The Second Sunday of Advent, 4 December 2016

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

Background: The Jesse Tree

The first reading for this morning is the genesis for what is known as the Jesse Tree, Jesse being the father of David, and Jesus the virga Jesse or branch of Jesse. It was most popular during the mediaeval period, when there was a widespread concern with genealogy and the relatedness of families and fortunes through marriage and childbirth. Thus there was a similar concern with the provenance of Jesus as well. It was a concern shared at least by Matthew and Luke, both of which Gospel writers include genealogies of Jesus. Matthew describes his in descending order, while Luke’s is written in an ascending order. The concern was to show the connection with royal David.

The lineage, portrayed by means of the tree, began to be widely depicted during the mediaeval period, and can be found in churches and cathedrals through out Europe. Depictions continued in the succeeding centuries, and are seen in contemporary architecture as well. Some Christian groups also use the tree as a basis for Advent devotions.

First Reading: 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
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.

In several respects, Isaiah asks his reader to look out at the past and to relive it. He once again looks at the family of Jesse, hoping for a second chance for the Davidid kings as they continue to make errors of judgment in their governance. Why is there a need for a new beginning, and new attempt at kingship and rule? What has gone before is leading to a potential ruin of the people. Isaiah offers us clues as to what went wrong. He prays for a new spirit of wisdom and understanding, so that the king might have a renewed sense of judicial capacity, and an ability of not only meting out justice to his people, but also his ability in dealing with the surrounding nations. The second anticipated gift is a “spirit of counsel and might.” Here he expects a kingship that will take action, action that is based on an intimate knowledge of God and God’s will. The king will be advised through the agency of the spirit, and not through human understanding. Finally there is a prayer for an intimate knowledge of God. This goes well beyond a cognitive understanding of God, but straight through to a knowing (as a lover might know) of God and acting then on God’s will.

What follows then, and here the prophet projects us back to creation itself is a renewal of the earth, which we see, in the renewed relationship between humankind and animals. It is a restoration of what existed earlier in Eden. Such actions and such a reality then serves as a sign and symbol of what God’s rule of the nations is like – a rule that is governed by peace rather than the presence of war and division.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          What would you like to see renewed in the society in which you live?
2.          What shoots coming up from ruined stumps have you witnessed?
3.         How is government a servant of God?

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

     Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King's Son;
2      That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
3      That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.
4      He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
5      He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.
6      He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.
7      In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
18    Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, *
who alone does wondrous deeds!
19    And blessed be his glorious Name for ever! *
and may all the earth be filled with his glory.
Amen. Amen.

In this royal psalm we read the realization of hope that is so embodied in the material from Isaiah.  The themes are similar: righteousness, justice, prosperity along with the actions of defense, and rescue. This is what the prophets were not seeing in society under many of the kings, and thus they raised alarms. The hopes are for peace and prosperity. Here the gifts for rule are direct grants from God, no agency of the spirit is mentioned here, as it is in Isaiah. The results hopefully are still the same, however.

Breaking open Psalm 72:
1.     Who are the leaders of our time?
2.     In what ways are they religious?
3.    In what ways are they not?

The Second Reading: 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.

We have a here a portion of the ninth pericope (15:4-6) of what Robert Jewett[1] calls the “Fourth Proof” (Living Together according to the Gospel so as to Sustain the Hope of Global Transformation) of Paul’s main thesis in Romans, and all of the tenth pericope (15:7-13). Both begin with an admonition, and both end with a benediction. Both offer us some sage advice in living in Christ with one another. The ninth pericope’s admonition, which is elided from the liturgical reading, calls upon the reader to up build the neighbor by doing good to them, and in that way emulating Jesus. One may want to read the full pericope to see not only the structure but to understand the argument as well. What follows this admonition, then, in our reading, is an appeal to recognize here what the Scriptures have always taught. We will see this same appeal in the tenth pericope as well. Paul encourages a unity of mind and voice among the believers so that God might be glorified.

The tenth pericope, which our reading preserves as a whole, calls upon the community to “welcome one another.” This simple request gives way to a more inclusive one, for Paul’s argument here is about the welcoming and inclusion of Gentiles. What follow is Jesus example (an interesting logic centered in circumcision), and then a series of scriptural quotations that encourage the inclusion of Gentiles in the praise of God. The benediction that follows is centered on the notion of hope (hope that is here shared with the family of Abraham, and the nations). The hope is the product of the Spirit, and is “filled” with joy and peace, a wholesome greeting to any who would follow.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Do Christians “speak with one voice”? Why not?
  2. How do you build up your neighbor?
  3. Who is welcomed in your church?

The Gospel: Saint 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.”

Last Sunday, the difficult words came from the mouth of Jesus in his apocalyptic designed to instruct the disciples. This morning the difficult words are the product of the Baptist’s preaching and his confrontation of Pharisees and Sadducees who had followed him out into the wilderness to witness his ministry there. This is a startling introduction, for absent the material we have in Luke about John, in Matthew he enters the scene almost as a cipher. The focus of his appearance is totally centered on the preaching that will come from the mouth of Jesus. The question still remains, however, from what theological struggle does John emerge? If we stick with the simplicity of Matthew, we can only surmise that he comes to his point of view having been a disciple elsewhere, and seeing in Jesus the fulfillment of what he was taught. That he might have done this theological discovery amongst the Essenes is a possibility, and that the Holy Spirit might have anointed this exploration with both insight and wisdom is exciting.

The content of the “sermon” that John preaches on this occasion is preparatory and expectant. He literally tears down the scene (“the ax is laid against the root of the trees”, “felled and thrown into the fire”) in order to place Jesus as the salve that will heal, and purify. Jesus also will burn the chaff, but the promise is that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit. One wonders how John learned of this Spirit, excepting that he more than likely experienced her.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Which of John’s concepts are hard?
2.     How will Jesus’ own preaching be different?
3.    What is the chaff of your life?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]    Jewett, R., (2007), Romans, Fortress Press, Minneapolis


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