2nd Sunday of Advent

28 November 2019

Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12

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OUR first lesson and our psalm present a vision of kingship in which royal power is exercised to vindicate and protect the most vulnerable. “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11.4). Walter Brueggemann observes that it is “impossible to overstate” how crucial the protection of the poorest is for the biblical conception of the “the coming ideal king”.

In the preceding chapters of Isaiah, the prophet described God’s judgement on his people, and the desolation of his Holy City. Suddenly, at the start of chapter 11, there is an “inexplicable” irruption of hope into the narrative, as Isaiah declares that the Lord will raise up a “new royal figure” to fulfil the “as yet disappointed promise of the Davidic monarchy” (Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39).

In verse 6, the narrative takes another unexpected turn. The future being described is no longer one that an earthly king — however righteous — could accomplish. Isaiah presents us, instead, with a vision of cosmic reconciliation: of a transformation that cannot be wrought by human efforts alone, but must be received as a gift from God.

John the Baptist emerges in the wilderness to call the people to repent, not because their repentance will in and of itself restore justice, but in anticipation of God’s decisive action, which is now close at hand. Stanley Hauerwas warns that we should resist the temptation to think of repentance in purely individualistic terms. Repentance is a matter of both personal transformation and the building of a common life that reflects God’s righteousness and peace. “The repentance for which John calls, the same repentance that Jesus preaches in Matthew 4.17, is the call for Israel to live again as God’s holy people, a holiness embodied in the law, requiring Israel to live by gift, making possible justice restored” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).

In the Baptist’s words, “The axe is lying at the root of the trees.” The existing order of both religious and political leaders has been weighed and found wanting. John denounces the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers”, and will later lose his life for speaking out against the corruption and decadence of the Herodian court.

The deliverance heralded by the Baptist comes neither from the Temple nor from the palaces of kings or governors. The “coming ideal king” is born in a stable, and lives in the poverty and obscurity of Nazareth. His herald wears “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist”: an echo of the attire of the prophet Elijah, who was taken up to heaven, and was to return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (2 Kings 1.8, Malachi 4.5).

John is the last and greatest of the prophets of Israel; for the realm that they promised has now dawned in Jesus Christ. Whereas these prophets pointed forward to this moment, the Church is the first fruit of God’s saving act — called into being by Christ to make his reign manifest in her common life. For this reason, Paul instructs the Romans to “welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

In the preceding chapters, Paul has addressed their disagreements about table fellowship. In this context, the instruction to welcome one another has “a very concrete meaning”. Members of the Primitive Church met to break bread and pray in one another’s homes. Paul is telling them that they must not avoid the problems of eating together, but, rather, “work through it in the presence of each other” (Sarah Heaner Lancaster, Belief: A theological commentary on the Bible — Romans).

Paul devotes the final chapters of Romans to the issue of hospitality because it is so central to the Church’s witness. Instead of “modelling your behaviour on the world around you”, poor and rich are to gather in the same homes and share the same food, becoming “real friends” without “condescension” (Romans 12.2,16).

The invitation of our lections is, therefore, both full of hope and deeply challenging. In the advent of Jesus Christ, Isaiah’s promise of a just and righteous king has been fulfilled. As his Church, we must allow his grace to transform our relationships, so that a troubled and turbulent world might see his just and peaceable Kingdom made manifest in our common life.

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