Second Sunday of Advent
Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming nurture our growth as people of repentance and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Last week Isaiah promised us a day when the nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. That is, to put it mildly, politically implausible. This week Isaiah declares that the messiah to come from the broken line of David will bring about a time of peace in which carnivorous animals will live in peace with those now their prey. “The lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Isaiah 11:7. This is ecologically impossible. Without some radical physiological changes to its metabolism, a lion won’t survive long on straw. We know that predator/prey relationships are part of the “balance of nature.” If all of us carnivorous beasts were to become vegetarians tomorrow, we would soon be overwhelmed by all of those animals we used to eat. It is hard to imagine how Isaiah’s vision of harmony can lead to anything but ecological disaster. But imagine we must, because there is no other faithful way to read prophets.
Sadly, imagination is not highly valued in our 21st century culture, shaped as it still is by our 19th century faith in empiricism, the belief that the truth is simply the sum of the observable facts. According to this narrow two-dimensional viewpoint, the only truth worth knowing is whatever can be derived from equations and controlled laboratory experiments. Nowhere is this antiquated prejudice more evident than in education funding. In today’s world of high stakes testing, the arts are being pushed aside as a “non-essential” subject. School administrators faced with tough budgeting decisions put financial backing into subjects that are tested in nation-wide assessments to ensure more federal funding. Consequently, funding for the arts is increasingly being cut from departmental budgets in favor of so-called “core” education classes like math and science. From early on, students are discouraged from pursuing careers in graphic arts, music and literature. The well paying jobs are in business management, science, law and engineering. These are the areas, we are told, in which our society must excel in order to remain great.
Naturally, I have no objection to anyone excelling in these areas. But I worry that fewer and fewer people seem inclined to excel in the arts. I am not at all convinced that artistic imagination is irrelevant to the overall advancement of society. It was a scientist who observed that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Attributed to Albert Einstein) The scriptures challenge us to imagine alternatives to the world we know. The God we worship invites us to imagine a world without national borders, without armed forces, without hunger, poverty or injustice. Indeed, we are invited to imagine a world without death, mourning or tears. That’s impossible for the universe as we know it. So you must either become imaginatively open to Isaiah’s radical alternative to what we know; or, like a good modernist, you must interpret Isaiah’s bold promises as mere metaphors for something that fits within the strictures of the knowable-like full employment; a living wage; free pre-natal care or a Starbucks on every corner.
Frankly, if Isaiah had nothing more to offer than metaphors for social progress, I would say to hell with him. We don’t need a prophet to help us fix potholes. I am convinced, however, that Isaiah fully understood just how wildly impossible his visions were and how greatly they differed from his people’s own lived reality. He had no illusions that he or any movement he might organize could bring about the peaceable kingdom he proclaimed. He understood from the outset that his visions were from the Lord and that, as far as establishing the peaceable kingdom, “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.” Isaiah 9:7. Because the God of the Exodus has a hand in the affairs of the cosmos, Israel dared to hope for the fulfillment of a promise that seems impossible to fulfill. Her faith was not defined by what she knew to be the facts, but by what her prophets taught her to imagine.
Again, I am all for teaching our kids to read, write, solve math problems and understand the physical sciences. If education ends there, however, we will eventually become a nation armed with powerful technologies and no imagination. That is truly a frightening prospect!
Though obviously connected with verses 1-9 by references to Jesse, the father of David, most scholars view verse 10 as part of a unit separate from these preceding verses. See, e.g., Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c 1962 SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 129. Verses 1-9 speak to the character of the promised Davidic king whereas verse 10 and following speak of his role in gathering together the exiles of Israel. In my view, adding verse 10 onto the end of the reading detracts from its powerful conclusion in verse 9: “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Isaiah 7:14 speaks of the birth of Emmanuel. Isaiah 9:6-7 describes a child born to bear the weight of governance on his shoulders and who is given several names descriptive of his attributes. This Sunday’s reading form Isaiah 11 must be considered in connection with these verses. There is some dispute over whether the new branch representing the messianic king grows merely from the line of David or whether use of the word “stump” suggests a tree that has been cut down. If the latter is the case, one would assume that the utterance took place during a time of national disaster threatening the existence of the Davidic line. Consequently, some commentators date this oracle in the post-exilic era attributing it to a prophet other than Isaiah. I am not convinced that the language is clear enough to make a firm determination. Moreover, even assuming that the stump denotes a denuded kingdom, such a condition also matches the state of affairs existing in the aftermath of the ruinous raid by Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. That invasion nearly obliterated the kingdom of Judah. However one might date the oracle, though, the prophet obviously looks for God to act through a descendent from the line of David.
