Second Sunday of Advent
Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19
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.
The prophet Isaiah was not a fortune teller. Neither was he a dreamy, starry eyed idealist musing on utopian ideals. He was an astute observer of the geopolitical climate of the 8th Century B.C.E. He saw with clarity what Judah’s kings and princes failed to perceive. The world was changing. The age of small, petty kingdoms like Judah was drawing to a close. The future belonged to imperial superpowers like Assyria, Babylon and Egypt. The old policies, strategies and alliances that seemed to have served Judah well in the past were no longer working in this new age. Judah’s “business as usual” approach to the conduct of its commercial and political affairs was destined to lead the nation into disaster. For king and people, this was a fearful time. They could sense vaguely the storm brewing on the horizon, but had no clear understanding of what it was or how to meet it. There was no going back to the good old days and no obvious way forward. This was an age plagued by doubt, perplexity and fear-the perfect culture for growing the dangerous virus of messianic longing, the desire for a leader that can be trusted.
Fear makes us stupid. It can drive an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent person to make irrational decisions and bad choices. I have seen doctors and medical professionals turn to miracle vitamins peddled by late night TV infomercials when confronted with a menacing diagnosis. I have seen people who have spent a lifetime scoffing at organized religion and ridiculing those who follow it turn to palm readers, psychics and tarot cards when their loved ones are in peril. The heart wants desperately to believe in a comforting lie even though the brain knows better.
That is why fear responds so eagerly to an authoritative voice offering simple solutions for complex problems, fixating blame for all one’s ills on a convenient scapegoat and promising protection-all in exchange for loyalty that fearful people are often only too glad to give. Fear is the engine of populism, nationalism and lynch mobs. Fear grasps the outstretched hand of a strong man like a drowning cat latching onto anything within reach. Fear will make people trust and obey anyone who seems able to deliver the safety and security for which they long, no matter how implausible their promises appear in the light of reason. Frightened people are easily manipulated into doing frightening things. False messiahs understand this. They are masters at manipulating fear. It is not for nothing that Jesus warned us in last week’s gospel to beware of people who come to us in times of great calamity seeking a following and claiming “I am the one.”
The messiah promised by Isaiah does not appeal to our fear. Instead, he inspires hope. This messiah promises justice and righteousness for the nations-not vengeance against them. This messiah smites the earth, not with the sword, but with the “rod of his mouth,” that is, his words. This messiah promises, not the destruction of enemies, but their reconciliation. There will be peace, says the prophet, when the earth is “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Arguments, not armies will finally win us peace. Reconciliation, not victory, will bring an end to the predatory relationship between peoples and the nation states that set them one against another. Security is found not in the building of walls, but in knocking them down. When God is feared, all that is less than God loses its power to terrify and intimidate. In the absence of fear, tyrants and demagogues lose their power; borders blur into nothingness and walls come tumbling down.
This is a bold confession: that what no army, no empire, no leader has ever been able to accomplish, God’s messiah will bring about with his voice, with his appeal to our hearts. The word, the Word Incarnate, the Word of God spoken by frail human tongues is mightier than the sword of the tyrant. Here’s a poem by Robert Graves about the divine power of words that might just resonate with the prophet Isaiah or perhaps even John the Evangelist.
The God Called Poetry
Now I begin to know at last,
These nights when I sit down to rhyme,
The form and measure of that vast
God we call Poetry, he who stoops
And leaps me through his paper hoops
A little higher every time.
Tempts me to think I’ll grow a proper
Singing cricket or grass-hopper
Making prodigious jumps in air
While shaken crowds about me stare
Aghast, and I sing, growing bolder
To fly up on my master’s shoulder
Rustling the thick stands of his hair.
He is older than the seas,
Older than the plains and hills,
And older than the light that spills
From the sun’s hot wheel on these.
He wakes the gale that tears your trees,
He sings to you from window sills.
At you he roars, or he will coo,
He shouts and screams when hell is hot,
Riding on the shell and shot.
He smites you down, he succours you,
And where you seek him, he is not.
To-day I see he has two heads
Like Janus—calm, benignant, this;
That, grim and scowling: his beard spreads
From chin to chin: this god has power
Immeasurable at every hour:
He first taight lovers how to kiss,
He brings down sunshine after shower,
Thunder and hate are his also,
He is YES and he is NO.
The black beard spoke and said to me,
‘Human fraility though you be,
Yet shout and crack your whip, be harsh!
They’ll obey you in the end:
Hill and field, river and marsh
Shall obey you, hop and skip
At the terrour of your whip,
To your gales of anger bend.’
The pale beard spoke and said in turn
‘True: a prize goes to the stern,
But sing and laugh and easily run
Through the wide airs of my plain,
Bathe in my waters, drink my sun,
And draw my creatures with soft song;
They shall follow you along
Graciously with no doubt or pain.’
Then speaking from his double head
The glorious fearful monster said
‘I am YES and I am NO,
Black as pitch and white as snow,
Love me, hate me, reconcile
Hate with love, perfect with vile,
So equal justice shall be done
And life shared between moon and sun.
Nature for you shall curse or smile:
A poet you shall be, my son.’
Robert Graves (1895-1985) was an English poet, novelist, critic and classicist. He produced more than 140 works. Graves received his early education at a series of six preparatory schools during which time he became a proficient boxer as well as a poet. At the outbreak of the First World War, Graves enlisted almost immediately and served with distinction, though his career as a soldier was hampered by the German elements in his name and a persistent (though unfounded) rumor that he had German sympathies and was a spy. His personal life was tumultuous. His first marriage ended in divorce. The business he undertook following the war failed leaving him destitute. Still, Graves continued to write and gradually gained recognition in his native England and abroad. You can learn more about Robert Graves and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
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, November 27th.
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?
Is it 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.