Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12
O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
MATTHEW’s sudden and dramatic introduction of John the Baptist, straight after the return of the Holy Family from Egypt (Matthew 2.19-23), moves the focus from the dreams and signs that surround Jesus’s birth and early childhood to what might be called the beginning of the end.
John, who prepares the ground for the message that Jesus will bring, tells the crowds streaming out to the Jordan about the last act in Jesus’s ministry. Out of this final judgement, the baptism of fire, there are only two destinies: the wheat will be gathered, and the chaff will be burned (Matthew 3.11-12).
It is a terrifying proposition, even when it is detached from the experience of John’s contemporaries, who heard it from a preacher closely resembling the received picture of Elijah (2 Kings 1.8).
The part of the prophet is one aspect of John, fulfilling the promise of Isaiah 40.3 that a voice crying out in the wilderness would give warning to “prepare the way of the Lord”. For Matthew, Dale Allison writes, he is also “Jesus’s typological forerunner” (“Matthew” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford, 2001).
Jesus and John make similar pronouncements and find themselves in conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their lives will end in capture, unjust judgment, and ignominious death. Only in Matthew’s Gospel does John utter Jesus’s call for repentance (Matthew. 3.2, see Dennis Duling, “Matthew”, in The Harper Collins Study Bible, HarperOne, 2006).
It is standard practice to explain that the root meaning of the Greek word “metanoia”, translated as “repentance” in English, means more than being sorry for one’s sins and resolving to live differently in future. It is a radical change of mind, a “coming to one’s senses” (see Ashley Null, Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance, Oxford, 2000).
In John’s fierce teaching, its effects must work both inwardly and outwardly, making individuals change their lives, not so much in the light of the past (although that matters), as in the light of the future.
Baptism in water is only the beginning, setting in motion the process towards complete transformation by the Holy Spirit, which will be the gift of the Messiah (Matthew 3.11). As John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees, it is not extra insurance for those who are already convinced that an Abrahamic pedigree and a devout lifestyle will qualify them for the life to come.
Lives that have been comprehensively turned round will produce “good fruit” (Matthew 3.10). It is on that, not on privileges of ancestry, that God will eventually judge.
Paul writes in the language of promise and hope to the Roman Christians about their part in the future that is painted by the prophets. His vision is both logical and inclusive. Christ, by becoming “a servant of the circumcised”, fulfils the promise given to the patriarchs.
He includes the Gentiles by giving them grounds for praising God, who is merciful and faithful to his own people, and whose promise has, from ancient times, been open more widely: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope” (Romans 15.12, Isaiah 11.10).
That divine welcome is a mandate for the behaviour of believers at the present time; for, if Christ has welcomed them, Jews and Gentiles alike, how could they fail to welcome each other (Romans 15.7)? The implication is that being welcoming is an intrinsic part of being Christian.
We must go to the source of Paul’s quotation to discover the full riches of Isaiah’s poem on the shoot that springs from the stock of Jesse (Isaiah 11.1-9). The prophet is imagining not only the restoration of the Davidic kingship, but the ushering in of a world made new, a return to paradise.
This passage captivates and reassures for several reasons — not least its great literary beauty: it is entirely understandable that the rolling cadences of the Authorised Version are preferred for Christmas carol services.
There is also an attractive humanity in its conviction that God can make a new world out of what is available in the present world. The small shoot, genetically connected to the gifts of David (Isaiah 11.1-5), can grow into those gifts without the impediment of David’s flaws of character.
Under that wise and perfect rule, exercised in the love and fear of God, a perfect world is not too much to dream of. The American painter and Quaker preacher Edward Hicks (1780-1849) produced more than 100 versions of The Peaceable Kingdom, in which Isaiah 11.6-9 appears in an idealised 19th-century Pennsylvania. It is a delightful icon to hold alongside this passage.