The Spirit of God will rest upon the savior king. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit signifies God’s energy, vitality and life force which can be communicated to human beings. It can express itself in skill (Exodus 31:3; Exodus 35:31), wisdom (Genesis 41:38), courage (Judges 6:34) or prophetic insight (Numbers 11:25-30). The Spirit’s involvement here is not unlike Paul’s view of the one Spirit conferring numerous gifts upon the church. I Corinthians 12:4-11. Verse 2, declaring that upon this leader shall rest “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” is prominently featured in our baptismal liturgy as well as the confirmation and ordination rites. At first blush, it might sound odd to hear that the messianic savior’s “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Delight and fear are not words I am used to hearing in such close proximity. Nonetheless, any intimate relationship that does not have an element of awe, wonder and, yes, fear in it probably isn’t worth having.
Verses 4-6 are critical in my view because they undermine the “myth of redemptive violence” that has gained nearly creedal status in mainline Christianity. Note well that when this king “smites” the earth he does so with “the rod of his mouth.” When he slays the wicked, he does it with “the breath of his lips.” God exercises his reign through speech-through the Word and Spirit-not through violent and coercive means. This shoot from the stump of Jesse is not simply a kinder, gentler Caesar on steroids. There is a reason why Jesus would not accept the political power and glory of the world’s kingdoms when offered to him on a silver platter. There is a reason for the observation that when the church seeks to shape history by seizing the levers of power, the world seldom gets any better but the church always becomes worse. Coercion, whether it comes in the form of naked military power or in the more subtle guise of a “political solution,” cannot bring about the state of affairs God desires. Only the Spirit working through the relentless proclamation of the Word can bring about the peaceable kingdom. Not until the earth is “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” can Isaiah’s vision become reality.
Obviously, the state of harmony among living creatures is contrary to everything we know about ecology and animal physiology. Clearly, one ought not to take these images as literal truth. Isaiah’s point is that the fear and hostility experienced by human beings from destructive carnivorous animals will end as the savior king’s reign extends even into the realm of nature. It is easy to lose sight of this point living as we do in a world where such animals have far more to fear from us than we need fear them! Still and all, this vision testifies to God’s end (telos) for creation that shatters all expectations based on our current understanding of the universe and its ways. Thus, we ought not to castrate Isaiah by turning his marvelous visions into mere metaphors of social progress. Such sermonic slop is hardly worth giving up a pleasant Sunday morning with the New York Times, a fresh bagel with cream cheese and a good cup of coffee.
This is a royal psalm probably used either for coronation ceremonies or the annual commemoration of God’s covenant with the line of David. The prayer has many similarities with those of Israel’s neighbors. For example, a hymn celebrating the accession of the Egyptian monarch, Ramses IV sometime around 1160 B.C.E. reads:
They who were hungry are sated and gay;
They who were thirsty are drunken.
They who were naked are clothed in fine linen;
They who were dirty are clad in white.
They who were in prison are set free;
They who were fettered are in joy.
The troublemakers in this land have become peaceful.
Pritchard, J.B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 379 cited in Rogerson,, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 113. The difference, of course, is that for Israel, the blessings arising out of the king’s rule are not merely incidental to strong leadership, but flow directly from faithfulness to the Davidic covenant making the king an agent of God’s justice. Consequently, justice for the poor, the widow and the orphan are the king’s particular concern. As the prophets point out, few if any of David’s descendents lived up to their covenant obligations. Even David himself sometimes fell short. Disappointment in Israel’s monarchy led the people of God to wonder whether any human agent is up to the task of doing justice and practicing righteousness. But perhaps that is the wrong question. Jesus’ messianic mission questions not the ability of human beings to rule justly, but the political structures, methods and strategies by which they attempt to do justice. Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection demonstrate, among other things, that violence does not work. Ever. Not even when it is used to achieve a greater good.
In its usual concern for protecting the sensibilities of graying, white, upper middle class, slightly left of center protestants, the lectionary has excised a chunk of this psalm in which the psalmist prays for the expansion of the king’s reign over “all” the nations. If you wish, you can read it here. Evidently the editors did not feel the expression of such imperialistic ambitions appropriate for worship. If you ask me, though, it is no more offensive than singing “Jesus shall reign where ‘er the sun, doth its successive journeys run.” If Jesus is who we say he is, then the song is perfectly appropriate. So, I would argue, is the middle of this psalm. Again, the question we must bring to this psalm is: “What sort of king are we talking about and what sort of reign does he exercise?” Regardless of what the psalmist or the worshipers who first sang this song may have thought, for those of us reading the scriptures through the lens of the cross this is a king that smites the world with his life giving speech, slays the wicked by convicting them through Word and Spirit and extends his rule over the nations by welcoming them into covenant. Our reading from Romans illustrates that very point.
