyes when I see evil. I will not deny my part of the injustice in the world. I will not blame the marginalized. I will volunteer more, teach English to immigrants, make donations to reputable international charities. It is a small crop of good fruit. You probably have additional ways to produce good fruit. I will strive to offer what I have to share in a more open way, without strings & avoiding recognition. I do it because I want to; I want to feel the water of my baptism fresh and wet upon my head.
Isaiah wrote his lines of comfort after the exile of the Israelites, who had to rebuild new lives out of the ashes of their country. John called out his message of repentance to urge people to rebuild new lives out of the ashes of their failures. Good fruits could grow in their lives, but they would have to act with intent. Paul tells us encouragement is in the Scriptures we read all the time. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we can work to bring the hope and peace and joy and love into this weary world, during Advent, Christmastide, and all year.