The Second Sunday of Advent, 8 December 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7,18-19
Romans 15:4-13
St. Matthew 3:1-12

Background:  The Gospel of St. Matthew – Audience and Setting
Traditionally the audience for Matthew was thought to be a people speaking either Aramaic, or Hebrew, living in Palestine.  The vocabulary and structure of the book seemed to lead scholars in that direction.  Some even envisaged that the book had been originally written in either Hebrew or Aramaic.  Now there is some evidence that the audience intended may have lived outside of Palestine, perhaps in Alexandria, Egypt, the home to a large population of Jews, or perhaps in Phoenician areas of the Levant, or Caesarea.  There has been some consensus that the actual audience was a community of Christians and Jews living in Antioch (Syria).  As Matthew begins to speak of the ministry of Jesus, in 4:24, we read of the spread of the Gospel to “all of Syria.”  If we look in the book of Acts (11:19-26), we can read of the evangelization of Gentiles in Antioch.  Other arguments in favor of Antioch look to the primacy of Peter, to which the Gospel of Matthew pays a great deal of attention.  In the next century, St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch will quote directly from Matthew.  Finally, the Didache, which some scholars have seen as being composed in Antioch, has ample connections with the Gospel of Matthew, quoting passages and making allusions to other passages.

Next week: The Composition of Matthew

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

This reading comes out of a section of Isaiah called The Book of Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:1 – 12:6), which is composed of several oracles against the policies of King Ahaz of Judah, and the a review of the fall of the North (The Kingdom of Israel) and the fault of the Assyrian Empire.  In this latter section, Isaiah writes about what an ideal king, in the line of David, might contribute to the difficult situation in Judah.  In the “Rule of Emmanuel”, Isaiah looks forward to a period of peace and prosperity.  Of interest in the first verse is the image of “the stump of Jesse”.  Jesse, David’s father, would have symbolized the whole Davidic Dynasty.  The stump, however is troublesome, and leads us to ask whether the line had been destroyed?  The shoot coming from the branch seems to form an answer that calls for an end to the old behaviors of these kings (the stump) and something new and faithful to YHWH (the shoot).  

So what are the qualities of this new scion of the Davidic line?  Isaiah outlines the qualities, which begin with a healthy dose of the Spirit (or read here, “the breath of God”), which is followed by a series of gifts that are obtained from such an endowment.  We know this list well from its inclusion in Handle’s Messiah: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of YHWH.  Such are the gifts that will enable the righteous deeds that will flow from this king.  They are the signs of the messianic kingdom.  Such behaviors that are described in the conduct of animals in nature are also found in other ancient near eastern (Sumerian) texts.  Thus such allusions would have been familiar to the hearers.  The final verses show how kingship is ideally a shadow of the Creator’s protective stance.  The kingdom is a holy place, really a holy mountain, (Zion or Sinai?) which is the source of a river that will fill the earth with the knowledge of God.  That knowledge will allow the earth to understand the rule of God in the king, Emmanuel, God with us.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Have you had shoots spring out of the stump of your faith?  What are they like?
  2. How does Jesus meet Isaiah’s expectations?
  3. In what way is our world evidence of Emmanuel – God with us?

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Deus, judicium

Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King's Son;

That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;

That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.

He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.

He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.

In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

Blessed be the Lord GOD, the God of Israel, *
who alone does wondrous deeds!

And blessed be his glorious Name for ever! *
and may all the earth be filled with his glory.
Amen. Amen.

Quite properly Psalm 72 offers commentary and prayer that the King might participate in a vision of peace similar to Isaiah’s vision. The dedication of the psalm is to Solomon, and the closing lines of the psalm (not included in the liturgical text) ascribe the psalm to David.  Thus, the early commentary on this text saw David as writing this about his son, Solomon.  Some see this psalm as a “messianic psalm”, while others see it as typical court poetry, exaggerating the effect and rule of the King.  Indeed, the psalm may be a prayer that hopes such messianic behaviors might be seen in the king and his rule.

The missing verses (8-17) continue the description of the beauty and prosperity of the king’s rule.  The final verses in the liturgical reading seem to be an addition to the psalm, a doxology to the God whose creative and protective powers have been showered on this king.  The final verses of thanksgiving center on the God who does these things.  A similar device is used at the end of Psalm 41, where a similar thanksgiving is made.

Breaking open Psalm 72:
  1. How does God “defend the needy” in our day?
  2. Are you involved in such a defense?
  3. Does your church help the “righteous to flourish”?  How?
Romans 15:4-13

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

"Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,

and sing praises to your name";

and again he says,

"Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";

and again,

"Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,

and let all the peoples praise him";

and again Isaiah says,

"The root of Jesse shall come,

the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;

in him the Gentiles shall hope."

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The first section of Romans is an extensive theological review written for the benefit of the Church in Rome.  What follows that in the second section is a smaller section devoted to the demands of this new life in Christ.  Indeed, the first verse of our pericope for today states its intentions perfectly, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.”  Having looked at what was written in former days and interpreting it in the light of Jesus, Paul wants his readers to realize that it is not only the mind that needs to be transformed, but also life itself.  And what are the hallmarks of this new life to be? – Nothing more than humility and charity.  There is a third, however, that is highlighted in these verses and that is hope.  Paul sees it as the whole purpose of our knowledge of Scripture. 

Paul sets up the Christ as an example of living – “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”  This is a sign pointing to the ongoing ministry and mission to the Gentiles.  Paul underscores this mission in the quotations that follow one upon the other: II Samuel 22:50, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117, and Isaiah 11:10.  It is hope, in Paul’s estimation, that will be the convincing message for the Gentiles, and it will be Jesus who is the embodiment of that hope. 

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Who would you describe as the “false teachers” of our time?
  2. Who is telling truth in our time?
  3. What are your thoughts about God as judge?
St. Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
` Prepare the way of the Lord,
 make his paths straight.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

This Sunday we meet John the Baptist, and on the following Sunday we shall hear his words in a different guise.  Today we meet John in his preaching.  Of equal importance is the setting of this preaching, at the Jordan River.  This small river was of great significance to the Jews.  It was the site of a reenactment of the crossing of the Reed Sea (Joshua 3), it was where Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:1-11), and it was there that Naaman was sent for a cure to his skin disease (II Kings 5:1-14).  Thus it was a place of covenant, prophecy, and healing.  The desert that surrounded it was a place of purgation and journey as well.  These elements represented all that had come before, and that set the stage for John’s message.  Indeed, he clothed himself, both body and mind, fully aware of the Nazirites and the prophets, so that those who came there from Jerusalem would understand his purpose.

What does he have to say in his preaching?  He argues for repentance, that act of turning away from what ever it is that separates us from God.  John is aware that something new is about to happen – the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.  John does not greet all who come there with the soft voice of welcome.  He recognizes the Pharisees and Sadducees for what they are, a people so bound up in the old ways (the Sadducees) or those bound up in Rabbinic arguments (the Pharisees) so as not to see the new thing that God was doing.  There is a bit of Jeremiah in this preaching (see Jeremiah 1:10).  Things are going to be rooted up and something new planted.  As Matthew presents John’s preaching, the reader is aware that others, in addition to the children of Abraham and Sarah, are to be invited into the fold – “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”.  John has high expectations about the one who is to follow, “the one who is more powerful than I.”  These expectations will meet their test in next Sunday’s Gospel, but for today we have an image of a Christ who labors at the threshing floor.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.      Have you repented in your life?  Of what?
2.      What have you turned away from that has separated you from God?
3.      What are John’s expectations about Jesus?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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