Though this brief passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to have been lifted out of the text with no thought to context, it nevertheless contains several verses well worth talking about. Verse 4 speaks about the purpose of the scriptures-which is to give us hope and encouragement. Yet how often haven’t we seen the scriptures used to judge, condemn, exclude and criticize? Instead of encouraging us to live in harmony, scriptural preaching has often been used to disrupt harmony, widen fault lines within the church and promote schism. There are volumes to be said on this score alone.
Hope is a recurring theme throughout this reading. It is said to be the focus of the scriptural witness. Vs 4. The messianic shoot from the root of Jesse is said to be the hope of the gentiles. Vs. 12. The reading concludes with Paul’s prayer that the Roman church “may abound in hope.” Vs. 13. This is certainly an appropriate topic for Advent!
Verse 7 is also a great starting point for speaking about hospitality. “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.” That would seem to exclude just about every rationale thinkable for denying entry into the church of Christ. Paul is often faulted for his lack of emphasis on Jesus’ life and teachings, but behind his instructions and admonitions to his churches you can find every parable Jesus ever spoke along with the Sermon on the Mount.
John the Baptist often gets a bum rap in biblical art. Frequently, he is portrayed as an angry sourpuss threatening his hearers with the wrath of God. He actually does that when the Pharisees and Sadducees come on the scene. But his preaching to the general public begins with a call to repentance framed in the context of Isaiah 40 which opens with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1. The voice crying out for preparation of a way in the wilderness from Isaiah 40:3 is one of ecstatic joy. Repentance, therefore, is not to be understood as the woeful, breast beating, and self punishing sort of exercise that twisted medieval piety has made of it. Rather, it is a joyful turning away from self destructive attitudes and behavior toward new possibilities opened up by the intervention of a gracious and loving God. So forget the John you met in all those 1960s Sunday school leaflets. Matthew’s John laughs out loud and smiles.
More than any of the other gospel writers, Matthew makes clear the connection between the ministry of John the Baptist and Malachi’s prediction of Elijah’s return. See Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:12. Nevertheless, just as I do not believe Matthew ties Jesus exclusively to any one particular Hebrew scriptural character, so also I think it is probably not a good idea to make too much of Matthew’s identification of John with Elijah. Just as his allusions to parallels between Jesus and Moses, Joshua, Elijah and the ancient people of Israel serve to illuminate Jesus’ identity from as many angles as possible, so too I think that the comparison between John and Elijah serves more to explain his prophetic ministry than to fit him into the framework of a master plot. See my post for Sunday, December 1st.
Why would the Pharisees and Sadducees be coming to John for baptism? That seems out of character from what we learn of them in the chapters to come. It is possible that this is merely a literary device designed to introduce us to the hypocrisy of these representatives of Judaism. Yet the gospels seem to agree that John was widely respected by the general public, so much so that the leaders were afraid to criticize him in the presence of the people. See Matthew 21:23-27; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8. It is therefore possible that members of these two groups were drawn to John’s preaching and perhaps even sought his baptism. Their lives, however, were not transformed so as to produce fruit befitting repentance.
John’s ire against the Pharisees and Sadducees seems to be directed principally at their insistence (mutually antagonistic) that they represent the “true” Israel. In point of fact, God doesn’t care about “roots” (upon which the ax of God’s wrath will soon fall) but for “fruits,” that is, the quality of a life transformed in anticipation of the Kingdom of heaven. It is hard to know whether the lectionary makers saw the irony in juxtaposing Isaiah’s focus on the “root of Jesse” as an image of hope and John’s dismissal of rootedness even in the expansive line of Abraham. So what is it preacher? Roots or fruits?
It is possible that in all this talk of making children of Abraham from stones, Matthew (or his source) is alluding to Isaiah 51:1-12. There the prophet invites his discouraged post-exilic hearers to “look to the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were digged. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him and blessed him and made him many.” Isaiah 51:1-2. Clearly, God remains faithful to Israel and her people. But God’s faithfulness should not be taken for granted. Just as God made of the aged Abraham and his barren wife a great people, so God can “hew” another people from barren stone should the need arise. See Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Text Commentary (c. 2005 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 144-45. Such an allusion is quite possible and would further emphasize Matthew’s insistence on repentance and transformation in anticipation of the coming kingdom over any claim of pedigree.
Matthew ties John’s ministry closely to Jesus. Their respective messages are identical: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Matthew 3:2 and Matthew 4:17. Nevertheless, their respective roles are as different as night and day. For Matthew, John is a transitional figure. He represents the end of the line of Israel’s faithful prophets. As such, he is worthy of honor and recognition. But his mission consists in making way for Jesus whose coming initiates the new age of the Kingdom of Heaven. The least among the children of this new age is therefore even greater than John. Matthew 11:11-15.